Clouds Of Glory : The Life And Legend Of Robert E. Lee / Michael Korda

Back in August, I read a fascinating three volume history on the Civil War. Civil War, by Bruce Catton, followed the battle campaigns of the Army of the Potomac from 1861 into 1865. It described the engagements from the perspective of the North. Thinking I should examine the same ground from the Confederate viewpoint, I decided to read Clouds of Glory, a biography of Robert E. Lee. After all, he was the general who led the Army of Northern Virginia, the force opposing the Army of the Potomac, and which came close to winning the war a number of times.

Robert E. Lee was an individual much admired by friends and foes alike. As Korda shows, Lee was indeed a person worthy of the praise he has received during and after the Civil War. He was a devoted family man, a compassionate Christian, a person who so loved his home state of Virginia that he gave up his commission in the United States Army to defend the notion of states’ rights. Without a doubt, he was the preeminent military leader in the War Between the States. Despite having a much smaller and poorly equipped army, thanks to his leadership, the Army of Northern Virginia won numerous battles and stymied the Union forces for four years.

By today’s standards, Lee was no saint. While troubled by the issue of slavery, he did not actively oppose it. Rather, he hoped that with time the institution would fade away and the Black population in the South would be freed and sent back to Africa. To his credit, he did treat the slaves inherited from his father-in-law kindly and freed them in 1862. And while he had a love for the troops under his command, he seemed untroubled sending them into contests where he knew they stood a good chance of being slaughtered.

What was surprising to me was Lee’s accomplishments before the Civil War when serving in the United States Army. A graduate of West Point, he was an officer in the Corps of Engineers. Over the years, he served on major projects in Virginia, St. Louis, and New York City, as well as serving for a period as the Superintendent of West Point. In his various roles, he was in charge of rebuilding a military fortress, changed the course of the Mississippi River to insure St. Louis’s survival as a trading hub, and made important improvements to the harbor in New York City. He also won acclaim in the Mexican War, serving under the command of General Winfield Scott, where he proved his courage and skill on the battlefield.

What enriches this biography is the author’s portrayal of Lee’s interactions with the other generals under his command, such as James Longstreet and Andrew Jackson. Catton did a better job in his book of fully visualizing the actual battles in the War. While describing them briefly, Korda keeps the focus on Lee during these contests. The author’s major contention was that Lee hated confrontation with other generals under his command, and in the case of Gettysburg and other key battles, this fact led to the defeat of the army he led.

Clouds of Glory is an engaging read. With such a fascinating main character, how could it not be. Korda is not a historian, and that fact occasionally is a detriment. He chooses not to bog down his biography with frequent footnotes to validate his point of view. I found myself troubled when he occasionally cited Wikipedia as his source. Despite this, I found that most of what he presented as fact rang true to me. While I might not agree with most of Robert E. Lee’s political and cultural beliefs, I came away admiring the man himself.

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