Robert E. Lee: Icon For A Nation, by Brian Holden Reid
This book is an interesting case of what happens when someone attempts to write a generally praiseworthy account of a man without whitewashing him or seeking to promote neo-Confederate myths. The author notes that while Lee’s prowess as a general has often been exaggerated by writers, the exaggerations themselves come from a basis of truth and on that basis Lee deserves both some credit as well as some criticism. In addition, and also particularly worthy of interest, the author notes that in many ways the greatness of Lee and the greatness of Grant are tied up together, so that both of these generals benefit because of their epic conflict each other over the course of 1864 and 1865, which demonstrated the importance of logistics and the way that both fought tenaciously and also honorably. Indeed, one of the reason for Lee’s greatness is the fact that the Confederate cupboard was relatively bare as far as great generals went, making it very hard for them to overcome their losses of such leaders as Jackson and Stuart because of attrition, give the unappealing options they had for leaders of key western armies, yet the choice to put the best general in the most important theater may have prolonged the Civil War, which is something that one can appreciate, if one appreciates that sort of thing.
This book is about 250 pages long and it looks at Lee’s career and life and how it was that Lee was a general from a favorable but non-Confederate point of view. The book begins with a list of illustrations and maps, a foreword by Julian Thompson, and a preface. After that the author discusses Lee’s reputation in neo-Confederate myth as the starting point to how one appreciates him as a general, a daring choice given the author’s criticism of the Confederate perspective even with an appreciation of Lee as a general (1). After that the author spends one chapter talking about the entire life of Lee from his birth to distressed Virginia aristocrats up to his resignation from the U.S. Army in 1861 (2), mainly notable for the author’s discussion of Lee’s acquisition of various skills and the challenges of the peacetime army. After that the author divides Lee’s Civil War experience into seven chapters, showing the outsize importance of the Civil War to Lee’s historical reputation, beginning with Lee’s quiet emergence in seeking to save West Virginia to the Confederacy as well as overcome daunting inferiority in terms of naval forces at Port Royal (3). This leads to the transformation of Confederate fortunes once he took leadership of the Army of Northern Virginia and led it to victory in the Seven Days Campaign (4), and then reached the apogee of success during Second Bull Run and then the hard-fought draw at Antietam (5). The author then discusses his successes at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville (6), the Gettysburg campaign (7), his defensive skill at Mine Run and the Overland campaign (8), and the slow disintegration during and after the siege of Petersburg up to Appomattox (9), after which the author gives a reckoning of Lee’s skill as a general (10), and then provides a guide to further reading and an index.
It is striking and interesting that while this book deals with the iconography of Lee as a general, the author himself does not view Lee as an icon himself. Yet neither is this a revisionist history of the sort that would try to claim that Lee was himself a terrible general. The author views Lee more favorably than I would personally, yet presents a plausible case for not viewing Lee as deficient in logistics, which is the area of war that I would fault him the most for. One can see that his offensive-defensive tactics of seeking tactical victories where possible through opportunistic means was well-suited for the situation he found himself in and if he failed in both of his attempts to invade the north he remained a difficult opponent until his army’s strength was sapped by the siege of Petersburg and even then he had at least a sensible strategy for escape that was failed by logistical blunders as well as the skill of Grant and Sheridan. It is no shame to fail in such circumstances, and the author’s main point stands that Lee, whatever one thinks of the cause for which he fought, is certainly a general worth respecting and highly regarding.