1. R.E. Lee by Douglas Southall Freeman
Published in 1934, this four-volume book by Douglas Southall Freeman chronicles all of the major events and highlights of Robert E. Lee’s military career.
The book discusses everything from Lee’s experiences in the Mexican-War to his surrender at Appomattox. Freeman depicts Lee as an honest, straightforward man who is “one of the small company of great men in whom there is no inconsistency to be explained, no enigma to be solved.”
The book received positive reviews when it was published. The New York Times referred to the entire work as “Lee Complete for All Time” while Stephen Vincent Benet’s review in the New York Herald Tribune referred to it as a “a complete portrait – solid, vivid, authoritative, and compelling.”
The book is now considered the definitive biography of Robert E. Lee.
Douglas Southall Freeman, who died in 1953, was a newspaper editor, military analyst, and a pioneering radio broadcaster.
In addition to his biography about Lee, Freeman also wrote a highly acclaimed six-volume biography of George Washington.
Freeman won two Pulitzer Prizes, one in 1935 for his biography of Robert E. Lee and one in 1958 (posthumously) for his biography of George Washington.
2. Robert E. Lee: A Biography by Emory M. Thomas
Published in 1995, this book by Emory M. Thomas explores the real Robert E. Lee, not the legend that he became.
Thomas argues that Lee’s image has been distorted over the years partly due to his own hidden nature and partly due to the myths and legends that surround him.
In the book’s foreward, Thomas goes on to say that Lee was a complex, mysterious man and to truly understand him you need to look into his inner character:
“Lee, the enigma, seldom if ever revealed himself while he lived. To understand him, it is necessary to look behind his words and see, for example, the true nature of the lighthouse keeper Lee encountered during his surveying mission in 1835. It is also important to peer beyond Lee’s words and recall what he did as well as what he said. Sometimes the existential Lee contradicted the verbal Lee.”
Thomas also points out that the real Robert E. Lee has been overshadowed by the legend that he later became:
“In addition to looking behind and beyond his words, it is well to remember that Lee once possessed of flesh and blood. This is important because so many have made so much of Lee during the years since he lived that legend, image and myth have supplanted reality. Lee has become a hero essentially smaller than life.”
The book received positive reviews when it was published. A review in Publisher’s Weekly “highly recommended” the book due to its unique take on this iconic figure:
“Synthesizing printed and manuscript sources, he presents Lee as neither the icon of Douglas Southall Freeman nor the flawed figure presented by Thomas Connolly. Lee emerges instead as a man of paradoxes, whose frustrations and tribulations were the basis for his heroism. Lee’s work was his play, according to the author, and throughout his life he made the best of his lot…Highly recommended.”
A review by Kirkus Reviews praised the book for presenting a fair and balanced view of this controversial figure:
“A comprehensive new biography that seeks to give a balanced portrait of the famed Confederate general. Thomas undertakes a daunting task here, seeking to recover the real, living human from the mythology surrounding Lee since his death in 1870. In this effort he hews a middle ground between early 20th century hagiographies and revisionist contemporary interpretations…Well written and based largely on primary documentation, a good effort at understanding a complex personality.”
A review by Patrick T. Reardon in the Chicago Tribune called the book an “interesting, readable examination of Lee’s life” but states that it “leaves the general still very much a mystery.”
A review in the New York Review of Books called it “The best and most balanced of the Lee biographies.”
Emory M. Thomas is Regents Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Georgia.
Thomas is also the author of eight books about the Civil War era, which include The Confederate Nation: 1861-1865; The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience; Travels to Hallowed Ground: A Historian’s Journey to the American Civil War; Bold Dragoon: The Life of J.E.B. Stuart; The Confederate State of Richmond: A Biography of the Capital; The Dogs of War: 1861; The American War and Peace: 1860-1877.
3. Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee by Michael Korda
Published in 2014, this book by Michael Korda is a full-scale biography of Lee’s life and military career.
The book attempts to dispel the myths surrounding Lee to reveal the true human being underneath. In the book, Korda describes Lee as a serious, hard-working military man with a surprisingly fun side:
“A perfectionist, obsessed by duty and by the value of obedience, he might have been a grim figure, except for the fact that he had another side, charming, funny, and flirtatious. The animal lover, the gifted watercolorist, the talented cartographer – the topographic maps he drew for the Corps of Engineers are works of art, as are the cartoons he drew for his children in Mexico. The father who adored having his children get into bed with him in the morning, and telling them stories, or having them tickle his feet; the adoring husband; the devoted friend – these are all facets of the same man. He was the product of a rationalist education and at the same time a romantic, who sought for a spiritual answer to the problems of life – a man of contradictions, whose natural good manners and courtly bearing disguised his lifelong soul-searching.”
The book received positive reviews when it was published. A review by David Shribman in the Boston Globe described it as “Lively, approachable, and captivating…Like Lee himself, everything about Clouds of Glory is on a grand scale” while Publisher’s Weekly referred to it as “superbly engaging.”
