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The Making of Robert E. Lee

The Making of Robert E. Lee

4.0 2
by Michael Fellman
Perhaps no other American historical figure is as shrouded in legend as General Robert E. Lee. Long extolled as the perfect gentleman as well as the consummate military commander, Lee—known as the Marble Man—has been venerated more than understood. During his lifetime, he contributed to this picture through the austerity and rigid control he tried to


Perhaps no other American historical figure is as shrouded in legend as General Robert E. Lee. Long extolled as the perfect gentleman as well as the consummate military commander, Lee—known as the Marble Man—has been venerated more than understood. During his lifetime, he contributed to this picture through the austerity and rigid control he tried to impose on himself.

The Making of Robert E. Lee reveals the flesh-and-blood Lee—not to expose him but to better understand a man who was perhaps the most fervent practitioner of the Southern code of conduct, behind which he camouflaged much of his character.
With unprecedented insight into Robert E. Lee's personal and public lives, Michael Fellman humanizes this one-dimensional icon, placing him within history rather than above it. With both detachment and compassion, Fellman deftly probes beneath the surface to show Lee as a deeply conflicted man, one with sometimes surprising views on sexuality, family, religion, and politics, as well as military practice. This realistic portrayal situates Lee firmly in the contexts of his time, place, class, gender, and race.        
Although Lee tried to be a virtuous, even perfect man, he often flirted extravagantly—and perhaps did more—with women other than his wife. While he strove to be a kind and honest leader, he was extremely distant from and controlling of both his sons and the soldiers in his Civil War army. With his deeply ingrained habits of command, Lee the aristocratic disciplinarian looked down upon the white lower orders as he did upon slaves.
After a distinguished if conventional career in the peacetime American army, Lee chose to join the Confederate cause on account of his unquestioning identification with the values and interests of the Virginia slaveholding class. Something of a failure during the first year of combat, Lee was thrust into command at a crucial juncture in the war, just as the Union army approached Richmond, the Confederate capital. Fellman argues that "the Civil War rescued Robert E. Lee from marginality and obscurity."
No general proved more audacious and tenacious than Lee, and none had a greater passion for battle. For a year, almost without exception, an increasingly confident Lee guided a seemingly invincible army, winning great victories at high costs. Finally overreaching the capabilities of his troops, Lee led them into crushing defeat at Gettysburg, after which his customary humility returned.
Paradoxically, even though war ultimately reinforced Lee's deep pessimism in the face of Fate, afterward he became a conscious inspiration and adviser to elite whites who sought to destroy Reconstruction and keep blacks at the bottom of the social order. he became a spokesman as well as a rallying point for those postwar Southern nationalists who sought, with success, to maintain and strengthen white supremacy.
Fellman's study does far more than any previous book both to uncover the intelligent, ambitious, and often troubled man behind the legend and to explore his life within the social, cultural, and political contexts of the mid-nineteenth-century South.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for Michael Fellman's Citizen Sherman

"This superb biography gives as full a portrait of nineteenth-century family dynamics as of the dynamics of the battlefield."
--The New Yorker

"Gripping and original, this is the definitive modern study of the Civil War's most feared fighter."                  
--Chicago Tribune

"A penetrating study of one of the most enigmatic and controversial figures in American history."
--The Boston Globe

"Boldly argued and gracefully written."
--The New York Times Book Review

"A vivid portrait of perhaps the most savage warrior of the Civil War period."
--The Wall Street Journal

"A fascinating and readable book about a famous and furious man, brilliant, insightful, garrulous, complicated, tightly wound,
energetic, aggressive, salty, angry, and racist. Here is a man who is grudge-bearing, yet often kind; insecure, yet positive about what the war was about, how to win it, and how it would end."
--The Washington Post Book World

