Review by Booklist Review
Note that the subtitle of this book is "a life," not "the life." This is not intended to be the definitive biography of the much-written-about commander of the Confederate States Army in the Civil War who was both a traitor and a patriot, a man of both dignity and violence. Instead, this is a thoughtful, measured, and deeply absorbing study of a man whose historical status depends on context: as a leader, he was a great man; as a defender of slavery, despicable. Guelzo (Gettysburg, 2013) paints a picture of Lee as a man whose family history haunted him throughout his life, as a trained engineer who had to learn how to be a military commander, and as a perfectionist whose own imperfections tortured him. It might have been easier simply to write a book that said Robert E. Lee was a villain and a traitor and that's all he was, but Guelzo's approach is far more nuanced and, ultimately, far more accurate and useful in its illumination of a key figure in this endlessly conflictful and impactful chapter in American history.
From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review
Historian Guelzo (Reconstruction: A Very Short Introduction) demystifies Robert E. Lee in this evenhanded and insightful biography. Guelzo highlights the shadow over Lee's life cast by his father, Henry, a Revolutionary War hero and Virginia politician who abandoned the family when Robert was six years old. Seeking to "perfect the imperfections" his father had visited on the family, Lee chose the security of a career in the U.S. Army. After graduating from West Point, he spent nearly two decades in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before first seeing combat in the Mexican-American War. Guelzo painstakingly analyzes Lee's refusal of an offer to command the Union Army and his acceptance, days later, of a commission to lead the Army of Northern Virginia, contending that Lee's desire to protect his family's property in Virginia played a key role in his decision. After a brisk recap of the Civil War, Guelzo hones in on Lee's fears of being indicted for treason, his successful tenure as president of what became Washington and Lee University, and the evolution of his historical reputation from the "Lost Cause" mythologizing of the early 20th century to the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. Deeply researched and elegantly written, this nuanced portrait captures Lee's "ambiguous place in American history." (Sept.)
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Review by Library Journal Review
Civil War historian Guelzo (Council of Humanities, Princeton Univ.; Reconstruction: A Concise History) paints a nuanced portrait of Confederate Army general Robert E. Lee (1807--70) in this superb biography. He posits that Lee spent his life attempting to pull himself from under the cloud of his father's legacy and abandonment. Lee graduated from West Point and sought a career in the U.S. Army for the reliable paycheck, to support his family. Guelzo follows Lee's career via his martial alignments: the Mexican-American War, where he saw combat; his resigning from the U.S. Army after Virginia's secession from the union; and eventually his leading the Army of Northern Virginia. Guelzo gives due consideration to Civil War history without getting bogged down in extraneous details. In a final section, about the mythology of the Lost Cause, Guelzo considers Lee's legacy and image in the context of contemporary white nationalist violence in Charlottesville, VA, and efforts to remove Lee's name and statues from U.S. cities. VERDICT Based on family letters and other primary documents, this fine biography is a must-read for Civil War enthusiasts and those interested in Lee's legacy.--Chad E. Statler, Westlake Porter P.L., Westlake, OH
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Review by Kirkus Book Review
The award-winning Civil War historian offers a fresh assessment of Robert E. Lee (1807-1870). Idolized during his lifetime, Lee remains a deeply admired figure to many Americans. Although worshipful biographies ruled until well into the 20th century, Princeton scholar Guelzo, a three-time winner of the Lincoln Prize, pays close attention to modern evaluations. The author portrays a "clear thinker" whose ideas "oscillated within the poles he had set up for himself of perfection, independence, and security." Lee was the son of Harry "Lighthorse Harry" Lee, a Revolutionary War hero and irresponsible spendthrift who abandoned his family when Robert was 6. Historians tend to agree that reacting against a feckless father explains why he remained obsessed with money and may explain why he entered West Point. Graduating in 1829, Lee spent 30 years as an engineering officer except for service in the Mexican War, during which his energy as a staff officer impressed Gen. Winfield Scott. By 1861, middle-aged and widely respected, Lee declined Scott's offer of command of Union armies and returned to Virginia to take charge of the state's military forces. For a year, his reputation suffered after unimpressive performances in minor actions until June 1862, when he assumed command of the army fending off George McClellan's Union forces advancing on Richmond and drove them into headlong retreat. Describing the iconic victories over the following three years, Guelzo praises Lee's martial talents but holds a low opinion of apologists who emphasize that he opposed both secession and slavery. Lee disliked rabid secessionists as much as abolitionists but went along with the popular Virginia assumption that the North had overreacted to the surrender of Fort Sumter and intended to wreak terrible revenge. He opposed slavery because it was morally repugnant, but he also believed that Blacks were inferior human beings. As a gentleman, he disapproved of mistreating them but hated Reconstruction and opposed efforts at Black equality. A fine biography of a flawed American icon. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.