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Robert E. Lee: A Biography

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The life of Robert E. Lee is a story not of defeat but of triumph—triumph in clearing his family name, triumph in marrying properly, triumph over the mighty Mississippi in his work as an engineer, and triumph over all other military men to become the towering figure who commanded the Confederate army in the American Civil War. But late in life Lee confessed that he "was The life of Robert E. Lee is a story not of defeat but of triumph—triumph in clearing his family name, triumph in marrying properly, triumph over the mighty Mississippi in his work as an engineer, and triumph over all other military men to become the towering figure who commanded the Confederate army in the American Civil War. But late in life Lee confessed that he "was always wanting something." In this probing and personal biography, Emory Thomas reveals more than the man himself did. Robert E. Lee has been, and continues to be, a symbol and hero in the American story. But in life, Thomas writes, Lee was both more and less than his legend. Here is the man behind the legend.


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The life of Robert E. Lee is a story not of defeat but of triumph—triumph in clearing his family name, triumph in marrying properly, triumph over the mighty Mississippi in his work as an engineer, and triumph over all other military men to become the towering figure who commanded the Confederate army in the American Civil War. But late in life Lee confessed that he "was The life of Robert E. Lee is a story not of defeat but of triumph—triumph in clearing his family name, triumph in marrying properly, triumph over the mighty Mississippi in his work as an engineer, and triumph over all other military men to become the towering figure who commanded the Confederate army in the American Civil War. But late in life Lee confessed that he "was always wanting something." In this probing and personal biography, Emory Thomas reveals more than the man himself did. Robert E. Lee has been, and continues to be, a symbol and hero in the American story. But in life, Thomas writes, Lee was both more and less than his legend. Here is the man behind the legend.

30 review for Robert E. Lee: A Biography

  1. 5 out of 5

    Tom

    You ever read a biography and wish you could meet the subject? This is one of those books. Gives a great view of the man and the General. Compelling and straight-forward guy who had a strong character and genuine desire to help people, and who struggled with the legacy of his father for much of his life. He certainly didn't have the best views on race equality, but he was a man who had his convictions and this book does a great job of highlighting that.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Jenny

    This was a very well written biography that really focused on the man behind the myth and painted a more realistic portrait of Lee (aristrocratic & slaveholding). I thoroughly enjoyed how the author used original source material from Lee's own papers and diaries to illustrate Lee's views on the war and his own life. I also enjoyed reading the other first hand accounts from people that knew him personally. --- My personal impression of Lee after reading this bio was that he led a very This was a very well written biography that really focused on the man behind the myth and painted a more realistic portrait of Lee (aristrocratic & slaveholding). I thoroughly enjoyed how the author used original source material from Lee's own papers and diaries to illustrate Lee's views on the war and his own life. I also enjoyed reading the other first hand accounts from people that knew him personally. --- My personal impression of Lee after reading this bio was that he led a very frustrated and sad life and was disappointed and let down by those he counted on. His father left him as a child, his wife was fairly useless, his subordinates in the war never fully carried out his orders, and his own children never strove to achieve their full potential. For such a shy/introverted man it is amazing that he was able to accomplish so much, let alone command troops. Very interesting read for anyone that enjoys American history.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Rob Carl

    The book is detailed, very detailed with letters from those who knew him and his personal letters to his wife and kids. This is not a story about him it is a Biography. If you like biographies you'll love this, but if they are not apart of your normal diet, it can bog down. The author repeats himself with small details. As a result of the book I felt like I could relate to him and identify with him and his shy personality. He didn't want the job and he didn't think the South had the resources to The book is detailed, very detailed with letters from those who knew him and his personal letters to his wife and kids. This is not a story about him it is a Biography. If you like biographies you'll love this, but if they are not apart of your normal diet, it can bog down. The author repeats himself with small details. As a result of the book I felt like I could relate to him and identify with him and his shy personality. He didn't want the job and he didn't think the South had the resources to win. But he didn't want to stand by when a president that wasn't elected by a single Southern State intruded Virginia with his Army to force them into submission. There are those who still say the war was about slavery when Lincoln refused to make it about slavery for the first two years of the war to Lincoln it was about maintaining unity. To Robert E. Lee it was to protect his home.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Erik Graff

