Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters

by Elizabeth Brown Pryor, Viking Press, 2007, 658 pages, $29.95.

At the close of his landmark biography Freeman wrote: “Robert Lee was R.E. Lee, Douglas Southall one of the small company of great men in whom there is no inconsistency to be explained, no enigma to be solved. What he seemed, he was—a wholly human gentleman, the essential elements of whose positive character were two and only two, simplicity and spirituality.” It is a cherished conception: the unblemished Christian warrior of sterling character, seemingly devoid of flaw or fault in his makeup. But as Elizabeth Brown Pryor demonstrates in her fresh and compelling new study, this idealized view does a grave disservice to both the truth and to Lee himself. “By denying Lee’s common follies and foibles,” Pryor argues, “his devotees removed him from us, setting him apart, so that his true ability to inspire was obscured.”

Reading the Man is not the comprehensive cataloging of events found in most biographies, but a series of chapter-length studies of various aspects of Lee’s behavior, character and personality. It is also the product of the most comprehensive accumulation of writings by Lee and his closest associates to date, giving lie to the notion that all important sources were unearthed long ago. (Most notable is a trove of Lee family papers that was discovered in an Alexandria, Va., bank vault in 2002, of which Pryor is the first historian to make use.)

Drawing upon 45 years of his correspondence, Pryor allows Lee to reveal himself in his own words. The simple soul described by Freeman is nowhere to be found. Instead readers encounter a dynamic and multifaceted individual, at turns lusty, morose, witty, priggish and self-doubting. It is a raw, unvarnished look at a very private man. Lee did not always conduct himself with the absolute poise and equanimity with which he would be credited after his death, and to see him in moments of anger, depression, failure and shame is to partake of an intimacy that can be discomforting to his admirers.

Pryor’s is not the first work to attempt a demystification of Lee; revisionist studies have challenged the Freeman paradigm for the past three decades. What makes hers unique, however, is its refreshing absence of agenda or preconception. It is not a thesis in search of validation. She comes to her task as neither worshiper nor assassin but instead trains a dispassionate eye on her topic and refrains from both psychoanalysis and moralizing. She also takes pains to contextualize Lee within the norms of his time and place, not ours. Perhaps most important, she avoids the pitfall of so many Lee biographers, who see the man as nothing more than the prologue to the general. More than five-sixths of Lee’s life had passed before he ever donned Confederate gray, and Pryor is careful to remain in the historical present and not allow her foreknowledge of events—and Lee’s subsequent place within them—to preempt the evidence.

Like her subject, however, Pryor’s opus is not without flaws. Her treatment of the war lacks the surety found in the other threequarters of the book. This might be partly a function of her sources (Lee was understandably reluctant to commit his innermost thoughts to print during wartime), but there are also indications that her command of this period is not always adequate to its scope. Secondary accounts bear more of the analytical weight than elsewhere in the text, and at times she conflates the most recent scholarship with the most accurate. In treating Lee’s campaigns, small but telling errors of fact begin to appear, characterizations are not always well supported and some creaky interpretive models are used.

Those who wish to preserve the most cherished of Lee myths inviolate—particularly in regard to slavery, his resignation from the U.S. Army and the aftermath of the war—should approach Reading the Man with caution. The risk, though, is worth the reward for anyone who desires to understand this iconic leader. Mary Chesnut, writing in her now-famous diary during the first summer of the war, doubted if anyone could know Robert E. Lee. Thanks to Pryor’s inspired detective work, we can finally edge closer to saying we do.


Originally published in the October 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here