Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters
Elizabeth Brown Pryor
For the 200th anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s birth, a new portrait drawing on previously unpublished correspondence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 Over the past several years historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor has uncovered a rich trove of unpublished Lee materials that had been held in both private and public collections.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.
Opportunity to work with Winfield Scott, who was the chairman.4 When Jefferson Davis, then secretary of war, ordered him in 1852 to become superintendent, Lee again tried to decline. This time he was not successful, though he sent three letters requesting a different assignment.5 When it appeared he would have to follow the orders, he wrote an uncharacteristically whining letter to his old comrade, P. G. T. Beauregard. He called it an “ill wind…that is driving me toward W.P.,” and lamented “the.
Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977) , pp. 100–101; and William Burke to Rev. R. R. Gurley, Algashland, February 9, 1867, MCL-VHS. 77. Daniel Feller, The Jacksonian Promise: America 1815–1840 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), p. 61; Beyan, The American Colonization Society, pp. 2–3; Douglas R. Egerton, “‘Its Origin Is Not a Little Curious’: A New Look at the American Colonization.
P. 465. 77. REL to EAL, Lexington, Va., November 16, 1865; to MCL, Lexington, November 21, 1865; and to EAL, Lexington, Va., December 5, 1865, all DE-LC. 78. REL to WHFL, Lexington, Va., November 15, 1867, GBL-VHS. Other examples of overt matchmaking for his sons are in REL to Col. Chas S. Venable, Lexington, Va., March 8, 1866, Minor-Venable Papers, UVa; and REL to REL Jr., August 1867, quoted in Nagel, Lees of Virginia, p. 290. 79. Zimmer, ed., Housekeeping Book, p. 51; Mittie Williams.
Grant, The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, 13 vols., ed. John Y. Simon (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982), 10:110–11n. 69. Again, numbers are never fast, but estimates show Lee had about 75,000 troops to the Union’s 83,000. Wagner et al., Civil War Desktop Reference, p. 282. 70. Ewell quoted in Donald C. Pfanz, “Richard Stoddert Ewell,” ANB 7:641. Lee also reportedly criticized Ewell after the war: see Allan, “Memoranda of Conversations,” pp. 11, 14–15, 18. 71. Allan,.
Demerit. After graduating first in the class, Mason left the army and had a distinguished career as a federal judge and the commissioner of patents. Years later he would have reason to look wistfully at the comparative success of his rival. “General Lee is winning great renown as a great captain,” Mason confided to his diary in 1864. “Some of the English writers place him next to Napoleon and Wellington. I once excelled him and might have been his equal yet perhaps if I had remained in the army.