Robert E. Lee (Civil War Hero), by Jack Kavanagh and Eugene C. Murdoch
Why do people need Robert E. Lee to be a hero? There are no cottage industries to resurrect the military reputations of Cornwallis in the American Revolution or any of the French generals of the Franco-Prussian war or the War of Spanish Succession. The treatment that Lee receives as a general in praise of his supposed honor and tactical ability in a bad cause that he is subtly distanced from despite being an elite member of is similar to nothing more than the treatment that is given to Rommel in World War II. Both Lee and Rommel are praised for being tactically brilliant both both failed when it came to logistics and both of them have an air of myth about their opposition to the worst aspects of the regimes that they loyally and ably served. Lee’s closeness to Davis is far more notable, but Rommel was considered to be a classic example of a Nazi general too. This puzzles me, and I wonder why it is that comparative studies of the need for there to be good generals in bad causes have not been undertaken to the extent of mythological accounts of Lee’s genius and greatness, of which this book is an example.
This book is a short one at around 70 pages or so. The authors begin with a look at Lee before the war, which includes his fateful decision to resign from the United States army and take up arms against it as a traitor, and then looks at Lee’s family background before looking at his time in Mexico and the credit that he gained for his bravery there as a young engineering officer. The authors then discuss Lee’s conduct as the leader of the Army of the Northern Virginia, not discussing his failures as a staff officer in West Virginia and Port Royal in great detail at all, as well as Lee’s efforts at the high water mark of the Confederacy at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. This leads quite naturally to a discussion of the defeat of the South, which is blamed on the number of men and material that the North was able to throw at the South and which proved at length too much for the South to overcome. After that the authors talk about Lee’s experiences after the war, giving proper praise to Grant for refusing to allow Lee to be tried as a traitor as he deserved, but contrary to the generous peace terms he had been given to surrender.
By and large this book hits the high points one would expect in a short biographical account of Lee’s life. The book leans heavily on trying to present Lee as an honorable man, claiming that Lee was interested in being a private citizen although he moved quickly from betraying his oath of loyalty to the United States to taking up arms against his country. As is the case generally the author makes some mention of Lee’s revolutionary ancestral heritage as well as Lee’s experiences after the war during the few years between his surrender at Appomattox and his death. Yet the book never answers why it is that the author is trying so hard to present Lee’s actions in a positive light. The author, and this is generally the case in books about Lee, appears to take it for granted that one needs to present Lee’s actions in the most favorable light possible, even though this is not something that can always be assumed given that alternate judgments of Lee as a man and a gentleman can be made from the evidence that is available, and even Lee’s generalship is not as cut and dry as the authors and others like them would think.