Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through his Private Letters by Elizabeth Brown Pryor
I enjoyed this book, with a few caveats. I thought it would have more full length letters in it. Instead each chapter opens with 1-3 letters and the rest of the chapter explains an aspect of Lee's life. Throughout the chapter other letters will be quoted, but only as a few lines. After I got over my disappointment at this not being a large grouping of Lee's letters I did end up liking the chapters on their own merits. A much more complex view of Lee is presented, something between the Lost Cause myth and the attacks that have been in vogue the last few decades. This was needed and Pryor's portrait of Lee is probably the most accurate, and complex, view of Lee we've ever had. For that the book is a must read.
However I also need to give this warning, there are some errors when Pryor talks about the war. After 1st Manassas she comments that the Army of Northern Virginia could have retaken its leader's home at Arlington. And it might have been able to capture Arlington, except it wasn't yet called that and it's leader was not yet Lee. There is mention of a Confederate General Carl Van Dorn, but I have not yet found a Carl Van Dorn, Pryor probably meant Earl Van Dorn. She says that Lee's resignation was part of the reason Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and I've never heard of this being part of Lincoln's reasoning for that. Pryor refers to Harper's Ferry as Lee's supply base during the 1862 Maryland campaign but since that was in Union hands until the campaign was nearly over that is wrong. Also she says that Burnside was relieved because of the battle of Fredericksburg, and while that surely played into Lincoln's thinking Burnside stuck around until after the disastrous Mud March. Basically when Pryor wrote about battle actions I cringed because I did not have enough confidence that she was right after those above mistakes. Luckily the book is mostly about the inner Lee, not the battle Lee.
Despite the battle mistakes I would still recommend the book, but I think the reader should be aware that the battle stuff is not as accurate. Does that throw the rest of the book open for debate? Yes, but I think when dealing with personality issues Pryor is on firmer ground. The huge mass of Lee letters, in the book its claimed the collection (which includes stuff written to Lee and other family members) runs over 10,000 pages, so it can be believed that Pryor is not making a statement with just one or two letters as support, but probably has many others to support her position. I have no problems accepting her interpretations on this front.
Disclaimer: I did not buy this book, it was sent to me for review.
4 days ago