Sunday, September 30, 2007

Robert E. Lee: Icon for a Nation

by Brian Holden Reid

From the publisher:
One of the most impressive monuments to an American military hero is found in Richmond, Virginia. Weighing twelve tons and standing almost sixty-two feet high, this great marble statue depicts Gen. Robert E. Lee on horseback. It projects an air of defiance as well as celebration, implying that, despite the tragic outcome of the Civil War for the South, this general was not defeated.

By the time this monumental icon was unveiled in 1890, twenty years after Lee's death, the apotheosis of the great Confederate leader's life and career was well underway. He came to symbolize the great lost cause-the unfulfilled, idealized achievements that were central to the romanticized imagery that quickly enveloped the Old South after the war.

In this in-depth examination of the career of Gen. Robert E. Lee, noted historian Brian Holden Reid looks beyond the legend to arrive at an objective assessment of the man and his military career. Holden Reid argues that Lee's qualities as a general do not require any exaggeration or embellishment. Tracing the military campaigns of the Civil War, he shows that Lee's short period of field command, just under three years, was marked by imagination, decisiveness, stamina, and a determination to win the war against the better-equipped union army, rather than just avoid losing it.

Some historians have criticized Lee's offensive strategy as an error that became ultimately self-defeating. By contrast, Holden Reid asserts that it was the only realistic way for the Confederacy to win its independence. Nonetheless, he acknowledges that Lee exhibited occasional overconfidence, sometimes underestimated his enemy, and failed to develop his staff in any modern sense.

As a British historian, Holden Reid brings a fresh, detached eye to his evaluation of Gen. Lee, and in the end he presents an authoritative and balanced assessment of a great American commander. Marked by clarity of style and filled with fascinating historical details, this new reconsideration of a legendary southern general will be a welcome addition to the bookshelves of Civil War enthusiasts as well as students and scholars of American history and military history.

Brian Holden Reid (London, England) is professor of American history and military institutions and head of the Department of War Studies at King's College, London. Since 1993, he has been a member of the Council of the Society for Army Historical Research and from 1998 to 2004 served as chairman. In 2004-2005, he was the first non-American to serve as a member of the Lincoln Prize jury panel, which awards the most important literary prize in the field of Civil War history. His many books include The Origins of the American Civil War and The Civil War and the Wars of the Nineteenth Century.