Clouds Of Glory: The Life And Legend Of Robert E. Lee, by Michael Korda
It is interesting that the author had previously written a book about Grant, as Grant and Lee form a natural pair when it comes to examining generals. The author has the chance to note strengths and weaknesses of the two generals, pointing out that the logistical strength of the North was used best by Grant and did not make much of a difference when Lee was so much more tactically superior to many of the commanding generals of the Army of the Potomac. That said, the duel between Lee and Grant is only a small part of this particular book, far smaller than one might think when one is beginning the book and reading the slow pace that the author covers the beginning of the Civil War. It is possible that the author’s knowledge of Lee’s heart problems means that he focuses more on the time when Lee was comparatively young before his angina and hardening of the arteries made it more difficult for him to act like the younger people in the war that he was surrounded by and opposed to. Even so, the author spends a great deal of time and attention talking about Lee’s flaws, far more than many readers might expect.
This hefty book of around 700 pages consists of 12 fairly large chapters. The author begins his preface in media res with a look at Lee’s efforts to quell the rebellion of John Brown just before the beginning of the Civil War. After that the author looks at Lee’s childhood and the effect of his father’s unreliability on his early life (1) as well as his education as a soldier in West Point (2). The author then looks at Lee’s experience as an engineer in the military (3) as well as a decorated and celebrated officer in the Mexican War (4). After that the author discusses the long peace and Lee’s frustration at a lack of advancement in the prewar army (5). From this point the pace of the book slows dramatically as the author discusses Lee’s efforts in West Virginia and Port Royal in 1861 (6), his takeover of the Army of Northern Virginia and the Seven Days battles (7), his experiences at Second Bull Run and Antietam (8), Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville (9), and Gettysburg (10). At this point the author breezes through the rest of the material, discussing the campaign between Lee and Grant that ended in Lee’s surrender (11) as well as the last few years of Lee’s life as his health declined (12), after which there is an acknowledgements, notes, bibliography, map and art credits, and an index.
In reading this book one gets a sense of the sort of minefields that exist for a contemporary writer in writing about Robert E. Lee. For example, there is still enough fondness for Lee and his tactical brilliance as well as his reserve and diplomacy to make this sort of revisionist biography a difficult one. Also, the author finds it necessary to deal with the question of not only Lee’s ability and his struggles to enforce his will on occasionally recalcitrant generals (see Ewell on Day 1 of Gettysburg, for example), but also the postwar fights between people like Longstreet and Early. And then there are the people who will not appreciate any praise of Lee, even praise as guarded as this author gives such praise, because of his behavior as a slaveowner and a rebel. All of that makes this sort of book a difficult one to write, and one wonders if the author would have taken on such a thankless task as a New York Times hack writer had he not already written about Grant in the first place.