Thursday, October 28, 2021

Review: Idolatry surrenders to humanity in new Lee biography

“Robert E. Lee: A Life” by Allen C. Guelzo (Knopf)

Controversy over the equestrian memorial to Robert E. Lee on stately Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, was once limited to the removal of the blue-green oxidation from his bronze statue. In the wake of the banishment of the Confederate capital’s last major totem to the “Lost Cause,” Allen C. Guelzo’s timely biography expertly scrubs off 150 years of political and cultural patina accumulated since the renowned general’s passing to reveal a tragic humanity.

Guelzo establishes Lee’s antebellum character with a series of portraits beginning with his family’s prominence in Virginia and the mercurial career of his father, a hero of the Revolutionary War who later spent time in a debtors’ prison. The fame and the shame proved to be a dual burden for Robert Edward Lee (1807-1870) even after his appointment to the U.S. Military Academy and a series of infrastructure assignments with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Lee’s associates were struck early on by his seemingly faultless character, with looks to match. Despite his perfectionism — he never earned a demerit at West Point — the young Lee was very approachable. Guelzo quotes multiple contemporaries who noted Lee’s “dignity and agreeableness” and “a genial courtesy and joyous humor that rendered him a charming companion.” His Southern gentility and propriety would be described today simply as “cool.”

Lee was almost 40 before he first saw action, in the Mexican War, and distinguished himself as an engineer who could fight. In exchange for a steady Army paycheck and a stable family, he tolerated the snail’s pace of promotion and accepted never being the true master of his house, the Arlington estate of his wife, Mary Custis Lee (later turned into a military graveyard). But those tradeoffs shrank to insignificance in 1861 when Lee had to cast one of the biggest personal decisions in American history — commanding either the Union or Confederate forces in the gathering Civil War.

How did a man whose life was defined by service and duty defy his oath “to bear true allegiance to the United States of America… against all their enemies and opposers whatsoever… and obey the orders of the President of the United States”? Guelzo’s analysis indicates Lee had little interest in politics, especially secession, and even less regard for the “peculiar institution” of slavery. However, he deeply resented the dictates of Northern abolitionists and greatly feared they would unleash a “servile war” of vengeful slaves. The ultimate impetus to rebellion came from fealty to Virginia, less as a political entity than the home of his sons’ inherited properties. SOURCE


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