Kirkus Reviews called it “A masterful biography of the beloved Civil War general…Lee is a man for the ages, and Korda delivers the goods with this heart-wrenching story of the man and his state” and a review by David Holahan in the Christian Science Monitor stated “Korda clearly has command of his subject…[Clouds of Glory] is well-considered and amply documented. Military buffs will find much to feast on.”
Yet, other reviewers were a little more reserved in their praise. Historian Eric Foner reviewed the book for the Washington Post and took issue with Korda’s grasp of the broader issues of the Civil War and Lee’s attitude towards them:
“When it comes to the broader historical context, Korda sometimes falters. He does not display familiarity with recent literature on the Civil War era. For example, the one book he cites on desertion from the Confederate armies, a subject of considerable recent scholarship, was written in 1924. Korda notes that Lee’s views on slavery and race have too often been ‘swept under the rug,’ but his own discussion is scattered and incomplete…Although Korda describes him as a political moderate, there was nothing moderate in Lee’s stance during the 1860 presidential campaign… Toward the end of the Civil War, Lee came to accept the necessity of enlisting black soldiers in the Confederate armies; a handful were enrolled a month before the surrender at Appomattox. Yet, Korda notes, his racial views ‘never changed.’ Unfortunately, the book fails to devote sufficient attention to Lee’s appearance in 1866 before the congressional Joint Committee on Reconstruction, which showed him at his worst.”
A review by historian Fergus M. Bordewich in the New York Times also points out these inconsistencies as well as a number of glaring factual errors, yet still referred to the book as an ”admiring and briskly written biography…”
Michael Korda is a British author and former editor-in-chief of Simon and Schuster. Korda has written a number of history books, including Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia; Alone: Britain, Churchill, and Dunkirk: Defeat Into Victory; With Wings Like Eagles: The Untold Story of the Battle of Britain; Ike: An American Hero; Journey to a Revolution: A Personal Memoir and History of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.
4. General Lee: A Biography of Robert E. Lee by Fitzhugh Lee
Published in 1894, this book by Fitzhugh Lee, Robert’s E. Lee’s nephew, chronicles Lee’s life using his unpublished private letters.
The book briefly discusses Lee’s family history before delving deep into the events of his military career. Fitzhugh Lee explains, in the book’s preface, that since General Lee never wrote a memoir, this book is an attempt to tell Lee’s story through his own words:
“In this volume the attempt has been made to imperfectly supply the great desire to have something from Robert E. Lee’s pen, by introducing, at the periods referred to, such extracts from his private letters as would be of general interest. He is thus made, for the first time, to give his impressions and opinions on most of the great events with which he was so closely connected.”
Despite being published over 100 years ago, the book is still a big seller and is highly recommended by fans of Robert E. Lee.
Fitzhugh Lee was a general in the U.S. army during the Spanish-American war and a cavalry general for the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War.
In addition to General Lee: A Biography, Fitzhugh Lee also wrote another book, titled Cuba’s Struggle Against Spain, as well as an article about General Lee.
5. Lee Considered: General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History by Alan T. Nolan
Published in 1991, this book by Alan T. Nolan debunks the myths and legends about Lee to set the record straight about this iconic figure.
As Nolan explains in the preface, the book does not give a full account of Lee’s life and instead examines the legend of Robert E. Lee and uses evidence to prove or disprove specific claims about him:
“This book is not, therefore, a biography and offers no full account of Robert E. Lee’s life. It is, instead, an examination of major aspects of the tradition that identifies Lee in American history. In raising questions and drawing conclusions about this tradition, I have attempted to set fort the evidence. The reader who thinks I am asking the wrong questions or disagrees with my conclusions may, in evaluating my thesis, consider the evidence on which it is based. This evidence does not include any new or sensational facts or new primary materials. On the contrary, my inquiry concerns what the familiar and long-available evidence actually establishes about Robert E. Lee. The results of my inquiry are not so much an expose as simply an attempt to set the record straight.”
The book received positive reviews when it was published. A review by Peter Andrews in the Washington Post stated that although he believed the book wouldn’t appeal to a wide audience, it is a must-read for Lee historians:
“However, any future author dealing with Lee will have to face up to Nolan’s material and we will all be the better for it. A man struggling with his times, his prejudices and his sense of honor makes a more arresting subject than a public figure who forever seems to be speaking in copybook maxims.”
Yet, historian James McPherson reviewed the book for the New York Review of Books and accused Nolan of being disingenuous in his claim that the book was not intended to defame Lee:
“But this disclaimer of bias is a bit disingenuous. Nolan is a lawyer by profession. The book has something of the tone of an indictment of Lee in the court of history, with the author as prosecuting attorney. He wants the jury—his readers—to convict Lee of entering willingly into a war to destroy the American nation.”
McPherson goes on to say though that despite this the book presents a more realistic view of Lee than the legends do:
“There is truth in some of these charges; it is not the whole truth, however. Nolan’s portrait of Lee may be closer to the real Lee than the flawless marble image promoted by tradition. But the prosecutorial style of his book produces some new distortions.”
Alan T. Nolan is a former lawyer and author of numerous books about the Civil War, including The Iron Brigade: A Military History; Giants in Their Tall Hats: Essays on the Iron Brigade; Rally, Once Again!: Selected Civil War Writings.