Lee! - a Book Review by 1Lt Commander Harold Grooms
Douglas Southall Freeman’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Robert E. Lee is THE definitive account of the only man ever offered command of two opposing armies. Written long before political correctness became imperative, it provides a detailed account of his life and a frank assessment of both his successes and failures. In four volumes he covers every facet of the life of a man whose impact is still felt to this day.
Volume I covers Lee’s upbringing and the impact of his Father, Revolutionary War hero “Light-Horse” Harry Lee who enjoyed the complete confidence of George Washington. It also describes his education at West Point and his service in the Mexican War that caught the attention of General Winfield Scott and his later service in the Corp of Engineers in the U.S. Army. It concludes with his declination of Scott’s offer of Command of the Union Army.
Volume II recounts his early victories that led to the relief of Union General George McClellan who he would later call the most capable Union general he faced. His most overwhelming victory was at Fredericksburg where he said, “It is well war is so terrible, else we would grow too fond of it!” It also discusses the death, by fratricide, of “Stonewall” Jackson at Chancellorsville where he said, “Jackson has lost his left arm. I have lost my right!”
Volume III: Knowing time and resources favored the North, Lee sought a stunning victory on Union soil to bolster the peace movement in the North and elect a U.S. president disposed to ending the war on terms favorable to the south. Gettysburg, Pennsylvania was the place! The loss there he attributes largely to Longstreet’s half-hearted support. The initiative then passed to the north which they never relinquished.
Volume IV describes the unrelenting pressure applied by Grant and his ally, starvation. Forced to conduct a fighting retreat his soldiers never lost confidence in “Marse Robert” and resolved to follow him anywhere. Deprived of sustenance and completely surrounded, Lee made the agonizing decision to, “Go see General Grant,” at Appomattox. Volume IV also covers the Reconstruction Acts and their impact, and Lee's decision to lead by example by humbly submitting to authority. He refused to capitalize on his notoriety by turning down lucrative business offers and accepted the Presidency of little-known Washington College at a salary of $1500.00 per year instead. His final order from his deathbed: “Strike the tent!”