    I'd previously read another biography of Lee concentrating on his career as the commander of the Army of North Virginia and later of the entire Confederate Army. This study explores the whole man, beginning with his parents and ending with his demise in 1870, aged sixty-three. The Civil War, while eventful, only occupied somewhat under five years of his life--about the same length of time as his last career as a college president. Here, the other five-plus decades--his years of childhood, at I'd previously read another biography of Lee concentrating on his career as the commander of the Army of North Virginia and later of the entire Confederate Army. This study explores the whole man, beginning with his parents and ending with his demise in 1870, aged sixty-three. The Civil War, while eventful, only occupied somewhat under five years of his life--about the same length of time as his last career as a college president. Here, the other five-plus decades--his years of childhood, at West Point, as an army engineer and in the Mexican War--are given due attention. A sympathetic study by a noted scholar of the Confederacy, this well-written biography is recommended.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Jove

    I listened to this as part of a run of Civil War biographies including Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Although the book kept my attention, I found it to be the least engaging of the three biographies. Surprisingly, the portions of the book dedicated to the Civil War were the least useful to me. The narrative bogged down in tactical details, whereas I would have liked to hear more about Lee's strategic considerations (which are certainly included) and the interpersonal / political I listened to this as part of a run of Civil War biographies including Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Although the book kept my attention, I found it to be the least engaging of the three biographies. Surprisingly, the portions of the book dedicated to the Civil War were the least useful to me. The narrative bogged down in tactical details, whereas I would have liked to hear more about Lee's strategic considerations (which are certainly included) and the interpersonal / political tensions that he faced. I felt that these were mostly bypassed by the author stating that Lee would tend to downplay or avoid interpersonal confrontation. While this might be true, it doesn't negate the political problems that he faced as the Confederacy's leading military figure. The pre and post war periods of the book actually carried the book for me. Thomas manages to make Lee's early career as an engineer engrossing, and gives some insight into how he managed to become one of the great figures of the 19th century. These time periods are also filled with interesting narrative describing the contradictions that have been an important part of Lee's legend, particularly his conflicting pro-United States and pro-state views, as well as some of his internally contradictory feelings and actions in regards to slavery. One of the better anecdotes involves Lee defusing a tense situation by taking communion next to a black man after the man tested the South's new racial boundaries by kneeling at the altar of a previously all white church. Many other reviews feel that this is a "neutral" view of Lee's life. I felt that the author's admiration shows through somewhat in his interpretation of Lee's contradictions, particularly giving him the benefit of the doubt by downplaying his support of slavery, when the evidence could point in either direction. Regardless, he successfully communicates that Lee was an impressive figure, and one of the great influencers of the century.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Christopher Sturcke

    This might just be the best single volume R.E. Lee biography out there. Emory Thomas did a masterful job of compiling information from previously unused sources which included letters, diary entries, and other personal papers not only from Lee himself but also those around him. The author did allot of digging and what resulted is a biography that cuts Lee down to proportion by highlighting the General's humanness without tearing down Lee's legacy. Lee was a big man (physically speaking as well), This might just be the best single volume R.E. Lee biography out there. Emory Thomas did a masterful job of compiling information from previously unused sources which included letters, diary entries, and other personal papers not only from Lee himself but also those around him. The author did allot of digging and what resulted is a biography that cuts Lee down to proportion by highlighting the General's humanness without tearing down Lee's legacy. Lee was a big man (physically speaking as well), and despite his shortcomings and failures remains and deserves to remain as one of the great men in American history. In all stations of life he served with hallmark honor. Emory does not simply gloss over Lee's not so positive character traits such as his racism as shown in Lee's own statements but points them out. Thomas was right in his final observations, Lee was hero, tainted as all heroes are since all are human, but a hero non the less. Yet Lee was a tragic hero: his whole life he was no stranger to death, hardships, loss of persons and property, and pride. He died living a life which was a far cry from the grand life he may have lived if not for siding with the Confederacy but he chose honor and loyalty instead, living with the consequences and making the best of all situations in classic Lee fashion. He died with respect and that is how he should be remembered. Thomas's biography will remain one of the best go to biographies on Lee for a long time coming, at least for those who care to regard the truth.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Ty

    At the recommendation of historian Kevin Levin (author of "Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder") I read Emory Thomas's biography of Lee with high expectations, and wasn't disappointed. Originally published in 1995, Thomas thoroughly engages critical source material left out of earlier Lee biographies, analytically revealing a man neither demigod nor devil. Thomas declutters past Lee mythologies to present a man seemingly defined by paradoxes: a doting, loving father who also At the recommendation of historian Kevin Levin (author of "Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder") I read Emory Thomas's biography of Lee with high expectations, and wasn't disappointed. Originally published in 1995, Thomas thoroughly engages critical source material left out of earlier Lee biographies, analytically revealing a man neither demigod nor devil. Thomas declutters past Lee mythologies to present a man seemingly defined by paradoxes: a doting, loving father who also rebukes his children to excess; a plantation-owning Whig who finds slavery abhorrent; an introvert who escapes interpersonal conflicts by waging a Civil War; a conservative segregationist who kneels for communion with a black man. On par with Elizabeth Brown Pryor's documentary Lee history, "Reading the Man" (2007), readers of Thomas's fascinating tome will find an in-depth, nuanced treatment of Lee's life as a student, engineer, soldier, and educator.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Fred Stevens

