Lee’s Fault

John Reeves reviews Allen C Guelzo's new biography of Robert E. Lee.

Lee’s Fault

Robert E. Lee: A Life by Allen C. Guelzo. Knopf. 608 pages.

SHORTLY AFTER the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, Colonel Robert E. Lee met with his mentor General Winfield Scott. “If you purpose to resign,” Scott told Lee, “it is proper you should do so at once.” Lee replied, “General, the property belonging to my children, all they possess, lies in Virginia. They will be ruined if they do not go with their state. I cannot raise my hand against my children.” Two days later, Lee sent a letter to Scott announcing his resignation from the United States Army.

In his much-anticipated new book, Robert E. Lee: A Life, Allen C. Guelzo shows how this meeting, as narrated by one of Scott’s staff officers, helps us better understand why Lee fought for the Confederate States of America. It wasn’t solely about his duty to Virginia. Lee was perhaps more concerned about his obligations to his family. He worried that Arlington — a 1,100-acre estate that would someday be inherited by his oldest son — might be seized by a secessionist Virginia government if Lee took command of the United States Army. And the Virginia authorities might confiscate the properties of his two younger sons as well. Lee also considered the interests of his rather large extended family throughout Virginia. “From birth, Lee inhabited a thick network of cousinage,” Guelzo writes, “including at least eighty other individuals and a lifetime of peregrinations from one extended-relative estate to another.”

A leading Civil War historian and the best-selling author of Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, Guelzo provides an insightful portrait of Lee’s somewhat dysfunctional family. His father, Light Horse Harry Lee, had a profound influence on the future Confederate commander, even though he abandoned his six-year-old son by absconding to the West Indies in 1813. Light Horse Harry, a former Revolutionary War hero, had shamefully been sent to debtors’ prison from 1809 to 1810 and continued to struggle with debts and poor financial decisions prior to leaving his family. “[I]t was Lee’s determination to not be Light Horse Harry,” Guelzo believes, “that fired his impatience and, in later years, his ferocious outbursts of temper at his own and others’ imperfections.” Robert also had a half-brother, ignobly nicknamed “Black Horse Harry,” who committed adultery with his sister-in-law while also misappropriating the young woman’s inheritance. Behind the “marble model” facade Robert displayed to the public was a man with a surprisingly scandalous family life.

Guelzo’s assessment of Lee as a military leader is convincing. He argues — correctly in my opinion — that Lee’s celebrated “audacity” can best be comprehended as a logical response to the strategic dilemma faced by the Confederacy. Lee agreed with his corps commander, Stonewall Jackson, who said, “We cannot stand a long war […] a protracted struggle would wear the South out. […] [W]e had but one hope, and that was to press the Federals at every point, blindly, madly, furiously.” This belief guided Lee’s decision to invade the North in June 1863. Prior to the Battle of Gettysburg, Lee wrote, “the Federal army, if defeated […] would be seriously disorganized […] and it would very likely cause the fall of Washington City and the flight of the Federal Government.”

As the remnants of George Pickett’s men trickled in from their unsuccessful charge on the third day at Gettysburg, Lee greeted them by saying, “It is all my fault.” Guelzo argues, however, that Gettysburg was not all Lee’s fault. His corps commanders — A. P. Hill, Richard Ewell, and James Longstreet — made costly mistakes during the three days. “What was Lee’s fault,” Guelzo concedes,

was his determination to press into battle anyway, because none of those other failures seemed to amount to much in his mind when set beside the dreadful record of incompetence the Army of the Potomac had manifested up to this point and the invincibility he attributed, if not to his officers, then to the men in the ranks.

Guelzo wonders if Lee expected too much of his soldiers during the Civil War. Despite all the endless criticism of the Confederate effort at Gettysburg, Guelzo adds, “Lee had actually come perilously close to exactly the success he had hoped for.”

Guelzo’s evaluation of Lee’s military performance is more persuasive than his examination of Lee’s attitudes toward the South’s peculiar institution. “Slavery was, for Robert E. Lee, an abstraction,” Guelzo writes. “’[I]ts three and a half million victims were personally invisible, despite their presence all around.” He concludes, “Indifference to slavery is not quite the same thing as its active embrace and promotion, but not by much.”

But it’s hard to believe that slavery was an “abstraction” for Lee. As the executor of his father-in-law’s estate, he optimized the value of his “human assets” by hiring them out, a practice that was considered terribly cruel even for the time. And he went to court to try to retain those slaves, past the time allotted by the will, to pay legacies that his father-in-law had willed to his daughters. Lee may have professed a theoretical dislike of slavery on occasion, but his rhetoric frequently did not match his actions.

In 1866, Wesley Norris — a former slave from the Arlington estate — gave an account of a brutal whipping that Lee ordered in 1859: Lee had urged the constable to “lay it on well.” Of Lee’s involvement Guelzo writes, “[I]t is difficult to avoid the conclusion that when his fury had cooled, he was sickened at himself, as much for the damage done to his own self-image as for the cruelty inflicted on the three fugitives.” Such a flattering view of Lee isn’t supported by the evidence. After the incident, Lee hired out Wesley Norris, who ended up in Alabama, which was contrary to the Virginia circuit court’s guidance. On the eve of the Civil War, almost every enslaved family at Arlington had been broken up. After the war, a reporter for the Independent wrote that the slaves at Arlington remembered “Gen. Lee as a cold-blooded, exacting military master.”

In his epilogue, Guelzo writes, “[L]ess was heard after Charlottesville about Lee and treason than about Lee and white supremacy.” For many of Lee’s critics, however, his white supremacy was intricately connected to his treason. Lee’s decision to fight on behalf of the Confederate States of America meant he was defending a new republic literally founded upon the institution of slavery. His inability or unwillingness to admit that publicly doesn’t make it any less true.

Recent writers have emphasized the connection between Lee’s treason and his racial attitudes. Ty Seidule, author of Robert E. Lee and Me, writes that Lee “committed treason to preserve slavery. After the Civil War, former Confederates, their children, and their grandchildren created a series of myths and lies to hide that essential truth and sustain a racial hierarchy dedicated to white political power reinforced by violence.” And Lee’s decision was abnormal too, according to Seidule. In 1861, of the eight colonels from Virginia who had graduated from West Point, Lee was the only one to fight against the United States. Similarly, Adam Serwer, a columnist for The Atlantic, argues, “But even if one conceded Lee’s military prowess, he would still be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans in defense of the South’s authority to own millions of human beings as property because they are black.”

Guelzo concludes his mostly favorable appraisal of Lee by declaring, “Mercy — or at least a nolle prosequi — may, perhaps, be the most appropriate conclusion to the crime — and the glory — of Robert E. Lee after all.” I suspect many Americans are unwilling to offer “mercy” to Lee, who fought so long and so effectively for a cause described by Ulysses S. Grant as “one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”


John Reeves is the author of The Lost Indictment of Robert E. Lee and A Fire in the Wilderness: The First Battle Between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee.

LARB Contributor

John Reeves is the author of Soldier of Destiny: Slavery, Secession, and the Redemption of Ulysses S. Grant (2023) and A Fire in the Wilderness: The First Battle Between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (2021). He has taught European and American history at Lehman College, Bronx Community College, and London South Bank University. He lives in Washington, DC. You can learn more about him at john-reeves.com.


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