Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee, by Michael Korda

Nine stars

Bring on the opposing view to the US Civil War during this forty days of biography reading, which takes me into the life of Robert E. Lee. Contrasting nicely with a previous biography of Ulysses Grant, I was permitted to see some of their similarities, while also noticing that the path leading them to Appomattox could not have been more different. Allowing Michael Korda to take the reader through the man and his personal divergent. The story ebbs and flows effectively, while permitting Lee to emerge as a person who is more than his Civil War infamy. Korda professes that Lee can be seen as a great man, a hesitant Confederate, and a tactical general, all while peppering the narrative with historical accounts of the war, which appeases the curious reader. A must-read, if only to offset the glory that many offer the Union leaders who paved the way to victory. Korda effective persuades the reader to take a second look at this man and his personal passions.

That Robert E. Lee was a man due respect might be a foreign concept to the reader, but Korda lays the groundwork to support this throughout his detailed narrative. Born to a father, Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee II, who had ties to General George Washington and offered his eulogy in 1799, Lee grew up acknowledging the importance of rules and structure. This helped shape Lee’s young life and turned him towards the military, while fostering a love for his home state of Virginia. Lee found himself turning to the structure of daily life, which pulled him towards West Point, where he was able to put his passions into action. Studying the military tactical tomes of Revolutionary leaders and learning of the still-fresh military action of Napoleon Bonaparte, Lee took these all into consideration, while honing his strong skills in surveying and engineering. Hard working and dedicated, Lee graduated and continued working for the military, though was without a war to keep the skills shape. Instead, he turned to working for the War Department, taking trips around the country and into Canada, as long as there were funds and an interest in scouting out these lands. Around this time, Lee also caught the eye of Mary Custis, the step-great-granddaughter of George Washington, which Korda uses to further support the fact that Lee had military glory all around him his entire life. Lee married Mary and they had seven children, all of whom Robert loved deeply. He sought to provide for them as long as he could and helped out whenever possible, eventually moving to live with Mary’s father, George Washington Parke Custis. The Lees lived in Arlington House, which would eventually become the most famous cemetery in the United States. While Lee was away, serving in various military efforts, he never forgot his family and penned letters as often as he could. Lee also returned to West Point as its Superintendent, helping to hone the skills of the next generation of cadets. Korda explores Lee’s passions throughout the tome, some of which were in line with his ancestors and superiors, while others could not have strayed more defiantly. At a time when statism was stronger than love of country, Lee held Virginia as his passion above a unified United States, which might have helped him turn to the South and the Confederacy. Even after the dust settled on the Civil War, Lee was held in such regard that he was offered the presidency of a university. His honour not left in tatters, Lee was a man of some regard and held his personal ideology through thick and thin, though did that include a blind love of all things confederate?

While Robert E. Lee has long been called an essential part of the Confederate Army, Korda delves deeper throughout the tome to explore just how ‘confederate’ he might have been. Surely a Virginian through and through, Lee wanted nothing more than to support his home state through any skirmish. Before any outbreak of war, Lee sensed the strong sentiment of slavery that was pulling at the fabric of the country. As Korda opens this book, he offers a detailed account of the 1859 insurrection at Harpers Ferry. Armed abolitionist John Brown sought to promote a slave rebellion at a farm compound in this small Virginia community. Lee was summoned there by President Buchanan and Secretary of War John B. Floyd. Pitting the US military against Brown, this lay the groundwork for what some have come to believe was Lee’s passion to suppress abolitionist ways. Lee is cited as saying, in the years when slavery and slave states became a political debate, that these activities were more a moral sentiment rather than one of politics. Lee referred to his religious and social upbringing to defend these opinions, though did not feel that legislatures or their leaders should be ensconcing the idea of ownership in laws. In essence, one might be led to believe that Lee felt the Union versus Confederate conflict was based less on the sentiment of permitting slavery than defending the land. When Virginia was balancing on the edge, Lee chose to defend his homeland to the death, though seems to have been sober in his thinking rather than stuck on rhetoric. As shall be discussed below, Lee’s choices might have shocked some, but it was surely a personal passion rather than a general acceptance of an ideology that saw Lee turn to the Confederates, thereby branding him in the same camp as Jefferson Davis and some of the Southern Democrats. Just as George Washington fought to protect the land on which he stood, Lee pushed his troops from Northern Virginia to clash with Grant, Sherman, and anyone else who might have crossed his path. Whatever his personal beliefs, Lee’s military leadership showed promise and attention to detail, making him a general equalled by few other men. 