    I felt that my formal education regarding Lee was an exercise in hagiography (even though I was schooled in the North). I picked this book as I thought it might provide a more balanced and objective view of him. It was successful. Lee was a skilled engineer and military officer. He had many admirable qualities: he was a good father and he was very disciplined in his personal and professional life. Lee also believed very strongly that it was incumbent upon him to do right by his fellow man. I felt that my formal education regarding Lee was an exercise in hagiography (even though I was schooled in the North). I picked this book as I thought it might provide a more balanced and objective view of him. It was successful. Lee was a skilled engineer and military officer. He had many admirable qualities: he was a good father and he was very disciplined in his personal and professional life. Lee also believed very strongly that it was incumbent upon him to do right by his fellow man. Paradoxically, he was systematically racist. He believed that whites were superior to blacks, to native Americans, and to Mexicans. I am stuck, once again, by the realization that intelligent, prominent people in our history were blatant racists and that it is 'revisionist history' to deny it or, for that matter, to omit it in our discussion of them.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Bobsie67

    Sometimes gets bogged down in the details, ie, much of the engineering of forts was a bit beyond me. However, Thomas shows Lee as a man who was heroic, human, introverted--someone who made mistakes, who had convictions, and someone who was very much a product of his family circumstances, as well as his place and time in history. Not sure I buy some of the psychological conclusions, but others have made the same conclusions. Thomas states that Lee believed he would have been victorious at Sometimes gets bogged down in the details, ie, much of the engineering of forts was a bit beyond me. However, Thomas shows Lee as a man who was heroic, human, introverted--someone who made mistakes, who had convictions, and someone who was very much a product of his family circumstances, as well as his place and time in history. Not sure I buy some of the psychological conclusions, but others have made the same conclusions. Thomas states that Lee believed he would have been victorious at Gettysburg if he had Jackson, and I tend to agree.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Isidore

    Thomas's book is still the best modern biography of Lee. Neither hostile nor hagiographic, Thomas has a remarkable gift for landing precisely on the most reasonable interpretation of controversial matters. He is rarely eloquent, and I understand that his somewhat humdrum prose can make the book a slog for some readers. Personally, I find his plain, unpretentious style fits well with the good common sense and lack of agenda which make the book admirable.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Chris

    Well crafted biography designed to reveal the man behind the many myths. In addition, it serves as a corrective to the harsher critiques of Lee by Thomas Connelly and Alan Nolan. Thomas is no Lee apologist and puts human clothes on the man. Points of Lee's wit shine especially in this regard - and serve both to let us know Lee better and to dispel those mythic trappings.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Jay Carper

    It's very difficult to get an unbiased opinion of Robert E. Lee. He's either a demigod or a demon, depending on who you ask. Emory's biography paints a picture of a good, but flawed, man who tried to make the best of a bad situation. Lee became a man I could relate to, tragic and admirable, but, most of all, human.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Michael Baranowski

    Like most people, I know how many Southerners idolize Lee, but I didn't know much beyond that. Thomas' book gave me an appreciation for Lee's complex character and for what made him such an icon to generations of Southerners.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Hugh T. Harrington

    Excellent. I found this biography thoroughly documented with excellent primary sources. This is an in-depth look at Lee; warts and all. This is not the mythical Christ figure but rather the man himself. I could not be more pleased.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Michael Geiger

    excellent read, Thomas kept me interested and wanting more, which is important with biographies.

