Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters
Elizabeth Brown Pryor
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For the 200th anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s birth, a new portrait drawing on previously unpublished correspondence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 Over the past several years historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor has uncovered a rich trove of unpublished Lee materials that had been held in both private and public collections.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.
under his orders Jackson narrowly beat Union field commander Nathaniel P. Banks at Cedar Mountain in early August. He failed to drive the Federals out of northern Virginia, however. Determined to face Pope on a field of his own choosing, Lee again sent J. E. B. Stuart on a breathless raid, this time behind the Union lines toward their supply depot at Catlett’s Station. As so often happened, luck followed Stuart’s showy movements. Stuart lost his flamboyant hat during this campaign, but he
the war news and the whereabouts of her family, Richmond was a good, if uncomfortable, perch. The city was like a swollen sponge, seeping refugees. With the arrival of the Confederate government and thousands of persons fleeing from real or perceived Yankee atrocities, the population doubled in the first year of the war. The huge internal migration was one of the Confederacy’s most difficult social problems, adding to the desperation of its defense and the difficulties of morale. The number of
fortitude” of the survivors of so many hard-fought battles. More than “Dixie” or the “strange wild cry of the rebel yell,” his General Orders No. 9 would be a permanent expression of the bond between Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, and the common drama they had experienced. Whatever strength the men had taken from the indomitable will of their commander, Lee had been doubly inspired by their own. With this in mind he prepared to wage perhaps his greatest campaign, as he led his defeated
himself said that she tried to talk him out of a military life and opposed his going to West Point. REL to Mary Anna Randolph Custis, May 13, 1831, in deButts, “Yours Forever.” Dederer, “In Search of the Unknown Soldier,” pp. 89-90; and Freeman, R. E. Lee, 1:23. 57. REL to “My dear Sir,” Lexington, Va., November 20, 1865, in REL Letterbook, #3, LFP-VHS. 58. The William E. West copy of Gilbert Stuart’s portrait is at Washington and Lee University. 59. Much has been made of these visits to
through the spokes to render them useless, and wheat cradles destroyed so that the large ripening crop in the fields could not be harvested. Only the charity of the Carter women, who personally nursed wounded Yankees on their property, saved the exquisite house from the torch. See MCL to Mrs. W. H. Stiles, Richmond, July 6, 1862, Eliza Mackay Stiles Papers, GHS; and Louise Humphreys Carter Reminiscences, Shirley, June 20, 1905, typescript, DSF-LC. 8. For an example of comments on Annie’s