cover image Robert E. Lee: A Life

Robert E. Lee: A Life

Allen C. Guelzo. Knopf, $35 (608p) ISBN 978-1-101-94622-0

Historian Guelzo (Reconstruction: A Very Short Introduction) demystifies Robert E. Lee in this evenhanded and insightful biography. Guelzo highlights the shadow over Lee’s life cast by his father, Henry, a Revolutionary War hero and Virginia politician who abandoned the family when Robert was six years old. Seeking to “perfect the imperfections” his father had visited on the family, Lee chose the security of a career in the U.S. Army. After graduating from West Point, he spent nearly two decades in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before first seeing combat in the Mexican-American War. Guelzo painstakingly analyzes Lee’s refusal of an offer to command the Union Army and his acceptance, days later, of a commission to lead the Army of Northern Virginia, contending that Lee’s desire to protect his family’s property in Virginia played a key role in his decision. After a brisk recap of the Civil War, Guelzo hones in on Lee’s fears of being indicted for treason, his successful tenure as president of what became Washington and Lee University, and the evolution of his historical reputation from the “Lost Cause” mythologizing of the early 20th century to the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. Deeply researched and elegantly written, this nuanced portrait captures Lee’s “ambiguous place in American history.” (Sept.)