How Noble Was Robert E. Lee?

Lee Considered: General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History

by Alan T. Nolan
University of North Carolina Press, 231 pp., $22.50

Let Us Have Peace: Ulysses S. Grant and the Politics of War and Reconstruction, 1861–1868

by Brooks D. Simpson
University of North Carolina Press, 339 pp., $34.95

The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and the Americans

by Charles Royster
Knopf, 523 pp., $30.00

Robert E. Lee
Robert E. Lee; drawing by David Levine

Alan Nolan’s previous book on the Civil War was a superb account of the Iron Brigade of the Army of the Potomac. He will need the same tough hide possessed by the Union veterans he described to endure the attacks from spiritual descendants of the legions who marched with Robert E. Lee. For Lee Considered is nothing less than a wholesale revision of the heroic image of the white South’s favorite icon. Nolan calls his study Lee Considered rather than Reconsidered because he believes that the figure of the legendary Lee has blocked genuine consideration of the historical Lee—apart from Thomas L. Connelly’s 1977 book, The Marble Man, which was primarily an account of the construction of the Lee myth.

Anticipating the outcry that will greet his interpretation, Nolan disavows any purpose to defame Lee. “I do not deny Lee’s greatness,” he assures the reader, but “Lee was, after all, one of us, a human being,…a great man but, indeed, a man” not a god. “Excessive adulation is not the stuff of history.” To a historian this is unexceptionable. But this disclaimer of bias is a bit disingenuous. Nolan is a lawyer by profession. The book has something of the tone of an indictment of Lee in the court of history, with the author as prosecuting attorney. He wants the jury—his readers—to convict Lee of entering willingly into a war to destroy the American nation. Lee did so, he believes, in the interest of perpetuating slavery. He pursued a faulty military strategy that ensured Confederate defeat, prolonging the war long after victory was possible at the cost of incalculable and unnecessary death and destruction. There is truth in some of these charges; it is not the whole truth, however. Nolan’s portrait of Lee may be closer to the real Lee than the flawless marble image promoted by tradition. But the prosecutorial style of his book produces some new distortions.

The Lee hagiography offers Nolan a big target. An early biographer of Lee wrote that “the Divinity in his bosom shone translucent through the man, and his spirit rose up to the Godlike.” The 1989 edition of the Encyclopedia Americana pronounced Lee “one of the truly gifted commanders of all time…one of the greatest, if not the greatest, soldier who ever spoke the English language.” The journalist-historian Douglas Southall Freeman, whose four-volume biography of Lee won the Pulitzer Prize in 1935 and did more to shape our image of Lee—indeed of the Civil War—than perhaps any other work, wrote of Lee: “Noble he was; nobler he became…a great and simple person. His character offers historians no moral flaws to probe.” Under the entry “personal characteristics” in his index, Freeman listed: abstemiousness, alertness, amiability, boldness, calmness, charm of manner, cheerfulness, courage, courtesy, dignity, diligence, fairness, faith in God, friendliness, generosity, goodness, good judgment, good looks, grace, heroic character, humility, integrity, intelligence,…

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