Review of Robert E. Lee by Robert Watson Winston
Albert A. Rogers
Note: The following is taken from the July 1934 issue of The William and Mary Quarterly (volume 14), pp. 251–53.
LEE AS CAVALIER AND SOLDIER. By Robert Watson Winston. A biography. pp. Frontispiece, Illus., maps, bibliography. William Morrow.
The latest biography of the sainted leader of the Southern Confederacy will excite attention. It was written by a Southerner, a North Carolinian, with avowed “Northern principles”: the author who burlesqued his biography of the President of the Confederacy with the title “High Stakes and Hair Trigger.” Hence, readers will be interested to see how “Marse Bob,” the South's hero, is treated by a Southern Unionist with a penchant toward “popular writing.” It will be remembered that the author's Andrew Johnson, plebeian and patriot, while a creditable biography, nevertheless gave evidence of errors, especially carelessness about facts, and misspelling of proper names. While in his biography on Jefferson Davis, he outdid himself in the matter of misspelled words, wrong dates, and the questionable interpretation of quotations. With “High Stakes and Hair Trigger” for a title, and such chapter headings as Brass Buttons, Ragtag and Bobtail, the author was seemingly tempting the “best seller” reading public.
On the positive side of the author's treatment of Lee, however, it may be said that he has done well. He has succeeded in presenting in short compass a unified picture of Lee's character, personality, and career; easy enough as far as character and personality are concerned, but with a varied career, the author had a worthwhile task.
The author's purpose was to present a unified, coherent, and properly emphasized story of Lee, the man, from his early years to his death. The narrative is based on well-known facts, and also on material now published for the first time: Lee's confidential correspondence with Davis; the letters and recollections of R. E. Lee, Jr. In stressing the human side the author has given the entire story “as cavalier, as soldier, and as citizen.”
Necessarily, the military side is featured. And while the author is no authority in this field, as he acknowledges, he does base his views on what experts have said. His verdict, thus, on Lee as a commander may be inferred as quite high.
In fine, the reader is presented with a happy picture of Lee: as the pride and joy of his mother; as the efficient West Point cadet—dutiful and upright at school as he had been at home, receiving no demerits during his cadetship and graduating as the second ranking cadet; following his profession in the corps of engineers, and later a brilliant career in the Mexican War where he enjoyed the friendship and admiration of General Scott; as not favoring slavery; with filial loyalty greater than vain ambition; who after four years of sectional strife, took defeat gracefully; at no time with hatred in his heart; as spurning opportunities for personal gain; and preferring, instead the presidency of Washington College where he served until his death.
The author holds throughout to his thesis of Lee, the man, with a nicety. From cover to cover there is a touch of humor, unknown in former Lee biographies. The human side is stressed: Lee is revealed as tender and thoughtful to family and friends; his love of children and theirs for him. Religion is seen as the dominating and guiding factor in his life. Through this medium the actions of Lee may be understood.
On the negative side of this interpretation of Lee there is something to be said: certain small errors, as pointed out in the author's previous biographies are evident—unfortunately, too many inaccurate quotations.
The author misses a strong psychological point in his analysis of Lee's character development, and life-long adherence to duty and piety. That is, the influence of his father, “Light Horse” Harry, whose unsteadiness, and ultimate failure must have played a part in spurring young Robert on to be what his father was not. Not that Lee was ashamed—it was out of veneration to his memory that he became the antithesis of his erratic father.
The insinuation that there was no hint at West Point or during the Mexican War of his brilliance which was later to baffle the Union armies, does not agree with General Scott's opinion that Lee was his most gifted officer.
Another quarrel with the interpreter of the “New South” centers around his contention that Lee was a Unionist all the time; and especially with his interpretation of this statement. He features Lee's feelings and motives in resigning from the U.S. army. He misses the true interpretation in featuring the Union as Northern, when as a matter of fact the Union was certainly as much a Southern creation as a Northern. For without the sacrifice of Virginia and other Southern states the Union would not have been realized. Of course Lee loved the creation of his fathers; so did other Southerners. Yet when politicians sought to turn the creation into a monster for economic and political gain, he could not sit idly, nor aid the politician-converted monster. Hence, the author's statement that Lee fought with his head acting for the Confederacy, but his heart on the side of the Union, is misleading to say the least. One may reiterate that Lee and probably the majority of his fellow Southerners were “Union men,” but when conditions arose which endangered their own family and friends, they sacrificed all, and did so with head and heart.
The author points out a “hard” side to Lee. He states that at moments General Lee could be hard enough, pointing out that he had countersigned Colonel Mosby's order that seven of General Custer's men be executed in retaliation for Custer's treating Mosby's men as outlaws. Yet Mosby's note to Sheridan that the retaliatory measure had been carried out states “Hereafter any prisoners falling into my hands will be treated with the kindness due to their condition, unless some new act of barbarity shall compel me reluctantly to adopt a line of policy repugnant to humanity.” The only “hard” side to Lee or to Mosby was that spirit with which one is forced to defend his home against an invader.
The statement that no mercy was shown to deserters until the death penalty became futile has no place in the character portrayed of Lee.
After the war, the author overplays his hand in interpreting Lee's dominant religious views as indicative of his acquiescing in the Northernization of the South. Yet he in no way proves his thesis that Lee desired the South to develop a social-economic system after the Northern fashion, called surreptitiously by some, the “New South.”
Certain errors in the volume have been alluded to; also the book is poorly documented, the bibliography is incomplete, and the index is entirely too sketchy.
Yet the positive side is heavier than the negative, and weighing it on the scales of opinion will prove the balance to be in its favor. For the author has succeeded in making Lee and his close associates live again, and one, after reading the book, is doubly convinced of Lee's greatness as a man, as well as a military leader. He has succeeded in presenting a well unified picture of Lee's character and personality in a continuous panorama of his human side, which was the chief objective of the study.
This comprehensive life of Lee is definitely a contribution; it is a welcome addition to the many biographies now extant of the leading characters of southern history. From the frontispiece, the West Point portrait of Lee, to his last words: “Strike the tent” . . . “Tell Hill he must come up,” the author presents a new interpretation of Lee and thus carries on his mission “to interpret the New South to the nation.”—Albert A. Rogers.