As battlefield generals go, he could be extremely fiery, and could go out of his way to be kind. But in even the most sympathetic versions of his life story he comes across as a bit of a stick—certainly compared with his scruffy nemesis, Ulysses S. Grant; his zany, ferocious “right arm,” Stonewall Jackson; and the dashing “eyes” of his army, J.E.B. “Jeb” Stuart. For these men, the Civil War was just the ticket. Lee, however, has come down in history as too fine for the bloodbath of 1861-65. To efface the squalor and horror of the war, we have the image of Abraham Lincoln freeing the slaves, and we have the image of Robert E. Lee’s gracious surrender. Still, for many contemporary Americans, Lee is at best the moral equivalent of Hitler’s brilliant field marshal Erwin Rommel (who, however, turned against Hitler, as Lee never did against Jefferson Davis, who, to be sure, was no Hitler).
On his father’s side, Lee’s family was among Virginia’s and therefore the nation’s most distinguished. Henry, the scion who was to become known in the Revolutionary War as Light-Horse Harry, was born in 1756. He graduated from Princeton at 19 and joined the Continental Army at 20 as a captain of dragoons, and he rose in rank and independence to command Lee’s light cavalry and then Lee’s legion of cavalry and infantry. Without the medicines, elixirs, and food Harry Lee’s raiders captured from the enemy, George Washington’s army would not likely have survived the harrowing winter encampment of 1777-78 at Valley Forge. Washington became his patron and close friend. With the war nearly over, however, Harry decided he was underappreciated, so he impulsively resigned from the army. In 1785, he was elected to the Continental Congress, and in 1791 he was elected governor of Virginia. In 1794 Washington put him in command of the troops that bloodlessly put down the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania. In 1799 he was elected to the U.S. Congress, where he famously eulogized Washington as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
Meanwhile, though, Harry’s fast and loose speculation in hundreds of thousands of the new nation’s acres went sour, and in 1808 he was reduced to chicanery. He and his second wife, Ann Hill Carter Lee, and their children departed the Lee ancestral home, where Robert was born, for a smaller rented house in Alexandria. Under the conditions of bankruptcy that obtained in those days, Harry was still liable for his debts. He jumped a personal appearance bail—to the dismay of his brother, Edmund, who had posted a sizable bond—and wangled passage, with pitying help from President James Monroe, to the West Indies. In 1818, after five years away, Harry headed home to die, but got only as far as Cumberland Island, Georgia, where he was buried. Robert was 11.
Robert appears to have been too fine for his childhood, for his education, for his profession, for his marriage, and for the Confederacy. Not according to him. According to him, he was not fine enough. For all his audacity on the battlefield, he accepted rather passively one raw deal after another, bending over backward for everyone from Jefferson Davis to James McNeill Whistler’s mother. (When he was superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy, Lee acquiesced to Mrs. Whistler’s request on behalf of her cadet son, who was eventually dismissed in 1854.)
By what can we know of him? The works of a general are battles, campaigns and usually memoirs. The engagements of the Civil War shape up more as bloody muddles than as commanders’ chess games. For a long time during the war, “Old Bobbie Lee,” as he was referred to worshipfully by his troops and nervously by the foe, had the greatly superior Union forces spooked, but a century and a third of analysis and counteranalysis has resulted in no core consensus as to the genius or the folly of his generalship. And he wrote no memoir. He wrote personal letters—a discordant mix of flirtation, joshing, lyrical touches, and stern religious adjuration—and he wrote official dispatches that are so impersonal and (generally) unselfserving as to seem above the fray.
During the postbellum century, when Americans North and South decided to embrace R. E. Lee as a national as well as a Southern hero, he was generally described as antislavery. This assumption rests not on any public position he took but on a passage in an 1856 letter to his wife. The passage begins: “In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages.” But he goes on: “I think it however a greater evil to the white than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.”
The only way to get inside Lee, perhaps, is by edging fractally around the record of his life to find spots where he comes through; by holding up next to him some of the fully realized characters—Grant, Jackson, Stuart, Light-Horse Harry Lee, John Brown—with whom he interacted; and by subjecting to contemporary skepticism certain concepts—honor, “gradual emancipation,” divine will—upon which he unreflectively founded his identity.
He wasn’t always gray. Until war aged him dramatically, his sharp dark brown eyes were complemented by black hair (“ebon and abundant,” as his doting biographer Douglas Southall Freeman puts it, “with a wave that a woman might have envied”), a robust black mustache, a strong full mouth and chin unobscured by any beard, and dark mercurial brows. He was not one to hide his looks under a bushel. His heart, on the other hand . . . “The heart, he kept locked away,” as Stephen Vincent Benét proclaimed in “John Brown’s Body,” “from all the picklocks of biographers.” Accounts by people who knew him give the impression that no one knew his whole heart, even before it was broken by the war. Perhaps it broke many years before the war. “You know she is like her papa, always wanting something,” he wrote about one of his daughters. The great Southern diarist of his day, Mary Chesnut, tells us that when a lady teased him about his ambitions, he “remonstrated—said his tastes were of the simplest. He only wanted a Virginia farm—no end of cream and fresh butter—and fried chicken. Not one fried chicken or two—but unlimited fried chicken.” Just before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, one of his nephews found him in the field, “very grave and tired,” carrying around a fried chicken leg wrapped in a piece of bread, which a Virginia countrywoman had pressed upon him but for which he couldn’t muster any hunger.
One thing that clearly drove him was devotion to his home state. “If Virginia stands by the old Union,” Lee told a friend, “so will I. But if she secedes (though I do not believe in secession as a constitutional right, nor that there is sufficient cause for revolution), then I will follow my native State with my sword, and, if need be, with my life.”
The North took secession as an act of aggression, to be countered accordingly. When Lincoln called on the loyal states for troops to invade the South, Southerners could see the issue as defense not of slavery but of homeland. A Virginia convention that had voted 2 to 1 against secession, now voted 2 to 1 in favor.