Book Review: The Making of Robert E. Lee


by Michael Fellman

Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. Pp. xx, 360. Illus., notes, index. $18.95 . ISBN:0-8018-7411-4

As has proven the case with his personal hero, George Washington, the true Robert E. Lee, man and a soldier, suffered greatly from the mythmakers. In Washington’s case the problem was the Parson Weems school of idolaters. For Lee it was the “Lost Cause” historians. (No coincidence here that Douglas Southall Freeman penned monumental biographies of both men.) For both Virginians, getting at the real man has proven difficult, as the mythic image was greatly treasured. For Washington the work was largely accomplished by the bicentennial . For Lee it began with Thomas Connelly’s 1977 work The Marble Man, and is still underway.

In The Making of Robert E. Lee Michael Fellman looks at both the making of the real man and the making of myth. Only four of the thirteen chapters are actually about the Civil War. The others focus on Lee’s early life, including the impact on his character of the abandonment of his family by his rebrobate father and the subsequent disgrace of his equally shameful older half-brother. Considerable attention is paid to the political, cultural, and social forces that shaped his views. As Fellman points out, most biographers pass lightly over his views on slavery, picking and choosing to prop up Lee’s image, and also ignore his tendency to snobbishness, surely a mechanism to insure that he maintain a “gentlemanly” image at all times (in contrast to his father and brother). Equally so, however, Lee’s biographers seem to miss his surprisingly impish sense of humor (there’s a wonderful anecdote describing how Freeman so totally misunderstood a little joke of Lee’s that he seems to have thought it implied the man had committed murder!) and his playful relationships with young women.

While The Making of Robert E. Lee does not delve deeply into Lee’s military accomplishments, it represents a valuable work for anyone interested in the Civil War.

Reviewer: Albert A. Nofi   

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