  16. 5 out of 5

    David Rogers

    I quit this book. I got bored with it.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Charly

    outstanding.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Tom

    I'm going to rate the book a 3 and the subject/story a 5. Lee was a remarkable man, engineering degree from West Point, only later to discover that he was probably a better soldier than engineer. His tackling of the river problems near St. Louis was amazing. In the end a tragic figure. The author's style just turned me off a bit, the sort of thing that gives history a bad name.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Shane

    Few events in the history of the United States have captured the same interest and emotion as the Civil War has. Due to the recent increased media focus on the war, its legacy, and those who fought in it, I picked up Emory M. Thomas’s biography on Robert E. Lee published in 1995, seeking a more scholarly view and it was satisfying. Thomas, Regents Professor of History at the University of Georgia and the author of a number of other books on the Confederacy and the American Civil War, describes Few events in the history of the United States have captured the same interest and emotion as the Civil War has. Due to the recent increased media focus on the war, its legacy, and those who fought in it, I picked up Emory M. Thomas’s biography on Robert E. Lee published in 1995, seeking a more scholarly view and it was satisfying. Thomas, Regents Professor of History at the University of Georgia and the author of a number of other books on the Confederacy and the American Civil War, describes his work as “post-revisionist”, contrasting his image of the famed general with those of several previous works. In these Lee appears either as a gentlemanly, hero-saint of the South (Freeman), or as a man who despite his best efforts is constantly frustrated with failure (Connelly). Taking a different turn, Thomas portrays an enigmatic Lee. Lee is portrayed as a man of seemingly endless contradictions. Though born with a proud family name, Lee’s father and several other members cast a black spot on the family name and squandered its wealth. A shy man, raised by the women in his household, Lee chose the path of rigorous military training. Upon marriage Lee was a loyal husband, and yet a shameless flirt with a series of young ladies throughout of his life. Though the superintendent of West Point for a time and the head of the president of Washington College until his death, he believed he did not have the “gift” of teaching in an academic field and only took the positions on reluctantly. Lee was a man of simple pleasures, who desired the peace of farm life, and yet he continuously sought the rigors of army life and war. A reluctant rebel who questioned the legality of secession and desired the union between North and South, Lee nevertheless threw his best efforts into ensuring a Southern victory. Very much like its title, Thomas’s biography is simple, and, for the most part straightforward. This is the book’s greatest strength and what makes it appealing to someone new to the subject or looking for a refresher on Lee’s life. Thomas achieves one of his stated goals of getting past the previous skewed biographies of Lee and giving “History Robert E. Lee whole.” Neither overstating his successes, nor dwelling on his numerous failures.Thomas’s greatest strength is crafting Lee’s unique relationship with different members of his family and their influences on him. In between, a person looking for Lee’s beliefs on the United States, slavery, race, and religion will get the all the basics in this book, though his time as a slave holder feels a bit rushed. Nevertheless I had several issues with this book. The writing tends to go through phases of puttering along only to be punctured in the most dramatic of fashions, especially when discussing Lee’s campaigns. For example, on page 252, the narrative of Jackson’s movements before the victory of Second Manassas lumbers through an itinerary of roads and locations until ending line: “The Southerners gorged themselves, carried away all they could, and burned the residue in a huge holocaust to whatever gods presided over their great fortune.” These dramatic flares, while not harming the writing, are jolting. It's like one moment you are reading some basic Civil War history, the next it feels like you are reading a purple passage from some Classical historian. There is also an innuendo on page 312: “Grant unleashed a series of thrusts against Bragg in his Missionary Position- with predictable results.” While the biography is generally balanced, there are times when I feel the Southern emotion carries away the writing. The last pages of his chapter on Gettysburg and Pickett’s Charge are probably the best example. His style shifts, the narrative becomes overwhelmed with quotes and action for a page and a half. Then on the next page he brings in a long passage from William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust, that I feel adds little to the chapter. Nevertheless, the biography serves its purpose and was a worthwhile read to anyone seeking to know Lee’s family life, character,and politics.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Brian

