Thomas' Lee biography: All deed, not word


"Robert E. Lee: A Biography," by Emory M. Thomas. Illustrated. 472 pages. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. $30

'My coat is of gray," the new army commander wrote his daughter-in-law that spring. "My pants (are) . . . partly hidden by ,, my long boots. I have the same handsome hat which surmounts my gray head . . . and shields my ugly face, which is masked by a white beard . . . stiff and wiry. . ."

In the June of 1862 - one year into the Civil War - the description could be of but one prominent man: Robert Edward Lee, the freshly-appointed leader of what he had just renamed the Army of Northern Virginia.

There is an innocent simplicity in the self-description of the man who was about to make himself and his modest, disorganized army, legendary. See, he appears to be saying, I am a curiousity.

In his new study of Lee, "Robert E. Lee: A Biography," University of Georgia historian Emory Thomas paints a portrait of a man bound for fame, yet afflicted by its aftermath.

A man who seemingly thought, or hoped, that after the war names like Gettysburg, Antietam and Chancellorsville - words stitched forever in ragged hearts and battleflags - might wear quickly away like the abandoned trenches around Petersburg.

Foolish fellow.

In one of the book's best scenes, Lee is traveling for his health from Lexington, Va., to Savannah, Ga. in the spring of 1870, by train. It is five years after the war's end in 1865 and six months before his death the following October.

Already a Southern hero and Christ figure, Lee is beseiged along his route. Bands play. Well-wishers cheer: "Lee! Lee!" Babies are held aloft. And old ladies remark, "He is mightily like his pictures."

Aboard the train, Lee and his daughter, Agnes, stay "locked up and mum." And her father wonders, "why should they want to see me?"

Born into a patrician Virginia family and fathered by a Revolutionary War hero, Lee entered West Point, and excelled during a long and diligent military career. He distinguished himself in the Mexican War, served as West Point superintendent, and led the American troops who captured John Brown at the raid at Harper's Ferry.

Then came the Civil War. Lee was offered command of the U.S. army. But he declined. Instead he offered his services to the seceded state of Virginia, thereby becoming the most famous, if revered, traitor in American history.

He went on to lead his Southern army to a string of stunning victories over Union forces until he was battered into submission by Ulysses S. Grant at war's end.

Fittingly, Lee already has been the subject of the magesterial four-volume Pulitzer Prize-winning biography by Douglas Southall Freeman published in 1934-35.

Thomas describes his biography as post-revisionist. What this means is he's not so hard on the old general, nor the old historian. Indeed Thomas writes he heard a university mentor call Freeman "god."

Despite such linage and a few zingers at one Northern revisionist, Thomas has managed to shoe-horn into a single volume a modern, less reverant picture of what he calls the "whole" Lee.

Here, for example, is the Lee who disdained African-Americans, who could be mean with subordiates, and who urged execution for Confederate deserters, while feeling exempt for his own act of disloyalty.

But here, as well, is a good bit of the conventional regard that has always iced Lee's image: "Lee was not word; Lee was deed." From their graves, neither Freeman, nor Lee, ought be entirely displeased.

Mike E. Ruane is a Pentagon correspondent for Knight-Ridder newspapers. Before that he was a writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He was a Nieman Fellow, 1991-1992.

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