CLOUDS OF GLORY: THE LIFE AND LEGEND OF ROBERT E LEE, by Michael Korda is a good biography and worth the read, but it does not quite hit the mark.
Robert E. Lee is a difficult subject for any biographer committed to being objective. Where does the man end and the legend begin? Perhaps no American has been mythologized to the degree Lee has. Perhaps no American has had such an effective and dedicated group of partisans creating, protecting and defending his legend as does Lee. As Mr. Korda writes in a chapter with the apropos title "Apotheosis" there is an, "...increasing and systemized transformation of Lee into a flawless, faultless symbol, in which the real man was rapidly overshadowed by the gleaming marble image." This apotheosis started well before Lee's death and has continued to this day.
Mr. Korda does make an attempt to present to his reader with an objective view point, and he succeeds to a greater degree than many of Lee's other biographers. But there are also large swaths of CLOUDS OF GLORY where objectivity seems lacking.
The narrative around Harper's Ferry and Lee's role in subduing John Brown was one of the strongest portions of the book. However it was plucked form the middle of Lee's life and made into a preface. After finishing the Preface I wondered what would be left to tell about Harper's Ferry and, indeed there was nothing, Mr. Korda never addresses it within the context of Lee's life. The reader is deprived of seeing in close proximity Lee the suppressor of rebellion and Lee the leader of rebellion.
The strongest part of the book is the chapter which deals with Gettysburg and not coincidentally it is the chapter that is most objective. Gettysburg seems to be the fulcrum of the book (and why not?). Because of the way Mr. Korda foreshadows Gettysburg in the narrative the reader can sense him steeling himself for the unpleasant task of explaining Lee's great failure. And to his credit he does.
The objective historian must, in my opinion, concede two things about Gettysburg: 1) Lee's mistakes on the third day of the battle sealed the fate of the Confederacy and 2) Lee's lieutenant, General James (Pete) Longstreet's account of the battle is more accurate than that of the Lee partisans. Mr. Korda not only concedes both points but makes a convincing case for each.
Unfortunately, Mr. Korda does not maintain that same standard throughout. Robert E. Lee was a great general, there can be very little argument about that. His greatness as a general came from his ability to read his opponents and having the audacity to act and commit his army to daring and unconventional tactics based on what he read in the Generals he faced.
He had taken George McClellan's measure long before either man commanded an army and he read like a book, in succession, each Union general he faced right up to the time Grant took command of the Union Armies. When that happened the roles were somewhat reversed, Lee never demonstrated that he understood Grant like he did his other opponents, while Grant seemed to understand Lee from the very beginning.
There is a discordant tinge of pettiness in Lee's postwar claims that McClellan was the best General he had faced. That claim cannot, on any level, be taken seriously. It is not a stretch to say that until Grant took command of the Union Armies, every general Lee faced in a battle was subpar, at least as a battle field commander.
Grant suffers by comparison to Lee in this book and since this is a biography of Lee, that is probably to be expected. But objectivity requires some acknowledgment that in Grant, Lee for the first and only time in the Civil War, faced a general who had claim to being a great general and battlefield commander.
Lee proved on the battlefield that he was a great general, but he never proved that he was a better general than Grant. Grant's Vicksburg Campaign was as bold and audacious as anything Lee did and in the end, because it caused the surrender of an army, divided the Confederacy into two unconnected pieces and gave the Union "unvexed" control of the Mississippi, it was more successful than any of Lee's campaigns.
Mr. Korda never acknowledges that in Grant, Lee met his match.
Another flaw in this biography is also a flaw common to every Lee biography I have read. Each author, including Mr. Korda, goes to great lengths to explain that Lee's resignation from the U.S. Army and his accepting of a commission in the rebel armies was a matter of honor. This point is the bedrock upon which the entire edifice of the Lee Legend rests. Mr. Korda uses one of Lee's most famous quotes to make the point, he writes, "To Custis, he wrote almost in despair: `I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than the dissolution of the Union. . . . I am willing to sacrifice everything but honor for its [the Union's] preservation...'"
The unacknowledged problem with Lee accepting a commission in the rebel armies is that Lee as a member of the U.S. Army took an oath to defined the United States "against all enemies, foreign and domestic." Wasn't he honor bound, apart from any personal feeling or allegiances, to keep that oath? Is it not the purpose of that oath to protect the United State and the constitution from exactly the thing that Lee did? Can an oath be resigned as easily as a commission? If so, why even have an oath?
I have always seen this as the tragic flaw in Lee's honor narrative. Yet Mr. Korda and every other Lee biographer, of which I am aware, ignore it as though Lee did not swear the oath or that it was of no consequence.
Finally, Mr. Korda seems at certain points to turn the narrative over to Douglas Southall Freeman, Lee's most famous biographer, who was indeed a magisterial writer. However, if I had wanted Mr. Freeman's take on Lee I would have simply reread his biography on the man. In places it feels like Mr. Korda does not trust his own historical judgments and in other places it is as though he does not trust his ability to match Mr. Freeman's eloquence (which indeed, is hard to match). For me it lessened Mr. Korda's credibility both as a writer and a historian.
I opened CLOUDS OF GLORY: THE LIFE AND LEGEND OF ROBERT E LEE with high hopes and closed it somewhat disappointed. Nevertheless it is a good book and will be enjoyed by Civil War buffs and Lee aficionados alike.