Tuesday, January 11, 2011

BookSneeze Review: Lee, A Life of Virtue by John Perry

I recently obtained an advance review copy of this book from Booksneeze. I was intrigued by this statement on the back cover: "Traitor. Divider. Defender of slavery. This damning portrayal of Robert E. Lee has persisted through 150 years of history books. And yet it has no basis in fact." Strong words, these. Yet I was puzzled as well, for this supposed pervasive portrayal of Lee was something I failed to identify with. To the contrary, every previous Civil War book I had read, both pro and anti-Southern, conveyed only admiration for General Lee. Had I somehow missed something? This could hardly be reason enough to write a new biography about a man who has already had numberless words written about his life. The editor's note helped me to understand the motivation for this new series about American Generals. Stephen Mansfield asserts that most that has been written about the lives of American military leaders falls into two opposing categories, hagiography and revisionist history (in which the subject is a "reviled symbol of societal ills"). He states that it is time for a balance portrayal of our leaders, one that gives honour where it is due, and yet does not gloss over human frailty. More than that, the intent of the series is to "help us learn the lessons they [these generals] have to teach". (p.x) In the author's introduction, Perry proposes to answer the questions "Who was the real Robert E. Lee, how did he become the man he was, and how is the genuine article different from the myth?"(p.xviii)

As I read the biography, I was most struck by the difficulty Lee faced in balancing his sense of duty to his country with his devotion to his family. During his more than 30 years of service in the U.S. Army, he experienced many lengthy separations from his wife and children. Some of the agony he felt comes out in some of the letters to his wife, Mary Anna Custis, which the author quotes at length. Perry also brings out the close connection that Mary Anna's family had to George Washington, whose memory was still fresh in many American minds during the early 1800's. Even at such an early date, there emerge strong hints of the popular mythology that was to grow around the first President of the United States.

Drawing heavily from personal letters and J.William Jones' biography of Lee, Perry concludes that "Lee was not an infallible commander. His recurring flaw was to assume his subordinates had the same energy, bravery, resolve, and sense of self-sacrifice he did and then plan accordingly. ... Yet, ... Lee was a great leader...because he never abandoned his personal standards, [and] never wavered from doing what he thought was right even in the face of inevitable, crushing, devastating consequences." (p. 226) I found the book easy to read, and think that Perry a fair job in accomplishing his stated goals in writing the book. However, I would have appreciated more detailed references, rather than the rather short bibliography given at the end.

1 comment:

Radagast said...

Lee's generalship has always been hard to categorise, and if this book describes it clearly, all to the good.

Lee was certainly one of the greatest leaders of men ever: "I would charge into hell itself for that old man!", as one of his soldiers said. But a superb general? Yes and no.

Jones in The Right Hand of Command notes Lee's poor use of headquarters staff, and his over-reliance on verbal orders. Fuller in the 3rd volume of A Military History of the Western World also notes the poor quality of the maps Lee used: a serious problem when Lee was operating outside of his home state of Virginia.

Yes, Lee was let down by his staff team (with a better team, he would perhaps have won at Gettysburg), but Lee didn't seem to realise how critical it was to put a good staff team together. Perhaps his early victories (against complete idiots) taught him the wrong lessons. Or perhaps his friends didn't criticise when they should have. Or perhaps Lee was simply the last of the great generals in Alexander's mold, unhappily fighting in the first of the modern wars. We shall not see his like again.