Allen Guelzo's new book is a biography of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and as Guelzo himself makes clear, his book is the latest in a very, very long line of similar works. Full-length hagiographies of the man began appearing almost immediately after his death in 1870. John Esten Cooke called him “wholly good and sincere,” and Emily Virginia Mason called him a model of self-restraint and self-denial. And the tradition has continued almost unabated, with most historians citing Douglas Southall Freeman's four-volume work in the 1930s as the definitive study, overwhelmingly detailed.

Guelzo, author of an excellent 2013 book on the Battle of Gettysburg, is acutely aware that times have changed. Robert E. Lee was a slave owner, a slave master, and a traitor to the United States he'd sworn to serve—and the 21st century is far less willing to overlook those things than was the 20th or the 19th. Guelzo faces these aspects of his subject squarely, immediately acknowledging the “moral and political evil” that was at least as important a part of Lee as was his widely-noted courtesy and widely-touted military genius. The more he probed the standard picture of Lee, the more human flaws Guelzo found. The picture of “straightforward, well-nigh angelic serenity” began to show cracks.

The biography that results from this tempered, cautious approach reads like no other Lee biography ever written. This is a Lee biography that's doggedly insistent on finding worth in the man while also being unflinchingly aware of the extremely polarized political atmosphere surrounding issues of both racism and insurrection. As Guelzo notes, the riot that erupted in Charlottesville in August 2017 was sparked initially by calls to remove a statue of Lee from one of the city's parks. (Guelzo's assertion that Lee himself would have condemned the rioters, despite sharing some of their ideologies, is almost certainly correct.)

The book presents a remarkably fleshed-out portrait. Readers come to know the civilian Lee—in love, in business, and in the ruthless administration of his slave-estate at Arlington—as well as the military Lee, the tactical daredevil who earned a reputation during the Civil War for outwitting his opponents time after time, until his own audacity caught up with him in the catastrophic losing gamble that was Gettysburg. This is a nervous Lee, a self-doubting Lee, and an occasionally catty Lee; it's fascinatingly warts-and-all.

Casting Lee only in terms of contradictions—either saint or sinner, either simple or pathological—Guelzo contends, does little justice to the man or the moment. Lee's 2021 critics will contend that his sins are too great to warrant such a nuanced approach. Guelzo ultimately calls for mercy in our prosecution of the past.


“Robert E. Lee: A Life”

by Allen C. Guelzo

Knopf, 2021

585 pages