Saturday, December 19, 2015

Book Review: "Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee" by Michael Korda

I have just finished reading a biography of American Confederate General Robert E. Lee. "Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee" was published last summer, and is written by Michael Korda. At 848 pages in paperback, it is a sizable book - I read it on my Kindle over a period of several weeks.

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Before reading this book I thought I knew a lot about Robert E Lee having read many books about the American Civil War. While the war takes up a substantial part of the book, it does also cover his early and middle life. After all - he was 56 when the war started and died just five years after it ended.

His family had close links with George Washington and he took part in many historical events before the Civil War such as the capture and hanging of John Brown, and fighting in the one-sided Mexican War. He was a (reluctant) slave-owner, but seems to have dedicated his life to the Army. Michael Korda writes a riveting account of Lee's life and it is hard not to admire Lee for his dedication, honesty, and devotion to God. At times the book borders on hero-worship by Korda, however Lee stands out as a true icon of American history. His life before the war is not dramatic - in fact he could be regarded as quite a boring person who spent too long in the army. It took him a long time to gain promotions and seems to have been happy enough to accept that everything that happened to him was "God's Will" to be done. 

As an educator myself I was very interested in his time as superintendent at West Point Military Academy (1852-1855), and as President of Washington College (1865-1870). He was a workaholic who had a passion for improving the lives of his students - especially in the difficult years for the South after the Civil War ended. His time at Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) is the shortest part in the book - it would have been interesting to hear more about his achievements at the college. He was lauded as a hero everywhere he went after the war, and died with (as Korda puts it) "stoic dignity that had always defined his character in life".

One thing readers should know about this book is that it relies quite a bit on existing knowledge of the Civil War, its battles, and locations. The maps of battle sites are poor (they are replicated from earlier biographies), - they do not work well on a Kindle. There are many difficult to follow long descriptions of battle actions that I had little or no idea what was going on (Gettysburg excepted). 

Overall - I found this book to be a terrific read (I gave it five stars on Amazon). Recommended!

Iconic Photo of Lee taken by Matthew Brady just days after the Civil War ended.
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