That Lee was a sensational military man cannot be overshadowed by his lack of victory in the Civil War. As history has shown and Korda makes clear throughout, the momentum of the Confederate Army could not outlast the power of the Union’s attacks. However, Lee’s military prowess came from much work done as a soldier during the Mexican War in the 1840s, an international skirmish where many of the military greats of the Civil War cut their teeth. Lee saw the intricacies of war and the specifics of the Napoleonic virtue of troop dispersion to ensure victory in the face of a dedicated opponent tested regularly. Lee returned to Virginia victorious and sought to remain dedicated to the US Army. However, Korda makes clear that Lee was committed to an Army that had little hope of ever promoting him to general, with closer to two dozen men ahead of him in queue for promotion. Lee was also older than many, leaving him to wonder if he had any chance of ever winning his stars before having to retire. When called into service to quell the uprising at Harpers Ferry, Colonel Robert E. Lee led troops and made sure that John Brown was captured, if only to send him to the gallows, which lit an early fuse and helped Lincoln gain the White House in November 1860. With war about to erupt within the United States, Lincoln turned to Lee and offered him the role of Brigadier General and overseer of the entire Union Army. However, with Virginia not yet decided and potentially turning to the Confederacy, Lee declined, shocking Lincoln and many others in positions of authority. Lee watched Virginia side with the South and accepted a call by Confederate President Davis to lead the Army of Northern Virginia and pushed into the massacre that was the US Civil War. Korda paces a large portion of the book’s narrative through the various battles and campaigns of the war, ones that saw early victory for Lee and the Confederates, before Union soldiers pushed on and fought hard to overturn their humiliations. Core commanders bumbled some of Lee’s plans, leaving them to fall in the hands of Union leaders and perhaps turning the tide. As Union generals, including Grant and Sherman, pushed troops forward and smashed the Confederate army on two fronts, they eventually crushed the Confederate Government into submission. Korda pulls on the sentiments of many historians who list Lee as one of, if not the greatest generals of all time. Napoleon and Nelson are bandied about in the same sentence, where Grant is left to peer in from outside the tent. Be it his dedication in the face of defeat or the willingness to put his troops before himself, Lee rose above the foundation of the campaign in which he fought to surrender only with honour. While few military men who ended in defeat ever receive hero status, Lee is well deserving as a man of military dignity and dedication. He would live out his final years after Appomattox with one final position and died a hero, at least to some. 

Turning to Michael Korda and his presentation of Robert E. Lee, the reader can pull much from this detailed piece. Korda pulls few punches, neither painting Lee as a military saint nor a dastardly villain, as might have been the expectation of those captured and forced to surrender. He depicts Lee as a man who held his views and would not backdown until there was absolutely no chance for success. Looking at topics including love of family, slavery, Confederate politics, and military tactics, Korda weaves a powerful account of a man whose is synonymous with the Confederate Army. Was Robert E. Lee wrong in choosing to fight for the Confederacy, whose victory was anything but certain? Might Lee have been better to flee rather than be demoralised and embarrassed by the end of the War? Should Lee have stayed out of the War, lacking the passion held by Jefferson Davis? These are questions left for the reader to synthesise, though Korda offers much to open the discussion. With long and thought-provoking chapters, Korda segments Lee’s life into massive pieces and leaves the reader to push forward (as Confederate soldiers might have done?), at times getting lost in the minutiae. Citing historians, academics, and first hand sources to bring the narrative to life, Korda offers a wonderful view into some of America’s most interesting military manoeuvres. The reader might complement this tome with something that tells the other side (Sherman or Grant biography, perhaps?) to even out the story and depict the war as a two-sided affair. Korda’s attention to detail is second to none and provides the reader with a strong collection of ideas on which they might base a final verdict on Robert E. Lee. Might he rest alongside his step-great-grandfather by marriage as a great General in US history, or perhaps a man whose name should be tarnished alongside all the blood shed at his order over four years of horrible war that tore a country apart and is still only being held together with straining fault-lines? The jury is out, but the reader ought to cast their vote with confidence.

Kudos, Mr. Korda for this sensational piece. A wonderful addition to my biography marathon that allowed me to learn more about this American firmly rooted in history, you have made a fan out of me.

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