Arts and Entertainment your connection to The Boston Globe

In a celebrated life, shades of gray

Confederate general Lee's private letters offer surprises, contradictions

Robert E. Lee with William Henry Fitzhugh, one of his seven children. Robert E. Lee with William Henry Fitzhugh, one of his seven children. ("reading the man"/virginia historical society)

Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters
By Elizabeth Brown Pryor
Viking, 658 pp., illustrated, $29.95

In national memory Robert E. Lee won by losing. In Lost Cause tradition, the general who led the largest insurgency (treason by any legal definition) against the US government in American history, resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths, became an icon of noble, Christian, infallible heroism and humble reconciliation. Even some Northern spokesmen eager to give the South control over race relations cherished Lee as a "great man -- great in defeat, well-nigh the highest type of human development," as Bostonian Charles Francis Adams II wrote in 1907 in a speech called "Lee's Centennial."

Elizabeth Pryor, a trained historian and former diplomat, delivers an unorthodox, critical, and engaging biography of Lee in "Reading the Man." Pryor selects some of Lee's thousands of letters and around them writes a topical, roughly chronological biography. She impressively captures Lee's character and personality, and seeks to understand "what constitutes heroism." Beyond battlefield bravery, the heroism remains illusive, but Pryor writes with a sure hand, informed by strong research, about Lee "the man."

Pryor claims to reject the debunking of mythology, although in the end she does just that. She exposes some of Lee's fateful mistakes as a general, especially at Gettysburg. She carves the mysticism away from Lee's decision to join his state, Virginia, and therefore the Confederacy, in 1861, rather than fulfill his oath to the US government. Pryor pulls the protective curtain away from Lee's views about slavery and race, revealing a conventional white supremacist and beleaguered slavemaster. The old creed in the Lost Cause catechism that Lee never fought for slavery crumbles in this book. And even Lee's vaunted postwar reconciliationist spirit, quite real in public ways, was privately just the opposite. Pryor judiciously chips away at the marble encasements around the real Lee.

One can hardly count the number of cousins and other relatives Lee had in Virginia, and the author adroitly weaves these deep family ties into her story. Lee married into ownership of nearly 200 slaves. Pryor forthrightly confronts this side of Lee's life; he disliked slavery and found it a burden, but he was no "good" master, communicating badly with his slaves and considering them naturally indolent and incapable of freedom. He confronted an "epidemic of runaways" in the late 1850s and oversaw the brutal beating of one returned fugitive. Modern-day Lee lovers will cringe at some of Pryor's conclusions, rooted in strong evidence: Lee broke up families and "denied the slaves' humanity."

Lee was a career soldier in the fullest sense -- a West Point graduate at nearly the top of his class, a talented engineer who excelled in logistics and topography. As a young officer Lee spent many years on duty from Savannah to St. Louis, New York to the remote frontier of west Texas, where he learned to detest the Comanche and other Indians. Pryor humanizes Lee as she effectively portrays the guilt and pain of all these separations from his family, especially during his distinguished service in the Mexican War. Many of the letters written from these distant settings contain beautiful, descriptive detail, and demonstrate how lonely and depressed a soldier could be while advancing America's manifest destiny.

Secession, of course, challenged Lee, according to Pryor, like the "nightmare of a divided soul." Lee chose the South's cause, argues Pryor, from "convoluted" logic and pride: He thought secession wrong, but supported the secessionists on virtually all issues.

Pryor leaves no doubt that Lee was a fierce Confederate nationalist, an aggressive warrior whose personal reticence transformed in the "pulse-raising thrill" of battle. Lee was radicalized by the seizure and partial destruction of his home and other property by the Yankees. And as for generalship, Pryor follows other Lee scholars in concluding that some of the Virginian's daring maneuvers were stunning achievements against the odds. Lee's two offensive invasions of the North, however -- resulting in massive casualties and failure at Antietam (1862) and Gettysburg (1863) -- contributed mightily to Confederate defeat. Even as a general, Pryor judges Lee "bright but not brilliant." She tries to write dispassionately about his famous "presence," his good looks, and the adoration of his troops. But here Lee the man and Lee the legend remain mixed. The general possessed enormous charisma, courage, and stamina. But Pryor may be overreaching when she claims that much of the spirit of Lee's army "was injected by Lee personally." And her analysis falters into vagueness when she claims that the "greatest calamity" of fratridical war is not the level of death and suffering, but a "gaping fissure in confidence; the collapse of old understandings."

In the five years Lee lived after the war, he argued publicly for healing and took on the presidency of Washington College in Virginia. Always a voracious reader, Lee was animated by education until his health declined. He largely shunned the public spotlight, but Pryor shows persuasively that he maintained a "private advocacy" against Reconstruction and the new constitutional amendments, writing essays on state rights as the sole cause for which Southerners had fought. Lee and his family had lost everything, and some of his seven children were all but overwhelmed by the war. Lee's waning years are often portrayed with heroic pathos -- the defeated but unbowed warrior who extended his hand to his conquerors. Pryor writes about this period with a genuine sense of tragedy. But on close examination the story is not so tidy. In some of Lee's letters he seems almost unaware of who or what cause had won the war. He wrote that he would never choose exile because he was "aware of having done nothing wrong." And he was utterly unprepared to accept the war's racial changes. Pryor pulls a few punches in an otherwise well-argued book, but her final judgments will continue to fuel fires of debate over Lee. His legacy, she writes, is "local, not universal," and he was "fabulous in [his] fallibility."

David W. Blight is Class of '54 Professor of American history at Yale, author of the Bancroft Prize-winning "Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory" and the forthcoming "A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom."