Americans don’t quite know what to think about Robert E. Lee. He emerged from the Civil War as the most beloved figure in the South for his remarkable leadership of the undermanned and undersupplied Army of Northern Virginia. By the twentieth century, he had become a hero to all Americans — Southerners and Northerners alike. President Woodrow Wilson believed the achievements of Lee were a “conscious model to men who would be morally great.”
More recently, our view of his legacy has changed. After the horrific Charleston church massacre, we began to reconsider our veneration of Confederate leaders. Robert E. Lee has been the most famous of all of those being reconsidered and his memory was a focal point of the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, last weekend.
Having recently written a book of my own on Robert E. Lee, I thought it might be helpful to compile a list of seven essential books about the general-in-chief of the Confederacy.
1. R.E. Lee by Douglas Southall Freeman
Freeman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning, four-volume account of Lee remains the gold standard among the numerous biographies of the general. A formidable worker, Freeman tirelessly covers everything of importance and clearly narrates the crucial battles of the Civil War.
Freeman is unabashedly devoted to Lee and is extremely biased in his opinions, however. Indeed, one could easily argue that this fine work also helped further the myth of the saintly Robert E. Lee. For example, Freeman tends to avoid unpleasant topics like slavery and Reconstruction. He also believed Lee would have been successful at Gettysburg, if not for the insubordination of General Longstreet. Overall, Freeman presents the most flattering portrait of Lee possible.
Despite all of the hagiography, this remains an essential work for anyone interested in Lee’s role in American history. There is a one-volume abridgement of this biography available, but I’d recommend reading one of the four volumes in its entirety, if time is an issue.
2. Robert E. Lee: A Biography by Emory Thomas
This is the best one-volume biography of Lee. Thomas is far more balanced than Freeman, and offers fascinating material about Lee’s parents and private life in general. I found his discussion of Lee’s father, Light-Horse Harry Lee, particularly interesting. If you’ve never read anything about Lee, then this might be a great choice for getting started. Thomas is quite effective in presenting the real person and not the myth that emerged in the decades after Lee’s death in 1870.
3. The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society by Thomas Connelly
This book questions the Lee cult that developed in both the North and South in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Connelly explores the creation of the Lee myth and tries to sort out what’s true and what’s not. “Marble Man” is especially relevant for contemporary readers. How did a traitor to his country become an American icon? Connelly tries to answer that question. Admirers of Lee will find this book provocative.
4. Lee Considered by Alan T. Nolan
Nolan is even tougher in his assessment of Lee than Connelly. Nolan starts with the premise that Lee was a good man whose actions have been distorted beyond all recognition. He then subjects the historical record to a withering cross-examination. Nolan asks: Why did Lee commit treason? Did he really oppose slavery? What did he do to unite the nation after the war? Some of Nolan’s answers might anger devotees of Lee. It’s difficult, however, to criticize his logic and methods. You won’t be able to put this book down once you get started.
5. Reading the Man by Elizabeth Brown Pryor
Pryor had access to numerous unpublished documents from Lee’s descendants. She then used this invaluable material to provide a more complete and realistic portrait of the man.
Pryor provides new insights on his decision to resign from the army in 1861, and offers a more honest account of Lee’s involvement with slavery throughout his life. Published in 2007, Pryor’s work has become essential for scholars of Lee. Sadly, Ms. Pryor passed away recently in a car accident in Richmond, Virginia.
6. Personal Reminiscences of General Robert E. Lee by J. William Jones
The documents for this important collection were originally intended for an official biography of Lee. When that book was abandoned, Jones published all of the documents along with accompanying observations and anecdotes. Lee’s wife approved of the project.
The hagiography here exceeds that of Freeman, but it’s an essential collection of primary source material. Jones knew Lee personally and had access to all of his private papers.
7. Recollections and Letters of Robert E. Lee by Captain Robert Edward Lee
This collection of documents was compiled by Lee’s youngest son. There’s a lot of excellent material here on Lee’s family life and activities after the war. While Captain Lee clearly adores his father, he’s quite good at selecting the most interesting and relevant documents. And his commentary seems accurate and illuminating, even though it was written several decades after his father’s death.
Update: My book, The Lost Indictment of Robert E. Lee: The Forgotten Case Against an American Icon is now available on Amazon to pre-order.