Archive | July, 2018

Review of Robert E. Lee: A Life, by Roy Blount, Jr.

31 Jul

As evidenced by the several entries in this blog on Robert E. Lee, (review of Clouds of Glory, review of Confederate Commander, review of Lee in War and Peace, review of The Last Years, Touring Lee Chapel) I have always been interested in the life and legend of the Confederate leader. In what I would like to think is more a clear indication of my young inquiring mind than a first gleaming of my inner history nerd, I can remember back in elementary school having to give a presentation in front of the class on the life of a famous figure; I chose Lee. In the years since I have read most of the prominent modern biographies of the man. These range from Douglas Southall Freeman’s landmark four-volume series (Lee) published over eight decades ago to Charles B. Flood’s intriguing study of Lee’s postwar years a college superintendent (Lee: The Last Years). Along the way I have also perused detailed studies of Lee as revealed in images (Robert E. Lee: An Album, by Emory Thomas) and studies of his generalship in various actions too numerous to mention.


All this certainly does not mean that I am an expert on the subject of Lee’s life, but it does indicate that I have seen pretty much every characterization of him by historians in the last century; paragon of virtue, despicable racist, military genius, tactless butcher, warm and friendly, cold and aloof; everyone has an angle. Despite mountains of research into every bit of minutia of the man’s life, dissections of every letter and note he ever wrote that is known to exist, and hundreds of thousands of words chronicling his actions, the truth is that our understanding of Lee has not really changed all that much in the past 100 years. We just understand his motivations differently. For most people with any familiarity with American history the “Marble Man” as famously depicted in Thomas Connally’s noted biography with the same name, endures with good reason. The more we know about Lee, the more he remains frustratingly distant, possessed of a consuming commitment to duty as he perceived it in both private and public matters. He may not be regarded as quite as noble as he once was owing to modern society’s sudden realization that he may indeed have lived in a time in which slavery was practiced, but his rigid self-control and grim endurance of whatever uncomfortable situation in which he found himself—and he found himself in plenty at home and on the battlefield—still combine to leave him as something other than a run-of-the-mill mortal to most. Like him or despise him, most will agree that Lee seems to have been different from his contemporaries. How to explain this difference has proved to be an extraordinarily elusive pursuit.

I do believe that acclaimed journalist Roy Blount Jr. may have come as close as anyone ever has to explaining, or at least making a convincing case for an understanding, what made the man tick, though. Coming in at under 200 pages, Blount’s relatively short biography, Robert E. Lee: A Life, is less a chronicle of the noted leader’s thoroughly documented life than an attempt to describe what it was that really drove him. It is a lively, entertaining, and enlightening read which is frequently humorous, sometimes irreverent, but consistently piercing in its analysis. Originally published in 2003, the book has undergone multiple reprintings and remains one of the most popular biographies of its subject.

Blount delves deep into Lee’s youth in his quest to determine what it is that makes Lee so enduring, discovering through a bit of what one might term psychoanalysis what he believes may at the core of one of the most famously stoic personalities in all of American history. Blount apparently believes a great deal of Lee’s seeming aloofness can be traced back to the related traumatic experiences of seeing his father (erstwhile Revolutionary War hero Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee) publicly disgraced and financially ruined, and having an unusually high burden of responsibility for the care of his mother placed on him as a young man. Lee learned to quietly accept his lot and craved stability and order at an early age, always viewing the proper and honorable course as his only option so as to avoid disgrace and disappointment. Hence we so often read about the young West Point cadet accumulating astonishingly few demerits; the career soldier laboring for decades in obscurity and modest pay in various posts requiring long separations from his family; the anguished resignation of Winfield Scott’s handpicked commander of Federal forces from the army upon Virginia’s secession to join a cause he believed had little chance of success; the ailing senior citizen suffering from a host of physical ailments enduring privation in the field alongside his struggling army; and finally the defeated general encouraging his countrymen to put aside bitterness in the years after the Civil War. Lee seemed to almost revel in being uncomfortable, physically and emotionally, and choosing the most difficult course. Blount believes he was borderline depressive, committing himself to a standard of behavior few if any of his peers could convincingly model. He appears, as Blount writes, “to have been too fine for his childhood, for his education, for his profession, for his marriage, and for the Confederacy” (5).

