Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters
Elizabeth Brown Pryor
Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub
For the 200th anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s birth, a new portrait drawing on previously unpublished correspondence
Robert E. Lee’s war correspondence is well known, and here and there personal letters have found their way into print, but the great majority of his most intimate messages have never been made public. These letters reveal a far more complex and contradictory man than the one who comes most readily to the imagination, for it is with his family and his friends that Lee is at his most candid, most engaging, and most vulnerable. Over the past several years historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor has uncovered a rich trove of unpublished Lee materials that had been held in both private and public collections.
Her new book, a unique blend of analysis, narrative, and historiography, presents dozens of these letters in their entirety, most by Lee but a few by family members. Each letter becomes a departure point for an essay that shows what the letter uniquely reveals about Lee’s time or character. The material covers all aspects of Lee’s life—his early years, West Point, his work as an engineer, his relationships with his children and his slaves, his decision to join the South, his thoughts on military strategy, and his disappointments after defeat in the Civil War. The result is perhaps the most intimate picture to date of Lee, one that deftly analyzes the meaning of his actions within the context of his personality, his relationships, and the social tenor of his times.
soldier, resplendent in gold-laced uniform; his taste for the active life; the change of scenery—and even the escape from family pressures—that the service offered. And so what Lee termed his “halting, vacillating course” continued. “A divided heart I have too long had,” he wrote as late as June 1860, “& a divided life too long led. That may be one cause of the small progress I have made on either hand.”59 Lee’s ambivalence toward the army carried over to the engineering work that was his
has always remained firmly vised in my memory.”114 This was the stuff of legend, and indeed, it was just such memories that created the first idolization of Lee. Historical hagiographers of the late nineteenth century would develop elaborate mythologies and instill (with remarkably lasting success) a regionwide hero worship, but the aura already existed for the Army of Northern Virginia. Officers might whisper that Lee was perhaps no longer the right leader for their cause—he was “too slow, too
copy in VHS; Causten Family Papers, Special Collections, Georgetown University; and Jones, Reminiscences of the Last Days. 46. CCL to Ann Hill Lee, Cambridge, January 31, 1819, AHA. 47. MCL to CCL, Lexington, August 1, 1870, EA-LC. We know that at least one person wrote to Ann Lee of Henry’s state in his final weeks; see James H. Causten to Ann Hill Lee, Baltimore, April 11, 1818, copy in VHS. 48. Those wishing to explore the trauma of childhood loss will find interesting Sigmund Freud,
Revolutionary War Memoirs, pp. 54–78; and CCL to Henry Lee, quoted in Sanborn, Portrait, p. 76. 13. Elizabeth Randolph to Ladonia Randolph and Mary B. Carter, Eastern View, April 25,. This and other letters expressing Elizabeth Carter Randolph’s strong missionary bent at the time Robert Lee was being educated at Eastern View are in SPP-RL. 14. See D. H. Conrad to Philip Fendall, October 11, 1859, Fendall Papers, DU; R. R. Gurley to MFC, Arlington, September 20, 1825, MCL-VHS; and Meade,
her a bonnet and dress and making it an occasion for the entire estate. They also allowed those “married” outside the property to visit regularly with their partners.16 The exception to this generally sympathetic approach came during the hiring process, when slave families were often broken up for years at a time. The Custises and Lees, as well as their overseers, appear to have been oblivious of the trauma this caused. Toward the end of the antebellum period, such insensitivity would have