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THE IMAGE AND THE GENERAL: Robert E. Lee in American Historiography Thomas L. Connelly A full decade has passed since the immense quantity of Civil War writings during the Centennial years. Despite some gloomy predictions , the war does not seem exhausted as a subject for scholarly research . Perhaps no topic is more deserving of further study than the career of Robert E. Lee, although some may question whether there is anything remaining to be said of the General. In hundreds of biographies and reminiscences, as well as several hundred articles, commentators on Lee seem to have depicted every phase of his life, from his fourteenth century ancestors to the pet hen kept at his field headquarters. Yet Lee scholarship is still troubled by two problems which have existed since the first writings on the Virginian. First, what was Lee really like? This effort to depict his personality, to understand what motivated Lee's conduct, is an old historical exercise. It has especially provided interest for twentieth century writers, beginning with the psychological -biographical efforts of Gamaliel Bradford. This search for Lee's personality has also motivated more recent writers . In a 1967 book review, Professor T. Harry Williams surmised that a new cult of Lee writers appeared to exist, chiefly interested in grasping the essence of Lee's personality. Such recent biographers as Clifford Dowdey, Burke Davis and Margaret Sanborn have made conscious efforts to push beyond a recitation of biographical data and to reach an understanding of Lee's character. While reviewers have praised these recent biographies, the consensus appears to be that they also have failed in the quest for the mystique of Lee's personality. As one reviewer observed, "there hinges the uneasy suspicion that the Gray Fox has done it again; he has maneuvered into some impregnable position from behind which he remains, still safe from the picklocks of biographers."1 The difficulties in understanding Lee's personality may be akin to a second enduring historiographical problem. The sensitivity of Lee partisans to any criticism of the General has enshrouded him in a protective mantle enjoyed by no other Confederate figure. This sharp dislike of criticism of Lee, which at times has resembled paranoia, dates from the early eighteen-seventies, when Lee partisans reacted sharply to the 1 Otis Singletary, review of Burke Davis, Gray Fox: Robert E. Lee and the Civil War (New York, 1956), in American Historical Review, LXII (1957), 234. 50 criticisms of James Longstreet, Joseph E. Johnston, the Count of Paris, and other early critics. One might interpret these early reactions as merely part of the general post-war feuding between former officers. Yet how does one explain that even now any criticism of Lee, however mild, is liable to counterattack . Some writers, such as B. H. Liddell Hart, Allan Nevins, and T. Harry Williams, have seen their appraisals of Lee answered by rebuttal articles or speeches. Others, such as Burke Davis, Marshall Fishwick and J. F. C. Fuller, have also met such opposition.2 These two problems—the mystique of Lee's personality, and the sensitivity of Lee partisans—may arise from the same source. Perhaps Lee the man has become so intermingled with Lee as both a southern—and later a national—hero symbol, that the real figure has been lost. Have attempts to understand Lee and to appraise his abilities fairly been clouded or protected byhis image as a folkhero? Here is perhaps an acute need in Civil War research—to provide not merely another biography of Lee, but to examine the process by which his image has developed in American letters since the Civil War. The task of understanding how Lee's image has developed involves two difficult elements. First, it requires the examination of the various time stages on the historiographical progression of Lee's image, from the Civil War until the present. Second, it involves a need to examine the image which has resulted from this long historiographical process, to determine whether that image has become exaggerated or distorted through this long time process. A study of the development of Lee's image in Civil War writing begins with his emergence from the war as one...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 50-64
Launched on MUSE
2013-01-02
Open Access
No
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