Blount is no Confederate apologist, however. Far from overlooking Lee’s connection with slavery—the institution which is increasingly becoming the modern litmus test for relevance of all antebellum Americans—he rather forthrightly deals with it in several portions of the book. He finds, as most serious scholars usually do, that Lee was no diehard believer in the system of human bondage but neither was he an egalitarian capable of seeing black men as his fellow citizens. He was simply what might be called in his age a moderate on race whose adherence to a ridiculously rigid approach to life and natural ability as a leader of men, not his high idealism or transcendence, made him exceptional. The book is a marvel of insight, traveling extraordinarily well-trod ground with a fresh approach and written with journalistic flair. If you seek to truly understand one of the most famous and influential leaders in American history, as opposed to just following in his footsteps, you would do well to read this volume.


Touring Civil War Corinth

24 Jul

The city of Corinth occupied one of the most strategic positions in the entire western Confederacy during the Civil War. As the spot where one of the region’s primary north-south railroads, the Mobile and Ohio, and one its only east-west railroads, the Memphis and Charleston, crossed, its importance as a logistical and transportation center was obvious to both Confederate and Union authorities from the outset of the war. Corinth, “the vertebrae of the Confederacy” as some have called it, therefore became the special object of the contending armies at an early date. Confederates occupied and fortified the town prior to their advance on nearby Shiloh in the spring of 1862, only have Union troops take it from them following that battle. By early October, Confederate forces were poised for attempt to recapture the city and its critical railroad junction.

With an army of some 22,000 men under overall command of Gen. Earl Van Dorn, the Rebels moved on the fortified city occupied by Union Gen. William S. Rosecrans’  circa 23,000 Federals. Fighting began on an unusually hot and dry October 3rd as Van Dorn pushed Rosecrans’ men into their fortifications and attempted to encircle the town. The next day, the Confederates launched an all-out assault on several well-defended positions, suffering heavy casualties. Despite some portions of the Southern army briefly making their way into Corinth, Union forces were able to repulse their determined attack and compel the exhausted Rebels to withdraw. The fighting ended any serious attempt to regain territory already lost to Union forces in the region, and the city would remain in Union hands for most of the remainder of the war and never again figure so prominently in strategic planning.



Touring the Battle of Iuka

17 Jul

The Battle of Iuka
The Battle of Iuka, fought on September 19, 1862 in northeast Mississippi, was the first of two major clashes between Union and Confederate forces associated with the advance of Confederate armies in the western theater in the fall of 1862. General Braxton Bragg, leading an invasion into Kentucky at the time, had ordered Confederate forces under General Sterling Price to prevent Union General William Rosecrans from taking his army north into Tennessee. Rosecrans had in turn been ordered by his superior, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, to move to assault Price’s army and prevent it from moving to cooperate with Bragg. Hence, as the two armies lurched towards each other in the waning days of a hot summer, both had the intent of preventing the other from being able to support wider campaigning.

In the fight that ensued, an entire wing of the Federal army, under Maj. Gen. E.O.C. Ord, was never engaged and a potentially overwhelming Federal advantage in manpower was not brought to bear. Due to wind conditions and terrain, Ord, who had been ordered to advance when he heard the armies become engaged, was not aware the battle was taking place despite being only a few miles away. Fighting got underway near the small town of Iuka in earnest in the late afternoon of Sept. 19th and raged until early evening. Despite the relatively small forces engaged (4,500 men under Union General William Rosecrans and about 3,000 under Confederate General Sterling Price), the battle is remembered as one of the more fiercely fought for its size. At the end of a day of vicious close-quarters fighting, the Federal army suffered nearly a quarter of its strength in casualties and the Confederates nearly half.

Price proceeded to move towards a rendezvous with the Confederate army under Gen. Earl Van Dorn near Corinth, and Rosecrans moved to meet their advance on the city. The stage was set for the Battle of Corinth.








Touring the Battle of Shiloh

10 Jul

The Civil War battle of Shiloh has been the topic of numerous blogs on this website. We have written several book reviews (Conquer or Perish), (Bloody April), (Shiloh, 1862), anniversary comments and even a list of quotes relating to this crucial battle in the war’s western theater. Shiloh continues to captivate us and recently, Mike and I had the opportunity to tour the battlefield (again), but this time, we were fortunate to have scholar and former Shiloh historian Tim Smith accompany us. In three hours, Tim guided us through the park as he discussed the battle’s several phases, debunking many common conceptions of the battle such as the focus on the Hornet’s Nest and to my chagrin and horror, Bloody Pond. We wish we would have had more time!! We offer our thanks to Tim and I highly recommend getting a tour of a battlefield from a park ranger, scholar, or trained guide as it will provide you with a better understanding than following the park brochure which is designed for the common family of four.