“Robert E Lee: A Life” is the newest biography of the Confederate general written by historian Allen C. Guelzo. Guelzo is a self-described Yankee partisan but presents a fairly even-handed portrait, but more negative than some better biographies such as by Emory Thomas or Douglas Southall Freeman. While critical of Lee for his view on slavery and the slaves themselves, which were typical of the time, he gives plenty of praise as well particularly for his grand strategic vision for winning the war and his overall character. Lee favored the gradual emancipation of slavery, as many did in the South before the war, but also held the common view that the black people were not the equal of white people and needed the supervision of their masters to have the best life until they could evolve to freedom.
Guelzo goes into depth about Lee’s problematic relationship with his father, the Revolutionary War hero Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee. His father squandered the family patrimony through speculation and eventually abandoned his wife and children. This caused Lee to value security and self-control and he ordered his life accordingly. The book traces his career in the United States army, his decision to join the Confederate army after secession and his eventual rise to command the principal Confederate army.
Guelzo’s analysis of Lee’s leadership of the Army of Northern Virginia was one place that the book falls short. He gives Lee only grudging credit for some of the great victories of the army and a fair share of the blame for its defeats mainly through over reliance on and lack of close supervision of his subordinate commanders. Other biographies do a better and more fair (to Lee) presentation in this area. Lee felt the best strategy was to invade the North and demoralize the population. His two invasions of the north, although meeting with initial success, ended in failure with Gettysburg particularly harmful to the Confederate cause.
Lee eventually surrendered to Grant at Appomattox in April 1865 and afterwards moved to Lexington, Va to teach at Washington (now Washington and Lee) University where he was very successful in resurrecting the college after the war. He upgraded the curriculum, increased the student enrollment dramatically and attracted a national endowment.
The greatest failure of this biography is the author’s attempt from beginning to end to paint Lee as a traitor for his siding with the Confederacy during the war. This charge of treason depends on one’s view of whether a state had the right to secede under the Constitution at the time. The weight of the evidence falls squarely on the side of the argument that says a state did have that right. Even Abraham Lincoln before the war said that “Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better.” Indeed, America itself was established on such principle. In the end, Lee sided with the Confederacy simply because he could not invade his own state and people and this was the only decision a man of honor could make.