In This Article Robert E. Lee

  • Introduction
  • Biographies and Personality Studies
  • Primary Sources: Reports and Correspondence
  • Primary Sources: Memoirs and Other Works by Contemporaries
  • Essays
  • Military Studies

Military History Robert E. Lee
by
Ethan S. Rafuse
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 December 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0078

Introduction

The son of a Revolutionary War hero, with deep roots in the Virginia aristocracy, Robert Edward Lee compiled an exemplary academic and disciplinary record en route to graduation from the US Military Academy in 1829. His personal character and performance in the decades that followed as an engineer, a member of Winfield Scott’s staff during the Mexican War, and a cavalry commander made him one of the most respected officers in the US Army when the Civil War began. After turning down the offer of command of Union armies, he resigned from the service of the United States and accepted appointment as commander-in-chief of Virginia’s armed forces. Early in the war, problematic performances in western Virginia and along the Atlantic Coast raised questions about his suitability to command in the field; these doubts were thoroughly dashed in the months after he assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia in June 1862. In the year and a half that followed his appointment to command, forces under Lee won impressive battlefield victories that arrested and then reversed the momentum of victory that Union armies had achieved and enabled him to carry the war north of the Potomac River on two occasions, with only setbacks in the 1862 Maryland and 1863 Gettysburg Campaigns to mar his record during this time. In 1864–1865, inexorable pressure exerted by larger Federal forces commanded by Ulysses S. Grant pushed Lee and his army back into the defenses of Richmond and Petersburg. Finally, in April 1865, Grant’s forces broke the Confederate lines around Petersburg, then chased Lee’s army down and compelled its surrender at Appomattox Court House. After the war was over, Lee’s compliance with the results of the war assuaged anxieties about Southern willingness to accept defeat. A superb battlefield commander, keen strategist and practitioner of the operational art, a possessor of sterling personal character, and a supreme leader of men, during and after the war Lee achieved a stature in the eyes of the American people that few have enjoyed and one that has inevitably inspired a backlash. Few officers in American history have compiled as impressive a record in service to—and against—his country as Lee or inspired a more extensive body of literature.

Biographies and Personality Studies

Given Lee’s importance and that of the events of which he was a part, the list of biographical studies of the general’s life is not as extensive as one might expect. This is largely a consequence of the massive shadow that Douglas Southall Freeman’s magnificent four-volume biography, Freeman 1934–1935, casts over the literature on Lee. The laudatory tone of Freeman’s work, and the fact that he wrote it as the descendent of a veteran of the Army of Northern Virginia and an unapologetic admirer of Lee’s (an admiring tone also characterizes Dowdey 1965), has generated a backlash against the general and Freeman’s biography, which is evident in much of the literature that has appeared in recent decades. Some of this reaction was undoubtedly inevitable, given the dramatic way that the Civil Rights Movement affected (or should have affected) perspectives on the South and the war it waged for independence. The great danger, though, and one of the problems associated with this change in society’s perspective on matters in general, and on the sectional conflict in particular, is for its leading authors to judge historical figures by standards that would have been alien to those figures. Although not the first to question whether Lee and his generalship were worthy of the high esteem in which both had traditionally been held, Connelly 1977 has inspired others to try to chip away at the Lee legend and its provocative arguments have been flattered with imitation in Nolan 1991, while Fellman 2000 likewise attempts to push the anti-Lee banner forward. Books that endeavor to steer a middle course and take a more balanced approach to Lee have also appeared in recent decades. The best of these is the premier one-volume biography, Thomas 1995, as well as McCaslin 2001, Reid 2005, and Pryor 2007.

  • Connelly, Thomas L. The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society. New York: Knopf, 1977.

    E-mail Citation »

    A bracingly revisionist take on Lee as a man and general. The work is also a compelling account of the factors that led to what Connelly argues is a distorted view of Lee’s life and career and his exalted place in American history in general and Southern history in particular.

  • Dowdey, Clifford. Lee. Boston: Little, Brown, 1965.

    E-mail Citation »

    A massive one-volume biography of Lee, the author of which is enthusiastic in his admiration for Lee, his character, and his generalship.

  • Fellman, Michael. The Making of Robert E. Lee. New York: Random House, 2000.

    E-mail Citation »

    A critical account and assessment of Lee’s life and character, distinguished by a decidedly unsympathetic tone toward its subject and the Southern cause.

  • Freeman, Douglas Southall. R. E. Lee: A Biography. 4 vols. New York: Scribner’s, 1934–1935.

    E-mail Citation »

    Freeman’s massive biography of Lee is characterized by an admiring, though by no means completely uncritical, tone toward its subject. Since its publication, Freeman’s work has so dominated scholarship on Lee that any work on the general’s life and career must address this work’s arguments. It remains the most thorough account of Lee’s life and career and one of the truly great biographical works in the history of the English language.

  • McCaslin, Richard B. Lee in the Shadow of Washington. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001.

    E-mail Citation »

    A very good short overview of Lee’s life and career; emphasizes Lee’s efforts to follow the model set by George Washington in both his personal life and military career.

  • Nolan, Alan T. Lee Considered: General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

    E-mail Citation »

    A critical, polemical look at Lee that makes little pretense of balanced analysis. Whether the subject is Lee’s character, his generalship, or his image in history, the author finds little to admire and much to criticize.

  • Pryor, Elizabeth Brown. Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee through His Private Letters. New York: Viking, 2007.

    E-mail Citation »

    A massive, compelling look at Lee’s life; draws from previously unseen primary source materials to paint a complex portrait of Lee, with particular focus on his personal side.

  • Reid, Brian Holden. Robert E. Lee: Icon for a Nation. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2005.

    E-mail Citation »

    A brief but impressive account of Lee’s career, Reid finds far more to admire than criticize in Lee’s character and generalship.

  • Thomas, Emory M. Robert E. Lee: A Biography. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995.

    E-mail Citation »

    Thomas’s outstanding study is the best one-volume scholarly biography of Lee’s life. This portrait of Lee as a man is warm, yet remarkably balanced, and eminently compelling.

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