Robert E. Lee, Demythologized

posted in: Good Reads: Nonfiction | 0

Removing the statues of fallen heroes is one thing. Writing a thoroughly-researched, elegantly-written history that sets the record straight is another thing entirely. Brandon Miller’s 2019 biography of Robert E. Lee deserves praise for disentangling the man from the myth and bringing out his full humanity, both the praiseworthy and the dishonorable.


To begin with, Miller reminds us that “The Man” started life as a boy named, simply, Robert Lee. (The “E.” came later, as part of the hagiography.) He was an incredibly hard worker, driven to compensate for the failings of his father, both war hero and deadbeat. Miller provides illuminating details of his education at West Point, his early career in the Army Corps of Engineers, and his first battle experiences in Mexico. She shows how willing he was to undergo privation in the service of his country, yet so quick to disdain those less fortunate. Miller shares a dismissive phrase that she found more than once in the record. “They are not worth it,” he wrote, referring to Comanches or Mexicans or some other Other.


Miller’s section on the Civil War shows Lee at his best, though not without fallibility. The stress of war made him brittle–“Lee seldom bellowed at those around him; his anger shone forth as sarcasm, silent coldness, and a glare that chilled.”–and his military decisions were sometimes questionable. The post-war section shows Lee at his worst. It’s not just that he took stances that are objectionable to modern sensibilities. It was that he lacked the courage of intellectual honesty, falsely cloaked himself in principle, and never truly accepted responsibility for his own actions. These stances had large consequences. Robert E. Lee–both the man and the myth–gave cover to millions of Southerners who likewise shirked responsibility for decades. Knowingly or not, Lee collaborated in his own mythologization.


Brandon Miller has given young adult readers a mature biography that brings to life a subject who no longer convinces as a hero, a tragic figure, or even a principled statesman. To be clear, Miller is not engaged in iconoclasm, the toppling of metaphorical statues. She immersed herself in the documentary evidence and reported on what she found. It wasn’t always a pretty picture.

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