Share This Article

Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee

Michael Korda, HarperCollins 2014

Few characters from the Civil War rival Robert E. Lee in complexity and mystique. During the conflict, he symbolized and glorified a rebellion,  only to rise as a role model who sought peace and national unity after Appomattox. Nearly 150 years later, Lee’s story remains an indelible  facet of our history. His likeness appears on a 32-cent postage stamp, his name is on a  U.S. Army tank and a Navy submarine—and drivers in Virginia can purchase a license plate commemorating Lee with the phrase “The Virginia Gentleman: 1807-1870.” Remarkably,  the Rebel general who waged war against his country to preserve a slave-holding status quo emerged a much-admired, even revered, figure  in the wake of defeat. In Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee (HarperCollins,  2014), Michael Korda shows us why.  

The book’s  skillfully woven narrative examines Lee through an in-depth exploration of his childhood and family,  as well as his career. From the outset, Korda distinguishes his  biography as a fine piece of writing,  opening not with a pedantic thesis but with a cinematic re-creation of John Brown’s Raid on the Harpers  Ferry Arsenal. One of a succession of events that ultimately brought about war, it was a defining experience for  Lee, who commanded Federal forces  against the abolitionist and his men. Korda employs this scene to great  effect in setting the stage for Lee’s  historic metamorphosis from a U.S. Army engineer into a Confederate general and the face of a revolution.

As a subject, of course, Lee inevitably poses challenges, largely because  he fits in no one category. Was he a traitor, a rebel, a patriot? The reader’s judgment on those questions  depends on his or her perspective. To some, Lee was a stoic martyr; to others, he was a controversial warrior  who fought for a heinous cause.

Whatever one’s opinion, Korda’s  treatment is evenhanded and, more  important, realistic. Over the past  century, writers have labored to  depict the general as infallible, in  terms of his character as well as his leadership skills. But as Korda  aptly demonstrates, Lee was human:  He felt pain and sorrow; he made  mistakes; he suffered regrets and  insecurities. For instance, he spent  the better part of his life repudiating the scandalous legacy of his wayward, absentee father, a Revolutionary War hero turned debtor and con artist. Lee went to extreme lengths to become the antithesis of “Light Horse” Harry. He exercised unflagging discipline and self-control in all matters. He was a devoted husband and parent, as  well as a diligent soldier who had an almost obsessive fixation on honor and duty.

Indeed the humanity that Korda captures in his biography  is perhaps his chief contribution to the existing literature. Far from being a mere factual chronology, this book looks to  expose the emotional and intellectual elements that defined the real man. In the process,  Korda dismantles the mythology  surrounding his secular sainthood—to which Lee never aspired. He was not the sanguine revolutionary found in popular lore. In fact, Korda’s research  suggests the opposite. Early in the crisis, Lee was a reluctant  Confederate, wary of secession  and wholly mindful of the grave consequences it would impose on Americans. At the same time, he  was a Virginian, resolved to  “share the miseries of [his] people.” On no account would he draw his sword against his home state. Korda thinks that’s why  Lee continues to fascinate us. He possessed an astonishing ability to adjust to the changing world around him, whether it was a  nation at war or a new South in Reconstruction. That’s the Lee  readers find in Clouds of Glory, a  single volume every bit as illuminating as Douglas Southall Freeman’s four-book classic.

Just before Lee met with Ulysses Grant at Appomattox,  a member of his staff asked him what he thought historians would write about the surrender. The general simply replied that they would have “hard things to say of us.” But Lee would be pleasantly surprised by Korda’s work—a  biography that, like its subject, is  fair, honest and real.


Originally published in the October 2014 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.