Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee. Just reading the title gives you a thrill of excitement and anticipation at what lay in the pages of this recent biography written by the distinguished historian, Michael Korda. And these pages do not disappoint.
As a native of the South – Arkansas, to be exact – I must admit that I have never boasted that I was a daughter of the Confederacy. The facts of the Civil War, as I knew them, were shameful indeed. The South fought to keep human beings in bondage all for the purpose of their own financial success and security. Who could be proud of that? In my early years, I bore the weight of responsibility for the actions of my state ancestors, and therefore I was not proud but in fact, I proudly decried their error.
But those feelings, while not eradicated by the reading of this biography, were certainly tempered. Through these pages, Mr. Korda describes a very different leader of the Army of Northern Virginia than I had imagined from that facts as I knew them. To know the battles, politics, and the famous names of the Civil War is to know only half of the story. To know the people through their letters, journals, and close friends is to know the story in total.
Mr. Korda shows that Robert E. Lee was a deeply religious man. His own father, Henry “Lighthorse” Lee was a friend of George Washington, and was present on the day that Cornwallis surrendered his army at Yorktown. However, he was also an unstable man, and in many ways, a highly dishonorable man. Robert E. Lee spent his lifetime trying to be everything his father was not: secure, hard-working, faithful, disciplined and honest. He succeeded.
When the war between the states seemed imminent, Robert E. Lee of all men was most troubled. He hesitated to take up arms against the nation he loved. “Save in defense of my native State, I never desire again to draw my sword,” Lee said. And he meant it. He would never attack the Union, unless the Union attacked his beloved Virginia. Lee had developed a personal interest in Napoleon Bonaparte while serving as the President of West Point. Had he not spent hours reading about Napoleon and his manner of waging battle, the Civil War would never have lasted as long. Lee’s strategy and skill rivaled that of Napoleon and has been studied by military training schools world-wide.
I had always heard that the Civil War was not about slavery, it was about a state’s rights, but I viewed this as an excuse. As I walked through life with Lee, albeit 150 years after the fact, I can see more clearly what that statement means, and in particular, what it meant to Lee. He believed that while slavery was, in fact, abominable, it was God who must end it; and he believed the end of slavery was in sight. In fact, the U.S. ended the importation of slaves in 1808. Many slave-owners treated their slaves with love and kindness, and felt them to be part of the family. Lee himself never bought a slave. He inherited them through his father-in-law’s estate, but immediately went about to educate them (which was a violation of Virginia law) so that they could be released. It is true that he had a low view of what the black man could accomplish, and felt that he should never be allowed to vote or obtain citizenship, but this view was not uncommon in the era in both North and South. He felt that slaves should be sent back to Africa once slavery was abolished. A view that, Mr. Korda points out that no one in the country, not even the “benevolent” North viewed the black man as equal to the white man. My own reading of Lincoln reveals that the President himself wanted blacks to be sent back to Africa also. It did not take long for me to see that the lines between right and wrong were rather blurry in the 1860’s. Do we free the slaves? And if we do, what will become of them with no education, property, or rights? Do we send them back to Africa? How? Do we continue to let slaves exist in the South and slowly integrate them into free society over time? These are the important issues at stake. Lee felt that each state should have the freedom to choose its own course. This is what angered the South; this is what forced Lee to take up his sword against his own army: the state’s freedom to choose. Lee was not necessarily hopeful that the Confederate States of America would exist permanently. He hoped that the war would prove the South’s strength, forcing Lincoln to come to the bargaining table, permitting the state to keep its rights within certain boundaries. Unfortunately, it did not happen.
Mr. Korda takes you on a journey, back in time, back to Virginia. You can feel the heat of the sun in summer and the dampness in autumn. You can feel the jostling of Traveller as he gallops, you can smell the gunpowder in the air, see the clouds of smoke, and sense the fear at the array of soldiers in blue with the Stars and Stripes whipping in the wind at Gettysburg. You will see the bond between Lee and Stonewall Jackson, a soul-mate-in-arms, and the stinging pain of losing him after the battle of Chancellorsville. When you visit the battle of Gettysburg, you can follow the battle with maps, and see how a southern victory would have been won had Jackson not died. You will also walk with the Lee through his own tragedies in the war: the capture of his wounded son as a Union prisoner; the itinerant life of his ailing wife and daughters as thy allude their captors; the loss of his wife’s beloved Arlington; the death of his daughter, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren; the humiliation, and the powerful dignity, of his surrender to Grant; and the return to Richmond after his defeat. You will see it all, as much as Lee will permit us. You will see that sometimes the great men lose. But as Lee demonstrates to us so vividly across the centuries, even in loss we can live nobly, trust God, and work for Him until our final breath.