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Robert E. Lee: A Biography Paperback – June 17, 1997

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Thomas, a distinguished historian of the Civil War (The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience), has written a major analytical biography of Robert E. Lee. Synthesizing printed and manuscript sources, he presents Lee as neither the icon of Douglas Southall Freeman nor the flawed figure presented by Thomas Connolly. Lee emerges instead as a man of paradoxes, whose frustrations and tribulations were the basis for his heroism. Lee's work was his play, according to the author, and throughout his life he made the best of his lot. Believing that evil springs from selfishness, he found release in service to his family, his country and, not least, to the men he led. One of history's great captains and most beloved generals, he refused to take himself too seriously. This comic vision of life ultimately shaped an individual who was both more and less than his legend. Highly recommended. Photos not seen by PW.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

Gen. Robert Edward Lee was a leader who inspired great devotion among the men who followed him, and he continues to inspire great interest to this day. Thomas (The Confederate Nation, 1861-1865, 1979) presents a fresh look at the general. By examining Lee as a person, the biographer renders him intensely human. Lee is shown to be the son of an unstable father, a frustrated husband, and a devoted parent. He encountered many hardships but became great not "because of what he did ...but because of the way he lived." Given the prodigious number of Lee biographies available, this may be an optional purchase, but it is nonetheless a valuable addition to the studies of the general.?Robert A. Curtis, Taylor Memorial P.L., Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 496 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (June 17, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393316319
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393316315
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 0.9 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (45 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #592,190 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

89 of 94 people found the following review helpful By Anson Cassel Mills on November 26, 1998
Format: Hardcover
Because I spent three summers at Arlington House as a National Park Service ranger, I've read a number of books about Robert E. Lee and his family, including Freeman's four volumes twice. Thomas's biography is well written and was especially helpful to me in sorting out aspects of Lee's pre-Civil War career that hadn't made sense to me before. Thomas' treatment of Lee's feckless father, Light Horse Harry, hits close to the mark, and I'm ready to accept Mrs. Lee as more small-minded than I would have credited ten years ago. Thomas is perhaps a bit tough on Lee's father-in-law, G.W.P. Custis, and I would have liked the author to spend more time with Lee's mother-in-law, Mary Fitzhugh Custis, whose influence on Lee and his family was enormous.
Thomas' attempt to read double-entendres into Lee's early pleasantries with younger women is at best strained and at worse anachronistic. Thomas also has an imperfect understanding of evangelical religion in the nineteenth century and seems to think if the low-church Episcopalian Lee didn't discuss a conversion experience, then his confirmation in the church at age 46 was little more than a formality "to support his daughters' conviction" and "to honor his mother-in-law's piety." Thomas' attempt to substitute "God" for "true gentleman" in one of Lee's ruminations about ethics and read into it an "intriguing theological insight" is downright silly. (p. 397)
One serious mistake needs to be corrected: the sensational charge that in June 1862, Lee was so preoccupied with his duties that he forgot his grandson had died and wrote to the boy's mother asking her to "kiss [him] for me." Thomas might have reflected on the improbability of this story and double-checked the primary sources. Actually, the boy died in July.
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21 of 21 people found the following review helpful By lordhoot on March 11, 2004
Format: Hardcover
I thought this was a personal biography of Robert E. Lee. I think some of the previous reviewers were looking for a military biography. But book talks more about Lee as a man instead of Lee as a military commander. On that, I found the book to be rather refreshing in outlook as the author intregated Lee's personal life into his military performances.
The author appears to be pretty sympathetic toward Lee, as a man with many problems at home before, during and after the Civil War. He writes with clarity and with empathy which helped the reader understand what sort of a man Lee was. While an analyical look, I found the book readable, enlightening and well presented.
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Jackie Tortorella VINE VOICE on August 31, 2003
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Thomas has written a thorough, well-researched albeit opinioned biography of Robert E. Lee that focuses more on the man than the battles. I gave it 4 stars because the entire book was engrossing--never a bit dull. He claims to be middle-of-the-road between the extreme views of Lee. I think he leans quite a bit toward the detractors. Much of his portrayal of the inner man is speculative, in my opinion. While he may well have gotten most of it right, I don't think Thomas has Lee "all figured out" as much as he seems to think he does. His is another opinion on the field of many such. That said, Thomas has delved into the details with extreme scrutiny. You can see that he really tries to be fair. I think maybe most of my disappointment is that I had hoped this book would make Lee less a mystery, and it did not, not for me anyway.
I do highly recommend this book, not only because it has excellent scholarship, but also because it's a pleasure to read--a most difficult combination!
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By A Colorado Virginian on April 20, 2012
Format: Paperback
I was born in Virginia in the 60's, and even though we moved to the west when I was 7, I nonetheless have always had a fascination with the Civil War and Robert E. Lee. I bought this book to learn more about Lee as an actual person. Although I did learn more about him than I'd known before, I still found this book wanting on several points.

My biggest criticism of the book is that many parts of it are rather speculative and/or unsubstantiated opinion. The author states something along the lines of "Lee felt this way" or "Lee believed this", but with no further presentation of events to support the assertion. I found myself frequently repeating the old high school writing teacher admonishment of "Show, don't tell". Show me Lee's actions, show me his writings, show me his conversations, and then I will be able to reach the conclusion without the author's direction. The author's total speculation of what it would mean if one changed the words "true gentleman" to "God" in one of Lee's writings, was conjecture to the point of absurdity.

The amount of time the author devoted to describing Lee's relationships with other women seemed excessive, and got quite rather repetitive and boring and by the end of the book. Actually much of the book was repetitive - it sometimes seemed as if entire paragraphs had been lifted from earlier parts of the book. Better review and editing would have helped that (along with the occasional spelling errors ("nineth" street), inexplicable in a professional publication in today's spell-check world).

I also felt too much time was spent on Lee's father's story; though it did help lay some groundwork, ultimately this is supposed to be a book about Robert Lee, not Henry Lee.
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