    Emory Thomas gives a southerners perspective on the life of Robert E. Lee. The preface of this book gives the reader a sense that they will be given a pro-southern view of the war and while that is true at times the biography is generally balanced well. Lee is portrayed as a hero which he was to the south and shown as a military genius which was mostly true. Lee accomplished amazing things by bold actions and the principles of movement and concentration. This book tracks his childhood where he Emory Thomas gives a southerners perspective on the life of Robert E. Lee. The preface of this book gives the reader a sense that they will be given a pro-southern view of the war and while that is true at times the biography is generally balanced well. Lee is portrayed as a hero which he was to the south and shown as a military genius which was mostly true. Lee accomplished amazing things by bold actions and the principles of movement and concentration. This book tracks his childhood where he lived in the shadow of a father who was a failure. It then moves to his years at West Point where he excelled and graduated at the top of his class. He was given several assignments across the country from building a fort in Savannah to defending the Mississippi near St. Louis. He even spent time in New York City rebuilding forts there before heading off to war in the 1848 Mexican American War. Lee served with distinction in the war and learned a great deal from Winfield Scott about fighting an offensive war with smaller numbers than the enemy. He would take these lessons to heart against the north. Lee would refuse both the United States Army and the Confederacy when they offered him posts in their armies. It was only when his home state of Virginia left the union that he accepted command of all Virginia militias. As the militias were absorbed into the army Lee found himself without a command. Jefferson Davis would use Lee as a roving advisor helping to make overall strategic decisions, a sort of Halleck of the South initially. Lee would eventually take command of the army once Johnston was sent out to command the Army of Tennessee. This would be a post that Lee kept throughout the entire war. Lee was able to achieve stunning victories by daring action but in the end resources were against him. Lee correctly believed that his army had to achieve victory very quickly because a war of attrition favored the north. Unfortunately for Lee he was at times too bold and all of the battles are categorized well here. For a book written in 1995 there is a good deal of attention paid to the west which is now considered a vital battlefield. Lee was forced to surrender after a vicious battle near Appomattox courthouse where PA miners actually blew up a whole underneath his army. Lee won daring defensive victories but each time his army was smaller and his position more tenuous. After the war Lee accepted a post to become President of Washington College in Lexington. It was a post he would excel at. Lee would not become a citizen of the union until historians discovered his petition in 1975 when Congress made him a citizen again. This biography provides an excellent and balanced look at Robert E. Lee's life. I would highly recommend for Civil War scholars who want an updated biography and one that is not too biased in one direction.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Bill

    Surprisingly readable and reasonably insightful. Here and there the author strays into pontificating on his own ideas, which he sometimes does by "interpreting" what Robert E. Lee himself said on a particular topic. At one point, he freely substitute his words for Lee's and the assigns some different meaning to what Lee says. Troubling, but no so egregious that it ruins his work. Fascinating man, of course and this book seems to cover all you'd need to know. Where I found it slightly lacking was Surprisingly readable and reasonably insightful. Here and there the author strays into pontificating on his own ideas, which he sometimes does by "interpreting" what Robert E. Lee himself said on a particular topic. At one point, he freely substitute his words for Lee's and the assigns some different meaning to what Lee says. Troubling, but no so egregious that it ruins his work. Fascinating man, of course and this book seems to cover all you'd need to know. Where I found it slightly lacking was that although it put forth the idea that Lee was a "god" and a towering figure, it didn't tell me why clearly enough to understand. So I see and accept that he was a great man in many ways (and certainly far from great in others) but I don't have a good sense of the reason for that universal acclaim like I do for, say, Washington or Lincoln.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Jacki

    I trudged through this book like a Confederate soldier! It reads like a textbook and I seriously contemplated quitting more than once. The writing is cumbersome and the author lacked the passion that I find in many historical accounts/biographies. After I completed it, I have to admit I learned a lot about the Civil War and Robert E. Lee. With that said, if you plan on reading it, plan on taking your time!

  23. 5 out of 5

    Pabgo

    While on vacation, we visited Lexington, Virginia, where Lee's tomb is located. In the museum gift shop were arrayed any number of biographies of Gen. Lee. I asked the attendant to recommend the most concise, readable edition, and she recommended this one. It was most readable and enjoyable! Informative, and enlightening, this book is well researched, anecdotal, and lends respect to a legendary figure of American history. Highly recommended.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Rae

    Lee was quite an enigma and historians have been trying for decades to figure him out. In the South, he is seen almost as a Christ figure (especially right after the War). Elsewhere, he is seen by many as a traitor to his country. In truth, he was just a good human being who reacted well to the various situations life threw at him. I enjoyed this biography.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Ms.

    This book is about a man named Robert E. LEE. It talks about his childhood and the way he grew up. It talks about his major achievements in life. This is about a book that says he is not all bad. He might have been a confetert but he fought for his home. He is a great person and i think you should learn about him. ryan peyton

  26. 5 out of 5

    Dale

    An balanced look at the life of Robert E Lee. It leaves one with having spent time was a man of greatness but a man who lived a life. This could be the really Robert E Lee. A person of being in a place at a certain time. But no need to feel you are in the presences of greatness.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Bob

    Robert E. Lee was a great man who happened to pick the side that could not win. This book makes him seem more human than others.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Sandy

    Loved, Loved,Loved it!

  29. 4 out of 5

    Larry Van Bibber

    It was a very interesting biography of a brilliant leader. If he was a general of the winning side of the civil war, he would be one of our greatest heroes.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Cws

    CW9737Tho

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