The life of Lee having been “done,” redone, and perhaps even undone by revisionist treatment, the present weighty phenomenon requires some contextual examination. We might first and simply ask the question, What is the purpose of this book? I mean to say that the revisionist treatment of the so-called Civil War has been gathering force for more than 50 years, to such an extent that much of the rejection of “the Myth of the Lost Cause” comes from Southern university presses, now that the Long March Through the Institutions has been accomplished. We don’t any more live in a world where the late Thomas J. Pressly’s enlightening book, Americans Interpret Their Civil War (1954), has much purchase, because Americans used to interpret their Civil War, but do not any longer. Today they are instructed or bullied in the interpretation of their Civil War, and that mostly by well-heeled academics who review one another’s masterpieces in The New York Times Book Review, etc., ad naus.
We do live in a world where strange things happen, the Civil War having been one of them, and some of them are orchestrated and choreographed en pointe. More than three decades ago I found myself reading quite a landmark in the history of Lee’s reputation, and I thought I had gone down a rabbit hole. Never before, as in not once, had Lee’s aggression on the battlefield been ascribed to his invalid wife’s presumptive vaginitis. You remember her, the former Myth Custis—the one he had all those sons and daughters with? This remarkable example of military analysis cut through all the malarkey about West Point and the myths about all those Napoleon books in French and all the no-demerits and the service on the frontier in the John Ford movie and the Mexican war and superintending at West Point and John Brown’s raid and the Secession and the call for volunteers from men married to sick wives who wanted to attack anything that moved, and you can see what happened, and it was just terrible. Because figure-toi, if the old boy hadn’t been so frustrated, then there wouldn’t have been all that suffering because there were no issues or real conflicts, but there was a Myth of the Lost Cause and he was it, because if there was a myth, then it was because Lee had a privileged dry cleaner while everybody else was muddy and barefooted and probably didn’t smell very good either.
So because we live in that world, which has since morphed into the absurdist mold of Howard Zinn’s radicalism as bizarre orthodoxy, we have a paradoxical situation in which Lee has been vilified because he is, or was, so admirable. There has actually been a national agenda to discredit Lee in order to eliminate any connection with the national, as opposed to regional, mythology of the Civil War. And that phenomenon has everything to do with power today, not then. The contemporary recklessness of calling Lee a traitor while appealing for Southern votes is very revealing, particularly since Lee had various connections with George Washington. The thought that the seceding states would be better off today as Military Districts because of the resulting Truth in Labeling has crossed someone’s mind—that, I know.
Such is the context into which Michael Korda’s new book on Lee has emerged, and he must know it. As for the author himself, he is no academic/politician but rather a famous publishing executive who has become more and more a writer, and a writer of bestsellers at that. Furthermore, Korda has in the last few years produced certain military biographies, on U.S. Grant, T.E. Lawrence, and D.D. Eisenhower, so R.E. Lee fits into a genre of analysis. I would emphasize also that Michael Korda has a European educational background and has seen service in the Royal Air Force. His approach to Lee is both informed and effortlessly differentiated—first, because he can write, and second, because for many decades he has made it his successful business to know what the public relishes (a good read) and how to produce that himself. He has always been a reader. He has also been efficient, in that some of this material he had already been over for his Grant book, as in the references to J.F.C. Fuller, but never mind. Let me add that Korda—having been an editor at the highest level, and that for decades—knows something about management and decisionmaking, a something that is valuable in understanding military leadership.
As for his take on Lee, perhaps we can say that Korda is in accord with the record. He has not appointed himself as a scourge to punish Lee for serial incorrectness. He has rather portrayed a distinct personality that formed in a certain specified background, one that was not only consistent but repeatedly recognized. And I think that Korda has shown, if he has not explicitly stated, that repression implies that there is something to repress. Lee’s chivalry and mild manner were in conflict with the business at hand, no doubt. But he knew as a professional the world of violence, was unafraid of it, and always addressed what was to be done. Korda’s Lee has achieved simplicity—what you see is what you get. He loved best to be at home teasing the ladies, but that was not his calling. To be all business and all politeness, as with Grant at Appomattox, was to him no contradiction, and he was never idle. And of course he did not long survive the war. Before he died, he advocated and acted out a policy of reconciliation that some may find puzzling even today, during the latest Reconstruction. The truth is that if he was not made of finer stuff than other people, then he held himself to a higher standard, as so many sensed. The implied rebuke and its political implication have caused the unassuageable resentment of today.
Korda knows that Lee knew how to play on opposing nerves. Much of armed conflict, as in sports and games, is mental, not physical, and intimidation is half of winning, or even more. Korda more than once compares Lee to a poker player—one who knows how to play a bad hand with a poker face. Lee knew how to bluff and get away with it, and when he did not get away with it, the war was over. Korda does not venerate Lee and marks mistakes and faults in his conduct of the war, and even in himself. But he also shows that Lee was that rare military man who was exceptional at both defense and attack. He sees Lee as a great general even in world history, and as a great man in his own way. Some may find this troubling, as some have found it troubling, for instance, that in a genteel restaurant six decades ago in the deep South, there was a framed print of a Lee portrait hung on the wall. I recently read about this outrage in a biography of a Southern writer written by a Yankee, but like the general (though in no other way), I kept my composure. Sort of.
If reading about war and destruction and losing a war at home is enjoyable, then I enjoyed reading Korda’s book, and I think others will also—readers, perhaps, who have not plowed through the four volumes of Douglas Southall Freeman and are curious about the famous but opaque man of gray. Such readers are likely to be impressed not only by the biography but also by the vision of a vanished world and its realities. We are not today so well acquainted with codes of manners and demonstrations of stoicism and courage as we might need to be. And I will add that the view from Arlington (probably the most meaningful view in this nation, particularly of our bloated District) is best absorbed by knowing about the man whose view that was, before his acres were spitefully confiscated to become a forever uncultivable cemetery for, among others, men he caused to become corpses. That was some gentleman, indeed, and who was more American than he? Besides Traveller, I mean.
Now having said that, I must also declare that this book is flawed, first by an excess of errers of poofreading, and second by even larger-scale faults of writing or composition: unintegrated material, premature declarations, and repetitions. The loft hand does not know what the retch is doing. On page 503, the Confederates did not consider a night attack after Fredericksburg. Indeed? On page 516, Stonewall Jackson had proposed exactly that to Lee, saying, “[we] should all strip ourselves perfectly naked,” to ensure there would be no confusion in the dark! The first sort of flaw I write off to the general collapse of whatever, but the second is the responsibility of the man who signed off on this book. I frankly believe that as the copyright is held by a corporation, then to that degree the author has undone himself, in effect becoming a team, and he has paid the price for it.
Even so, the Korda trademark has produced a readable, responsible, and credible treatment of a man whose personality was so comprised and composed that the unique and ineradicable impression he made on others has survived intact for a century and a half.
[Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee, by Michael Korda (New York: HarperCollins Publishers) 785 pp., $40.00]