A Look at Robert E Lee, A Life by Allen Guelzo

Robert E. Lee: A Life by Allen C. Guelzo

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Robert E. Lee: A Life” is a remarkable biography by the historian and author Allen Guelzo. In this book, Guelzo provides a comprehensive and balanced portrait of one of the most famous and controversial figures in American history.

The book traces Lee’s life from his childhood in Virginia to his rise as a military commander during the American Civil War and his later years as a college president. Guelzo presents Lee as a complex figure, but does not at all run away from the inherent contradictions in Lee’s actions, and in Lee’s failures, as a human being and as a general.

Throughout the book, Guelzo provides a vivid and detailed account of the major events in Lee’s life, including his experiences in the Mexican-American War, his tenure as superintendent of West Point, and his role as commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Lee was indeed the superintendent of West Point, and served with distinction in the U.S. Army in the Mexican campaign. Lee was an Army engineer who ended up becoming a renowned military strategist.

The decision of Lee to abandon the U.S. Army and go over to the rebellion is shown to be a pained one, an area I thought was covered excellently by the book. Lee managed, by expressing contradictory views on the key issues involved, to be thought of less harshly than many other Confederate leaders. Slavery? Lee expressed repugnance, and gave the view that slavery was not a sufficient reason for secession. But he was a slave owner, and became a leader of the rebellion. Lee’s tortured dance on the loyalty issue included declining Lincoln’s offer of command of the Union Army. The author offers some interesting speculation on Lee’s motivation being influenced by the fear of losing the Lee estate at Arlington, which likely would have been seized by the State of Virginia if Lee remained loyal to the Union. As it turned out Union forces immediately seized the estate upon Lee’s desertion. The federal government has held it since then, and it is now the national military cemetery.

His reputation as a brilliant field commander was earned, as he had some great success early in the war. Some of that success might be attributable, in part, to the less than stellar leadership of the Union generals lined up against him, but Lee absolutely deserves credit for devising the strategies that confounded and defeated the much more formidable Union forces at the beginning of the war. Although ultimately unsuccessful Lee’s thought that the disparity in resources would necessitate a Confederate northern incursion with the goal of melting northern political support for the war was really the only hope for the Confederacy. He wanted to hold on until the Union tired of the fight.
Even Lee’s early success came at a heavy cost, as the Confederacy was not in a position to win battles that came with heavy losses in manpower and supply. Lee shall be forever linked in history to General Ulysses Grant, the Union General who recognized and acted on the wide disparity in manpower and resources that favored the Union. Once Grant was brought to the Eastern theatre Lee’s time was limited. Grant was simply uncontainable by the Confederate forces that Lee had available, and Grant was ruthless in his pursuit. After the war Lee may have come out ahead in terms of perceptions of military skill, but over the course of time Grant has been recognized for his great military skills as a General, and the comparisons to Lee have been much more favorable to Grant.

After the war Lee was pardoned for his treason by President Andrew Johnson, and is on record as being opposed to the glorification of Confederate generals, including being against statutes and monuments being erected in their honor.

One of the strengths of the book is it’s balanced and nuanced perspective on Lee’s character and actions. The author acknowledges Lee’s admirable qualities, including his leadership skills and his devotion to his troops, while also recognizing his flaws, most notably his support for slavery, and his treason.
Overall, “Robert E. Lee: A Life” is a fascinating and insightful biography that sheds new light on one of the most iconic figures in American history. Guelzo’s extensive research and engaging writing style make this book a must-read for anyone interested in the Civil War era and the complex figures who shaped it.

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