Sunday, October 05, 2008

Robert E. Lee (book review)

Robert E. Lee, by James I. Robertson Jr., is a biography of one of the most respected American figures in history. Robert E. Lee grew up in fancy Virginian society, and he associated himself with Virginia from the start. When Lee was only four, he was forced to leave his family's mansion due to his father's bad business dealings. However, he did have a good childhood, and became the chief servant for his mother, whose health was rapidly declining. Lee had as good a formal education as existed in Virginia during those times. But what to do next? He had no inheritance, and he didn't want to become a businessman. Young R.E. Lee decided to become a soldier.

In Spring of 1825, Lee was accepted into West Point. He became one of the most successful cadets at the academy. In his senior year, he held the highest status a West Point student could earn--he had no demerits. Lee graduated second in his class in the year 1829. He joined the Engineer Corps, the elite branch of the army.

In August 1846, Lee received orders to head to Texas to fight in the Mexican-American War. He became close friends with General Winfield Scott there, and they developed a kind of father-son relationship. Lee proved an excellent soldier, with his courage and determination, which helped the Americans to win major battles in Mexico.

But soon the war was over. In 1852, Lee became the superintendent of West Point. While he held this office, Lee was known for kindness. He did not enjoy disciplining students, and when a cadet was to be expelled, Lee always gave them a chance to resign first.

In March of 1861, Lee was asked to lead the U.S. Army against the secessionist Southerners. Lee politely refused the offer. He could never go against his native Virginia. After Virginia seceded, Lee was asked to command the "military and naval forces" of the state. Lee accepted the offer. Now he had to prepare his state for civil war. This proved a difficult job for Lee, but not impossible. When the Union attacked, his army drove them back.

For the majority of the next few years, it seemed that the South was winning. They had stunning victories at Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Second Bull Run, and Chancellorsville. The turning point occurred at a sleepy town in Pennsylvania--Gettysburg. Here Lee was badly defeated by a former West Point comrade, George Gordon Meade. And after Ulysses Grant assumed command of the entire Union army, there began a game of deadly hide-and-seek. Eventually Lee was driven out into the open, where Grant besieged him at Petersburg. Finally, in spring of 1865, Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. The Civil War was over.

Although this book mainly contains information about Lee's war years, it has one final chapter, about Lee as a national symbol. And that is what he remains to this day, despite the fact that his spectacular military genius was used against the Union. Maybe it is the fact that Lee was such a formal, kindly man. No matter what, we can all agree that Lee remains a great figure in American history, and he always will be.

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