Book Review: Robert E. Lee (Great American Generals)

Robert E. Lee (Great American Generals), by Ian Hogg

There are an awful lot of books written about Robert E. Lee that appear to be deliberately aimed at younger audiences.  It should be noted that while the Civil War is itself a subject that has long been popular with a wide range of readers, young and old, it is interesting that Lee has so many books that focus on his life in a way that would be appealing to young people in a way that is not necessarily true of other leaders.  I was able to find, without any trouble at all, three biographies that focus on giving an account of Lee that borders on the religious in nature, something that I have not found to any extent for the Northern generals I am more fond of given my own Civil War loyalties.  And even as someone who does not support the Confederacy at all, it is obvious that Lee was a great general, though nowhere near the best of all time.  There are a great many generals–Washington comes to mind–who suffered from far more disadvantages as a leader of a revolutionary army and did far better with what they had than Lee did, and yet Lee is honored because he was tactically more sound than some of the worst that the North had to offer in command of the Army of the Potomac, at least until Meade and then Grant showed up.

This book is less than 100 pages and it consists of various sections that relate to Lee’s life and military career.  The author begins with a discussion of Lee’s early life as preparation for greatness, looking to Washington as a surrogate father for Lee’s obviously unreliable and irresponsible actual father.  This leads to a discussion of Lee’s first year of the war in which he served as a jack of all trades before taking command of the Army of Northern Virginia.  After that comes a series of short chapters that discuss the road to Antietam, Fredricksburg, Chancellorsville, and then Gettysburg.  Of course, these books praise Lee and his work even when the battle was a draw or defeat and put the blame on other people besides himself.  The book completely skips the Mine Run campaign and then looks at the Wilderness before discussing the road to Appomattox that led to his final defeat and surrender.  After that the author discusses his postwar life and how Lee moved from a historical figure into a myth, a transformation that the book itself reflects.

So, does this book work?  As an adult reading this book it clearly suffers from an obvious pro-Lee bias.  But will the children reading this book be astute and critical enough as readers to pick up on the special pleading that this book engages in?  The essential thesis of this book is that Lee was failed by insubordinate and incompetent generals, sabotaged by policy decisions that harmed his army, and ultimately defeated not by superior strategy but by failures in logistics.  All of this is bogus, though, since Grant’s logistical strategy was itself a strategy that he used repeatedly to win and to force armies into surrender, first in the West and then in the east.  Lee’s one goal as the leader of a revolutionary army was to preserve the army as a fighting unit and to avoid losing too many troops or losing the whole army, and he failed at that one job once he met a Union leader who was remorseless in the advance.  An all-time great general does not make such basic mistakes as losing one’s fighting edge with an inferior force through attrition and then allowing oneself to be held at bay and starved into submission.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, History, Military History and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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