A Review of Robert E. Lee: A Life by Allen C. Guelzo

By Paul Siedel
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2022, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger in April 2022.

In deference to the recent controversy concerning Robert E. Lee and his monuments, I decided to purchase a recent book by Allen Guelzo, a senior research scholar at the Council of Humanities at Princeton University. The title of the book is Robert E. Lee: A Life. Although I have read several biographies of Lee, in the past they tended to overlook many of the questions one may have, especially those questions concerning his decision to side with the Confederacy in 1861. The author does a tremendous amount of research concerning Lee’s boyhood, his appointment to West Point, his military career, his frustration with the U.S. Army, his stellar performance in the Mexican-American War, and finally his assault on John Brown at Harpers Ferry, Virginia in 1859.

Allen Guelzo

According to Dr. Guelzo, Lee was frustrated with the army and its supposed indifference to the plight of officers regarding promotion and the corresponding pay scale. But the army was a secure career, and that is what Lee desired most considering the financial insecurity that plagued his family after the departure of his father, Light Horse Harry Lee, although the author suggests that Lee may not have realized this. Furthermore, contrary to what most people believe, Robert E. Lee had trouble fitting into the Custis family. In fact, he never owned the Arlington estate across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. That estate was the property of Lee’s father-in-law, George Washington Parke (GWP) Custis, who was the grandson of Martha (Custis) Washington. After the death of GWP Custis in 1857, Lee was selected to be the executor of Custis’ will. In that will, Lee’s oldest son, George Washington Custis Lee, eventually became the owner of Arlington, and it was he along with his siblings who sued the federal government to obtain compensation for the estate, after it had been seized by the government and Arlington Cemetery had been laid out.

Mary, the daughter of GWP Custis and wife of Lee, had life estate, and each of the Lee daughters received a set amount of money when they reached the age of consent. Lee, himself, received nothing from his father-in-law, yet he was held responsible for the distribution of assets. Much of the Custis assets were in land and enslaved persons, but the enslaved individuals were to be manumitted within five years after the death of GWP Custis. However, Lee needed them to make the estate profitable so that there would be some actual wealth to distribute to his daughters. When GWP Custis died in 1857, he, like so many Southerners, was land-rich and cash-poor. When the manumission did not take place, the slaves began to leave anyway. Lee had several brought back to Arlington and “punished” severely. After the U.S. Army seized Arlington estate, the human property just melted away into the population of Washington, D.C.

According to the author, Lee’s decision to offer his services to the Confederacy is still pretty much a mystery. Lee decided to offer his services to Virginia, but his reasoning is unclear. Other Southerners, such as George Thomas and Montgomery Meigs, chose to stay with the U.S. Army, and their reasoning, as they, themselves, explained, is quite clear.

During the war Lee felt that the southern people did not give their all for the cause. Lukewarm and vacillating, they were very outspoken but slow to take up the cause when it came to sacrificing. Lee felt that the Confederacy needed to win in the short term or lose in the long run, thus creating in his mind the necessity for invading Maryland and Pennsylvania. He later stated that once the siege of Petersburg began, “the game was up.”

According to the author, Lee suffered two heart attacks during the war. By the time he surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia, he was physically a broken man. He lived at first with his family in a home of a friend in Richmond and then was offered a home named Derwent overlooking the James River just west of Richmond. While living there, he was approached by the board of trustees of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, and decided to take the position of president of the institution. By the end of the Civil War, the college had almost no money and only 93 students. Lee accepted the position of president and went to work creating a whole new institution. He became a first-class fundraiser, approaching such people as Cyrus McCormick, the New York lawyer Warren Newcomb, and Northern Democrats such as William Wilson Corcoran and George Peabody. An emphasis was put on mechanics, physical science, and modern languages. Greek and Latin were de-emphasized, and the faculty accepted such heavyweights as Richard Sears McCulloh, William Allen, and Edward Joynes.

With the influx of all this new money, scholarships were offered to orphans and veterans of the Confederate army. Several times Lee suggested that religion be relegated to the background of lectures and gatherings. By 1869 it became evident that Lee had totally revamped both the Washington College campus and its curriculum. Lee’s health began to fail, however, during the summer of 1869, and he and his daughter Agnes took a vacation to Florida via Wilmington, Charleston, and Savannah. Throughout Lee’s trip, people turned out in the thousands to see him, although he didn’t speak at all in many locations. It was at this time that he visited the grave of his father, Light Horse Harry Lee. Upon returning home, Lee continued with his college duties, but in the autumn of 1870 he suffered a stroke and died shortly afterward at his home in Lexington.

At the close of the book, Dr. Guelzo goes into a lengthy epilogue of Lee’s life. Lee had many flaws, and people who say he was no friend the U.S. Constitution have a good case. There are many loopholes that can be exploited when arguing to the contrary. Lee, however, was a product of his time. Although not adhering to one religion strictly, he nevertheless was a strong believer in a higher power and believed that that power was behind him when he made his life decisions, including his exploitation of the enslaved African Americans who lived on the estates he was left to disperse as executor of his father-in-law’s will. During Lee’s tenure at Washington College, he firmly disciplined any students taking advantage of African Americans living in the areas around the college, but was firmly against any admission of black students to the student body.

So where does that leave us? Yes, Lee had his foibles and by today’s standards was probably not a loyal American, but did he act in a manner in which he was taught to live? The author leaves his readers to decide that for themselves and to also ask themselves the same questions that plagued Lee when examining their own individual lives. The author leaves the decision to his readers.

Robert E. Lee: A Life by Allen C. Guelzo

From The Wall Street Journal: From the award-winning historian and best-selling author of Gettysburg comes the definitive biography of Robert E. Lee. An intimate look at the Confederate general in all his complexity—his hypocrisy and courage, his inner turmoil and outward calm, his disloyalty and his honor.

Click on any of the book links on this page to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.