Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee–a review

Clouds of Glory:  The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee
Michael Korda
New York: Harper, 2014.

On a recent vacation, our family happened to go to a Barnes & Noble store (bookstores are a trap for me!). While there, I noticed Michael Korda’s new work, Clouds of Glory:  The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee. Well, I am a sucker for books in general, and Civil War history and biographies in particular, so I picked this one up. (I did manage to limit myself to just one!)

Biographies can be easier to read than other non-fiction works because of the personal element. Well-written biographies are even easier, and this one is well written (though not entirely without flaws). I swept through the 693 pages in about a week and a half.1 For anyone who has read much Civil War history, a fair outline of those years will be in hand, so some of the material you will have read in other sources. Michael Korda’s approach seems to me to be fairly objective. He respects Lee, but does not worship at his shrine. He critiques decisions, argues with other writers on interpretation, and in the end presents a picture of an interesting Christian man.

I don’t use the term “Christian” loosely in my description of Lee. From various allusions in the text, it appears that Lee was a real believer and would probably be considered ‘evangelical’ (at least) by our terminology today. One selection to illustrate:

To modern readers Lee’s letters to his family may seem exaggeratedly pious – he is constantly thanking God or leaving matters large and small in God’s hands – but it is important to recognize the depth, sincerity, and importance of Lee’s religious belief. It was not an affectation, or a question of style, or an attempt to enforce piety on his children or others; it was a reality at the very core of his being. When he writes to Mary, “I pray God to watch over and direct our efforts in guarding our dear little son,” or to one of his children, “Be true, kind and generous, and pray earnestly to God to enable you to keep His Commandments ‘and walk in them all the days of your life,’” or to his soldiers, “I earnestly pray that a merciful God will extend to you His blessings and protection,” these are not mere phrases. They mean exactly what Lee wrote. Although the form of his religious observance changed as he grew older, it remained a constant throughout his life. (p. 160)

Of particular interest to me is understanding how a Christian man like Lee (and many other Southerners) could take arms against their God-ordained authority (the United States) in defense of such an intolerable institution as slavery. This is a complicated question, and surely the answer varies with the individuals.

One defense Southern apologists make is to deny that slavery was in any way the issue over which the war was fought. This denies such documents South Carolina’s Declaration of Secession and other Southern documents. Korda cites Alexander Stephens2 declaring the founding principle of the CSA: “It’s foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to a superior race, is his natural and normal condition.” (p. 233, from Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the Civil War (New York: Da Capo, 1953), 43.)

If this be the founding principle of the CSA, how can Christian men really support it? For Lee the answer lies in loyalty to state over loyalty to nation. Lee’s decision to support the South at the beginning of the war involved much soul-searching. His father had been one of George Washington’s officers in the Revolutionary War. His wife was George Washington’s grand-daughter (the daughter of Washington’s adopted son). In a letter to his wife’s cousin, Lee wrote:

I am unable to realize that our people will destroy a government inaugurated by the blood & wisdom of our patriot fathers, that has given us peace and prosperity at home, power & security abroad, & under which we have acquired a colossal strength unequalled in the history of mankind. I wish to live under no other government, & there is no sacrifice I am not ready to make for the preservation of the Union, save that of honour. … I wish for no other flag than The Star Spangled Banner, & no other air than Hail Columbia. (p. 229)

Given these sentiments, what was Lee’s motive? He was offered the command of the United States Army, but he turned it down.

I declined the offer he made me to take command of the army that was to be brought into the field, stating as clearly as candidly and as courteously as I could, that though opposed to secession and deprecating war, I could take no part in an invasion of the Southern States. (p. 228)

For Lee, then, the war was about “Northern Aggression,” no matter how much the founding of the Confederate States of America and the spark-plug for the war itself was the issue of slavery. He would not allow, if possible, federal troops to succeed against free citizens of Virginia.

The most interesting parts of the book are those that describe the formation of Lee’s character and his history leading up to the war. There is also some interesting bits about the aftermath, but Lee’s life was cut short by heart disease, so there was little aftermath for him in the end (he died in 1870, a scant five years after the war). The war years are well known, Korda’s analysis is interesting, but the familiarity of the material makes it a little slower going than the rest of the book.

I would say that this book is a valuable contribution to the understanding of Lee and the war and well worth the time invested. There are some weaknesses, Korda seems to repeat himself several times throughout the book and there are several occasions where obvious typos have been missed by the editors. Nevertheless, an interesting read and one I recommend. I see that Korda has written other biographies, so I hope I can pick up some of them along the way, in particular his Ulysses S. Grant is now on my wish list.

Notes:

  1. a four hour plane ride from Atlanta to Seattle helped! []
  2. CSA Vice President []