Robert B. Lee, By Robert W. Winston. New York: William Morrow and Company. $4.00.
The American hero is strong rather than symmetrical. Abounding in exuberant and ill-controlled vitality, he lacks grace and restraint. The soil of the United States, under the benign sun of democracy, has produced an abundant crop of sturdy patriots, wild, rough, native growths, vigorous and free, not unlike the forests of the back country in grandeur and in uncouthness. Such plebeian patriots were A. Jackson, A. Johnson, and A. Lincoln, products of the frontier, typical if heroic Americans, Driven by the winds of chance, they seem to owe their rise above their fellows to an inherent vigor and to blind accident.
In certain sections of the United States, however, where the transit of civilization had been early, native cultures have flourished, and from these cultures have flowered patricians, some of whom have also been patriots. These patrician patriots have not infrequently become sectional heroes. Northern Virginia between the Bay and the Blue Ridge was the seat of a comparatively old local culture, which has produced a remarkable number of heroic men, many of whom show in their lives the cultivation and design that distinguish the patrician from the plebeian. Robert E. Lee was the product of this Virginia culture. His life and character are understandable only as its terms and standards have meaning. From birth the chosen child of fortune, he never suffered its outrageous slings. Born into the upper class of a sturdy agrarian society, he was endowed by nature with intellect and health and beauty. His environment gave him high standards of conduct, charm of manner, and sufficient wealth. The pattern of his life lay before him always clear.
Much though he lost in the Civil War, he gained still more. His last years were made happy by the respect of his adversaries, by the adoration of his own people, by pleasant and useful work.
His most recent biographer, Judge Robert Winston, has succeeded in presenting a vivid picture of Lee’s complete life. He has not neglected the significant years of youth, and he has been peculiarly happy in his account of the period after the Civil War, when the buffets of misfortune and old age more clearly revealed the well proportioned character of the man, in whom strength and grace were so perfectly combined. Judge Winston’s biography is singularly successful in showing us the complete man. He has undoubtedly seen him whole. However, he has perhaps failed to see him as he was. The Judge modestly assures us that he is of the same political school of thought as Lee. It would be more accurate to say that the biographer has made Lee of the same political school of thought as himself. Long ago Judge Winston took his stand on the high pinnacle of the Union, from which point of limited if lofty vision, sectionalism in all its phases appears base and mean. Perspective is of course as necessary for the biographer as for the painter, but while the painter’s point of view must be fixed, the biographer’s should so change as to show his subject from all sides. Judge Winston sees Lee only as an American, the loyal son of the arch Federalist, Light Horse Harry, as the servant of the Union in his youth, and as its most reluctant foe in 1861. In this conflict between his love for the Union and his duty to his State, the Judge discerns the one element of tragedy in Lee’s otherwise happy life. General Lee, however, was always more of a Virginian than an American. His mores and standards, his preference for good report rather than riches, his rustic sense of humor— naming his saddle nags Tom and Jerry, galloping down the principal street of Washington, riding pillion—his loyalty to kindred and friends, his clannishness, his patriarchal authority over his family, his delight in an agrarian life: all these were of the Old Dominion. Probably the tired old gentleman in Confederate grey is a better as well as more familiar picture of the great soldier than the heavy jawed if handsome lieutenant colonel of the West Point portrait, which Judge Winston uses as his frontispiece. The man who could refuse a lucrative sinecure to accept the presidency of Washington College had little in common with a civilization which has learned to evaluate men in terms of the money they earn. If General Lee thought of himself as a six-thousand-dollar executive, Judge Winston is correct in considering him an American rather than a Virginian. But in 1861 he gave up an assured position under the Union to accept whatever his State had to offer. In this choice there was no tragedy. The exaltation of the idea of duty was perhaps never more fully justified. He surrendered his life for duty and thereby found it.
No final or definitive life of General Lee has yet been written. His name, if not the most luminous in American history, is still so bright and shining that it requires more than ordinary strength of vision to see him clearly. Moreover, his chosen field of activity requires the abilities of a military expert for interpretation and appraisal. Judge Winston frankly admits that he is no such expert. His accounts of battles and campaigns make good reading. His almost boyish enthusiasm is contagious. He gives an excellent impression of the confusion and excitement that are war. But his explanations of military movements are either childishly simple or childishly obscure. His military diction is either amusing or bewildering, depending upon the attitude of the reader. He writes, for example, of Stuart’s taking with him on a raid “Pelham’s well-trained gun,” and again, of “thirty-seven pieces of artillery, supported by heavy and numerous batteries,” plowing through the Confederate ranks.
Like his great hero, however, Judge Winston is for the most part temperate in statement, and generous in his estimates of Lee’s adversaries and associates. He gives the fairest and most charitable explanation of Jackson’s lethargy in the Seven Days’ Battles, and he is entirely too tender in his treatment of the insubordinate and bungling Longstreet. He has been careful to avoid giving offense. Judged by current standards of biography, he has done a prodigious amount of research. Evidently, he is personally acquainted with the present terrain of Lee’s battles. He has used the readily accessible sources, including some that have not been used before, but there is nothing in his description of the charge of Pickett’s Division at Gettysburg to indicate that he has read the important though privately printed autobiography of the late Eppa Hunton. Judge Winston is neither a military expert nor a trained historian, yet the honesty of his scholarship, so far as it goes, is apparent, as is the sincerity of his desire to be fair. He has written the most valuable life of Lee yet published.