Review of a New Book: Allen Guelzo on Robert E. Lee

by Nov 30, 2021Books, Worldview5 comments

Robert E. Lee: A Life, by Allen C. Guelzo.

Complicating current efforts to remove any monuments honoring Robert E. Lee, there was a genuine nobility in the man that everyone—his friends, foreign journalists, even his Northern abolitionist opponents—often recognized. Upon his death, not many years after the war, encomiums from the North were easy to be found.

Complicating perpetual efforts to lionize Lee, he opposed secession and slavery alike and seemed—in Guelzo's expert telling—to fight on the side of the South mainly to protect his children's inheritance at Arlington, an inheritance the war effectively removed from them.

Also: it was precisely Lee's nobility that was most used by Southern promoters of the Lost Cause mythology to nurse grievances which for at least a century have helped perpetuate injustices against blacks there. Lee became a symbol of the supposedly noble effort of the South to defend itself against a strong centralized power in a federal government and therefore against "Northern aggression." This is the most valuable lesson I learned from Guelzo's Lee biography. Guelzo dwelt on some of the photographs of Lee, describing the air he gave off in each. These comments were important, I realized, because those images of a proper gentleman with both a humble and a regal bearing became rebel flags of their own. And Lee, though he affected an apoliticality, came to nurse his own private grievances—grievances he shared in burning letters to a few confidantes—after the war. I knew that Lee had retired to Washington (now Washington-Lee) University; I've been to the campus, and my own father was offered a scholarship there (that he did not take). I thought Lee had tried to accept the outcome of the war, and to a measure he did. But to a measure he didn't. And that measure has had a lasting negative effect on our country.

Also: there was something sad and occasionally brittle about Lee's nobility. Brittle because it could break: he infamously had some escaped slaves whipped brutally, slaves he was legally obligated to manumit within a short time. Sad because a great deal of Lee's nobility, in Guelzo's telling, stemmed from the departure and failures of his father, Light Horse Harry Lee. Son Robert was determined not to be like absentee, spendthrift father Harry. What an effect a father's absence can have on a child, and even on a nation.

Also: I've given a lot of thought to sins of epistemology. Someone in the North, I believe, commented shortly after Lee's death that he had sinned against a great deal of light. I believe this is true, now that I've read Guelzo. Lee made specific comments about slavery and secession before the war that show he knew the South's cause was, overall, morally wrong. And yet he took up arms as a traitor to the nation he himself had long faithfully served as an officer. He didn't see with the moral clarity of a Lincoln.

We today need to see with that same specifically Lincolnian Christian and theological clarity. I'm not saying that Lincoln was a true Christian, anymore than Lee was (Guelzo drops many hints that Lee was more of a cultural than an actual Christian). I am saying that Lincoln's second inaugural tried to burn some Christian truths into the American soul that absolutely must remain there:

Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.

I've always felt that the second sentence is the one line in Lincoln's unbelievably eloquent and beautiful address is a bit disingenuous. It sure seems as though he is rendering a judgment in that line about wringing their bread from the sweat of slaves: "It may seem strange" indeed! But I've read several books on Lincoln, including an excellent one by none other than Alan Guelzo, and even if Lincoln had a belief in God's providence that bordered on fatalism, there is nonetheless an important note of charity and humility in that statement. Of course, we must judge as the Bible judges. That line Lincoln quotes from the Sermon on the Mount cannot mean that we give up all temporal moral judgment. The South's race-based chattel slavery system was wicked and evil. I think it means, in part, that we must accept that final judgment is in the hands of God, as Lincoln goes on to say. He has his own purposes. That ought to humble us, to keep us from overly harsh judgments in the here and now. And one of God's designs, for reasons I cannot even partially know, was apparently to give a special and noble leader to the losing and immoral side in the Civil War—as a reminder, perhaps, that (to use the words of Solzhenitsyn) the line between good and evil doesn't have anything to do with Mason or Dixon.

Lincoln also said in that justly famous second inaugural address,

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Lee did this—uncertainly, and with halting steps, some taken backwards. And I come to the end of Guelzo's biography of Lee with some genuine appreciation and gratitude and admiration for Lee's virtues. Justice requires that those who, understandably in my opinion, wish to remove statues of General Lee acknowledge those virtues, to ask God to give them to see the right as they reevaluate his legacy. Lee's nobility was sad and sometimes brittle, but it was real. If he descended into some bitterness after the war, he nonetheless did not openly stoke more rebellion and discontent but urged others to maintain the union. If he defended slavery with arms against moral light he'd been given, he nonetheless took his father-in-law's command (in his will) to free his slaves as a holy charge—even though, as Guelzo points out, he could have easily gotten a Virginia court to let him keep the slaves. If he let himself in his final years start to become a symbol of a dangerous mythology, he could not have seen all the bitter fruit we see from "the South will rise again."

I'm committed to a biblical view of the world in which we are all created, fallen, and redeemable in Christ. I am created, as was Lee, so I have some virtues as did Lee. I am fallen, as was Lee, so I have significant faults, as did Lee. I am redeemed in Christ; all my sins have been washed away. Lee was given that same opportunity; I do not know if he availed himself of it. God will render final judgment, but insofar as I am called upon to give my judgment, I say that Lee is a tragic figure in whom we can discern good and evil.

By the way, I was born very close to Arlington; my father was born in that very district. My father attended Washington-Lee high school, now Washington-Liberty high school. My father was fed the Lost Cause mythology as a child from his grandparents, though he self-consciously rejected it and refused to pass it on to me. But my middle name, passed down through generations of my Southern family, is Lee.

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  1. Mike Gratis

    A very interesting read, especially since my family (Ohler, on Dad’s side) fought and died in the Civil War, and I’ve always been very interested in American History.

  2. Robert Vaughn

    I enjoyed your post on the Robert E. Lee book, though at times I wasn’t sure what to make of it — sounded more like your own musings on R. E. Lee than a book review.
    Sincerely, from a guy with not only the middle name but also the first.

    • Mark Ward

      All the musings are based on the book, fwiw!

  3. Paul Himes

    I recently finished reading Michael Korda’s biography of Lee, Clouds of Glory, and I feel it has that same balance of respecting the man’s nobility without glossing over his flaws,.

    • Mark Ward

      I admit to reading nearly nothing else on Lee, no books, anyway. My opinion is based solely on Guelzo’s biography.