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BOOK REVIEWS Lee Considered: General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History. By Alan T. Nolan. (Chapel Hill & London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1991. Pp. xii, 231. $22.50.) In our imaginations and in our historiography, Robert E. Lee has towered higher than most other Americans of his era. Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, used to be perhaps a shade taller than Lee. But since the 1950s when people found out that we weren't all equal yet, Lincoln's reputation has slipped a little. Lincoln was a politician, and we are not feeling particularly well intentioned toward politicians. Soldiers , with their ethic of duty and selflessness, are more popular icons in these bleak moral times. And who, more than Lee, represented the best qualities of the military mind? He was the marble man in Stephen Vincent Bénet's words, by repute the almost perfect soldier. Though finally crushed by superior numbers and resources, he was never beaten in battle—a giant borne down by pygmies. Deeply attached to the Union and believing slavery to be a moral evil, he yet could not raise his sword against the state of his birth; thus he was both patriot and simple son of his native land. Though forced to fight fellow Americans and former army friends, he did so with dignity and restraint, never losing his humanity or his temper; when truly provoked, he would allow himself to call the enemy "those people." Failed by subordinates who had not the understanding and ability to implement his plans, he disdained resentment and magnanimously took full blame on himself, particularly at Gettysburg where Longstreet cost Lee a victory and, perhaps, the Confederacy a war. Overwhelmed at last, Lee refused to break up his army and wage a bloody and destructive guerrilla war, placing healing and reconciliation before the satisfaction of fighting on, thus proving again his great American patriotism and selflessness. Having led the Southern people in war, he became a mentor of their young in peace, humbly taking the presidency of Washington College as an example of peaceful rehabilitation. While others railed at the Union and tried to justify secession, Lee modernized the college curriculum with subjects like engineering so that a new South could rebuild its shattered economy. Unreconstructed racists built such retrogressive organizations as the Ku Klux Klan, but the general BOOK REVIEWS337 showed compassion and fellow feeling for the freedmen, urging that the races must learn to live together in freedom. He would not cavil about what had been nor seek to justify his role in the war; rather, he looked forward to a tomorrow of united American strength and promise. Lee died a mere five years after Appomattox, his health undermined by the burdens of duty he had carried so well. Like Christ, to whom the general was often likened, he died bearing the cross for the sins of others, an atonement for the nation that had failed to be as reasonable as he. It is a remarkable image of greatness, a father figure for a section and perhaps a nation that had gone badly askew in the first century after its birth and needed symbols of stability—sureties that the national character was still sound. Lee even looked the part, with wise, sad eyes searching out from the God-like bearded profile, seeking some far horizon of harmony. Many of us who grew up in the era when few in the white middle class doubted the superiority of Anglo-American culture and its benevolent civilizing influence on the world eagerly embraced this image of Lee and placed him in a pantheon of Anglo-Saxon heroes, alongside of Winston Churchill and others. Yet, as we face a new century in which the conventions of Anglo-American history will make less and less sense, it perhaps behooves us to reconsider some of our perspectives. There have always been flaws in the Lee monument, doubts that flickered across our minds. How could a man who so loved the Union and had worn its uniform for thirty years, within three days of submitting his resignation be in control of hostile forces? How could a man who opposed human bondage...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 336-343
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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