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Robert E. Lee

Pryor, Elizabeth Brown. Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters. New York: Viking/Penguin, 2007. 658 pp.

Certain American figures have achieved mythic proportions after their deaths. Robert E. Lee is a prime example. In the ruins and humiliation of the post-Civil War era, the South apotheosized general Robert E. Lee. For many, Lee became the mythic figure that represented southern pride and defiance.

Elizabeth Pryor presents a new look at this icon. She stresses that when a figure becomes mythical, their humanity is lost, as is their relevance. With a plethora of books concerning Lee, is there a need for another book? Pryor argues yes. She points out that Lee wrote thousands of letters and a large number of these have never been studied. Pryor states that the breaking up of this fallow ground brings a new perspective on this nineteenth century icon.

Pryor does not attempt to lionize or demonize Lee. Instead, she desires to know “what constitutes heroism, and how and ordinary person like Lee faced the vagaries of the human condition” (viii). She believes that studying Lee’s letters helps the reader “to connect with a larger collective experience” (viii).

Through these letters, Pryor points out that Lee was much more than the staid, dutiful commanding general. Robert E. Lee had a troubled early life. His father, Light Horse Harry Lee, was a Revolutionary war hero, but squandered his money after the war and accumulated massive debts as well as a sordid reputation as a swindler. To escape debtor’s prison, Harry Lee fled to the Caribbean. His debts, along with the sexual peccadilloes of his oldest son, also named Harry, left a black mark on the Lee name. Robert E. Lee struggled as an adult to restore his family’s reputation and wealth.

While Lee’s early troubles are fairly well known, many aspects of his personality are not. He was an incurable flirt. Even after his marriage, and with his wife’s knowledge, he carried on several correspondences with young women. He was no prude. Pryor details letter after letter where Lee makes his it clear that he reveled in flirtatious dialogue. Yet, as a gentleman, Lee kept these relationships platonic. This was no marble figure, but a man who enjoyed the presence of and banter with the opposite sex.

Lee was a man who sought to meld ambition with family, yet mostly failed. Pryor details Lee’s military career before the war. A man who loved his family deeply, he chose a career that kept him at army bases far away from home. He was also a man who tried to pour others in the mold he fashioned for himself. Highly disciplined, he sought to make those under him follow his path. In this he also was not always successful. In the 1850s, Lee served as the Superintendent of the West Point. His severity made him unpopular with many of the cadets.

The mythic Lee is known for his seriousness and high sense of piety. Pryor shows a man who possessed a frivolous and jocular side, and one who only seriously converted to evangelical Episcopalianism in his 40s.

Through his correspondence, Lee comes across as a man thoroughly steeped in the racism and egocentrism of his time. He thought blacks inferior and slavery as God’s painful discipline to bring them eventually to the Anglo-Saxon level. Lee came into the ownership of a number of slaves upon the death of his father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis in the 1850s. Custis was the stepson of George Washington. Parke Custis had promised his slaves their freedom upon his death. Lee refused to honor this promise; instead, he rented out many of his slaves to other plantations. He broke up slave families. He also had runaways severely whipped. Lee never thought blacks could reach equality. After the war, he opposed the education of freedman. While president of Washington College, he did little to assuage the violence of his students toward freedmen.

Only a quarter of the book looks at Lee’s career as the General of the Army of Northern Virginia. These letters reveal the chaos and the aggravation that Lee faced during the war. While popular mythology paints the South as a unified force, Lee’s letters show a man struggling to maintain discipline and his attempts to persevere in the midst of military setbacks, and the ever-increasing chaos of the war bureaucracy.

While Lee urged the South to lay down their arms after the surrender, his letters reveal an unrepentant man, angry about the way the war turned out. He still remained an elitist. He blamed others for his defeats. He refused to accept the reality of freedmen and was horrified at the idea of black franchise.

In sum, Pryor does a splendid job of synthesizing these new finds with historic scholarship and other primary sources. She weaves a picture of a complex man, one with admirable qualities, but also one with great flaws. This is an excellent contribution to study of one of the most polarizing figures of the nineteenth century.

Jeffery B. Howell
062207