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The Making of Robert E. Lee by Michael…

The Making of Robert E. Lee (original 2000; edition 2003)

by Michael Fellman

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851141,824 (3.36)1
Title:The Making of Robert E. Lee
Authors:Michael Fellman
Info:The Johns Hopkins University Press (2003), Edition: Johns Hopkins paperbacks ed, Paperback, 384 pages
Collections:Needs review, Your library, To read
Tags:ACW, American history

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The Making of Robert E. Lee by Michael Fellman (2000)



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Robert E. Lee is the most iconic figure from the American Civil War. Known during his youth at West Point as “the marble man,” Lee was celebrated after the war, even in the northern states, as an icon of both chivalry and Christian virtue. His portrait has looked down from a place of honor on the inmates of countless prep schools and military academies.

Modern biographical studies occur in the long shadow of Douglas Southall Freeman’s multi-volume life of Lee. Revisionist forays into Lee biography have mostly challenged Lee’s reputation as a military genius, without usually delving into his presumed noble character, or his reputation as a Confederate leader who ultimately transcended sectionalism. In the twenty-first century authors continue to turn out unabashedly worshipful titles such as Duty Faithfully Performed, Duty Most Sublime, and The Genius of Robert E. Lee.

Michael Fellman’s The Making of Robert E. Lee is less a narrative of Lee’s life than an essay on his character. Through a close, psychologically informed reading of Lee’s private correspondence and public utterances, Fellman proposes that Lee’s stoic character was the result of unceasing internal struggle to embody the profoundly conservative values of the Virginia gentry.

The son of a heroic but disgraced father, Lee was (as Fellman convincingly argues) destined for obscurity himself until the Civil War summoned him to duty. Success on the battlefield provided an outlet for his repressed drives in the form of his famed “audacity” and contempt for the enemy. Humbled at Gettysburg, Lee did not, in Fellman’s finding, accept the blame for the defeat, but pinned it on his generals while holding the army and himself blameless. Far from being a focal point for reconciliation between North and South, Lee was instrumental, in Fellman’s view, in the establishment of “Lost Cause” ideology. After the Confederate defeat, Lee took his stand once again on the conservative values of racial paternalism, southern sectionalism, and stoic self-control — an ideology he passed on as an educator and, after his death, as an idealized memory of southern gentility.

Fellman’s study of the life of Lee is distinguished by its focus on private correspondence before and after the war, rather than on military affairs. The author’s principal concern is with Lee’s roles as husband, father, slaveowner, school administrator, and public figure, each of which sheds light on his performance as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia and bastion of the Confederacy.

This is not a definitive book, and it certainly will not end the spate of books on Robert E. Lee. Some of Fellman’s speculations, e.g. on Lee’s epistolary dalliances with young women, are plausible even if they must remain unproven in detail. At a minimum, they serve as a useful counterpoint to traditional reverence for Lee. But what is most valuable about the book is that it uses a skillful and fair reading of Lee’s own correspondence to provide new insight on the perennial topic of Lee’s character.
1 vote Muscogulus | Oct 7, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0679456503, Hardcover)

Civil War scholar Michael Fellman investigates the psychology and beliefs of that conflict's most admired general in an intriguing intellectual biography. From his days as a cadet at West Point, Robert E. Lee (1807-70) struck his companions and teachers as "a full-blown aristocratic beau ideal ... tall, stunningly handsome, bright, manly, commanding." His brilliant leadership of the Confederate army against daunting odds only increased Southerners' reverence, which came to be shared by many white Northerners after the partisan passions of the war had faded. Fellman probes behind the façade of the "Marble Man" to discover the conflicts and uncertainties that seethed there. Son of an American Revolutionary legend who ended his life in bankruptcy and disgrace, Lee felt that he must redeem his family name and become the perfect Southern gentleman; yet, he struggled to reconcile his ideals of Christian virtue, self-denial, humility, duty, and honor with his desire for fame and success. "In a very real sense," Fellman writes, "the Civil War rescued Robert E. Lee from marginality and obscurity. In it, he learned to focus his values, his talent, and his deepest feelings on the terrible martial problems at hand." Exploring those values, Fellman unsparingly reveals their roots in racism, repression, and hypocrisy; yet, he acknowledges and admires (with reservations) Lee's sincere adherence to them. "He walked not above but within all the contradictions of a specific society," Fellman writes. "This makes him far more interesting than some boring marble representation of the supposedly unitary and perfect saint." Some ardent worshippers of "Saint Robert" might disagree, but most students of American history will find this a stimulating reassessment. --Wendy Smith

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:20 -0400)

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