Max Byrd
Michael Fellman, a professor of history at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, begins with the familiar facts of Lee's unstable choldhood, including its two examples of male self-indulgence and indifference to duty. As one of its many strengths, The making of Robert E. Lee provides, if not an explanation, at least a wonderful series of slow motion pictures of that evolution from sociable, even ebullient young man to marble hero.
The Wilson Quarterly
While Michael Fellman's biography of Robert E. Lee should not be the only book on Lee one reads—Emory Thomas's would be a good balance—this is a thought provoking if somewhat overly focused work. In Fellman's writing, the self-contained, self-controlled leader of legend is an inwardly tortured man, burdened by his born-again Christian beliefs and the Stoic principles he derived from a constant reading of Marcus Aurelius. A book about Robert E. Lee will never please every American. Fellman, however, is a Canadian professor who seems not to suffer from the American ambivalence about the Southern hero. What this relatively brief, mostly psychological biography offers to the reader is, through an intense study of Lee's letters, a glimpse of an inner Lee, perhaps a view of what was in his mind as we see him standing so straight in grey. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2000, Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 360p. illus. notes. index., Moore
Library Journal
The subject of numerous studies, Robert E. Lee has proven as elusive to biographers seeking to comprehend and explain the inner man as he was on the battlefields of Virginia. Fellman (history, Simon Fraser Univ.), author of a pungent and controversial study of William T. Sherman, does as well as anyone has in exploring the inner tensions that bedeviled Lee, who was always conscious of the image he projected and the man he wanted to be. Struggling to subdue his ambitions and passions in a peacetime military career whose monotony was only momentarily breached by the Mexican American War and at Harpers Ferry, Lee found in the Civil War a chance to express himself fully. In a study rich with discussions of Lee's religious beliefs and political opinions, the author skewers previous efforts to detach Lee from slavery, racism, and the mentality of the Lost Cause. Sure to arouse debate, this book challenges and delights, and no one will come away from reading it thinking of Lee in quite the same way. Recommended for public and academic libraries.--Brooks D. Simpson, Arizona State Univ., Tempe Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A brisk, thoughtful analysis of the character, temperament, and social philosophy of the Confederate general. Fellman (Citizen Sherman, 1995) only briefly sketches Lee's martial exploits, focusing instead on the interplay between historical events, domestic demands, and the general's inner life. This presents some difficulty for the psycho-historian, for, as the author acknowledges,"[a]lmost nothing is known" of Lee's childhood (generally the richest resource for character studies), and the future lion of the Confederacy does not really begin to roar on history's stage until 1824, when he enrolled at West Point. Accordingly, Fellman can only infer from Lee's later life (and from the lives of his coevals among his beloved Southern aristocracy) what his boyhood must have been like. Nevertheless, he proceeds in steady chronological fashion to create (with the help of many primary documents) a convincing portrait of Lee as a devout, teetotaling Christian (who was"convinced that God rode with him"), an adherent to"the timeless code of the gentleman," a stern disciplinarian, a stoic who disdained personal comfort, a loyal husband and dedicated father who dispensed advice to spouse and offspring in prodigious amounts, a brilliant military strategist (Pickett's Charge notwithstanding), and a racist slave-owner who"never questioned his belief in the inferiority of blacks." Fellman effectively conveys—often in Lee's own words—the general's fluctuating moods, demonstrating, for example, how the melancholy occasioned by his defeat at Gettysburg"never again entirely lifted." Of special interest are thepostwarchapters dealing with Lee's five-year tenure as president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee), where he attempted to put into practice his belief that"education meant moral education." Fellman is not a great stylist—his words are rather more dutiful than lyrical—but he does accomplish his stated task:"to rescue the human from the marble."

Journal of American History - Russell F. Weigley
An analysis of the mind and character of Lee looking outward on his world... Well written, persuasive, and, in [its] marshaling of evidence, authoritative.

Virginia Magazine of History and Biography - Richard B. McCaslin
Fellman has produced as thought-provoking an attack on Lee's character as [Thomas L.] Connelly ever wrote on Lee's generalship, and about as well researched.

New York Military Affairs Symposium Newsletter - Albert A. Nofi
A valuable work for anyone interested in the Civil War.

Journal of American History
An analysis of the mind and character of Lee looking outward on his world... Well written, persuasive, and, in [its] marshaling of evidence, authoritative.

— Russell F. Weigley

Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Fellman has produced as thought-provoking an attack on Lee's character as [Thomas L.] Connelly ever wrote on Lee's generalship, and about as well researched.

— Richard B. McCaslin

New York Military Affairs Symposium Newsletter
A valuable work for anyone interested in the Civil War.

— Albert A. Nofi

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
1 ED
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.53(h) x 1.18(d)

Read an Excerpt

In 1867, the president of Washington College, a small men's institution in Lexington, Virginia, was asked by the Educational Society of his state to serve on a committee of three that was to prepare an address to the parents of the sons of Virginia, urging on them a more hearty cooperation with teachers in matters of discipline and instruction. The Civil War had left a legacy of wildness among young men, and authority needed reinforcement.

President Robert E. Lee, former commander of the Army of Northern Virginia and former commandant at West Point, was as expert on education and discipline as any man in the state. Upon his appointment, he wrote a lengthy position paper in the form of a letter to the other two members of the committee--one a professor, the other an Anglican minister--to outline the basic purposes and goals of education, which were also the markers of a proper gentleman's character. In many ways, he also painted a picture of the man he hoped he had made of himself.

Education, not nature, made the man. "Education embraces the physical, moral and intellectual instruction of a child from infancy to manhood," Lee wrote. "Any system is imperfect which does not combine them all, and that is best which, while it thoroughly develops them, abuses the coarse animal emotions of human nature and exalts the higher faculties and feelings." Repression of the brute beneath was a sine qua non; therefore, "obedience is the first requisite" in family training as in school, the two central sites for the struggle to inculcate order in the unruly child.

But education was not to be the simple dictatorship of the teacher: The appropriate control of others had to stem not from sheer force but from example. "Neither violence or harshness should ever be used and the parent [and teacher] must bear in mind that to govern his child he must show that he can control himself," Lee stressed. The essential need was for "firmness mixed with kindness." Not merely should the child's "mind be expanded," but "his heart must be affected, his feelings moved." The "sentiments of religion" had to be inculcated by "systematic instruction." Likewise, learning to love labor, to develop independence and quash animal idleness, must be "pursued by earnest and regular exertion." But, as with the teaching of religious sentiments, all drills had to be coupled to demonstrations of piety and industry by parent and teacher.
If all went well, the heart as well as the head of the student would become attuned to self-control. "The love of truth is equal in importance to habitual obedience," Lee reiterated. Nobility of character was the chief end of education--careers would follow--and any choice would be socially responsible and individually fulfilling if made by the dutiful man.

These calmly stern teachings came without hesitation or doubt from the pen of the sixty-year-old Lee, who had seen so much of the affairs of men, including the most base. As he wrote this letter, two books sat on his desk: the Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer and a well-worn Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic Roman emperor. These sources and values, inherited from the milieu of the Virginia slaveholding gentry in which he was bred, explain much about the persona of Robert E. Lee, the Lee who was an exemplar, in his own eyes as well as those of others, of the best of his class, his place, and his time. Perhaps more than any other American, with the exception of George Washington, whom he consciously emulated, Lee has long been taken as a moral hero, the greatest Southern white gentleman, the Marble Man. Lee was complicit in this creation because he held himself to a life of endless discipline and selfless virtue in a very determined way.

The struggle for self-mastery--the effort to repress every potentially disruptive impulse and emotion--was perpetual. The Christian virtue of humility instructed this moral wrestler that he would, of course, never reach his goal, but the older Stoic virtue of pride--one of the seven deadly Christian sins--kept him marching along the stony path of control and denial.

Such a character ideal had been typical for the eighteenth-century Virginia slaveholding gentry. But Lee lived in the midnineteenth century, in a society still defined in part by such traditions but also deeply influenced by Romanticism and the warm piety of Evangelical Christianity. In middle age, to be true to his religious striving, Lee felt obliged to open himself to soul-searching and spiritual passion during a conversion experience. Once he had reached upward, however, Lee turned toward an even more distant and chilly sense of duty, as if in flight from the vulnerability his transformation had demanded.
As a young man, Lee often had been quite ebullient. One story Lee told on himself to a close friend demonstrated in a lighthearted way some of the tension between the less repressed side of his character and his endless drive for self-mastery and self-abnegation.

In 1846, when he was thirty-nine, Lee was stationed at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, engineering new fortifications. One winter's day, when a heavy snowfall blanketed the roads of New York City, several enterprising liverymen brought out horses and sleighs and offered rides up and down Broadway. Lee wrote to John Mackay, his closest West Point chum, about his experience on the sleighs. "The girls returning from school were the prettiest sight, piled on each other's laps, with their bags of books and laughing faces. Indeed there were no lack of customers at sixpence a ride, and you might be accommodated with a lady in your lap in the bargain." Temptation. "Think of a man of my forbidding countenance, John Mackay, having such an offer." Will the mask cover the desire? "But I peeped under the veil before accepting and though I really could not find fault either with her appearance or age, after a little demurring preferred giving her my seat." The gentleman dominates the man when he recalls the discretion demanded of a properly married gentleman such as he. "I thought it would not sound well if repeated in the latitude of Washington," where his wife's family lived, as well as many other young women of his acquaintance, "that I had been riding down BW with a strange woman sitting in my lap. What might my little sweethearts think of it, Miss Harriet H[ackley Talcott]," the wife of another West Point friend, "among the number. Upon reflection I think I did well, for though you know I am charmed when I can get one of the dear creatures on my knee, yet I have my fancies in this as in other things. I found however that I was looked upon as such a curmudgeon by my fellow passengers that I took the first opportunity to leave them." Hooted at for his punctiliousness, which some took to be prudery, the proper Lee conquered his desires by getting off that dangerous sleigh.

Meet the Author

Michael Fellman lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he is a professor of history at Simon Fraser University. He is the author of five previous books, including Inside War: The Guerrilla Conflict in Missouri during the American Civil War and Citizen Sherman: A Life of William Tecumseh Sherman.

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The Making of Robert E. Lee 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I found this book readable and revealing. I suppose the reader brings some baggage to bear on the reading. I did not know that Robert E. Lee came from the upper crust of Virginia society and that his father was so famous and infamous and that Robert was so poor, he married a rich cousin as was the rule. The author bears down hard on telling the reader of the meaning of certain activities and statements. There is also a heavy dose of Roberts letters with young women and what this could mean erotically in a Victorian setting. I understood a little better the racist ideology of southern nationalism and white suprematism esp. the betrayal of African-Americans after Reconstruction
Guest More than 1 year ago
Liberal Northeastern views came thru loud and clear from the author. I have my doubt's that Lee was altogether racist, he certainly was prejudiced but we are judjing him by todays standards. What about him breaking the ice by knelling next to a black man during communion in a racially divided church in Lexington?