Robert E Lee: Icon for a Nation by Brian Holden Reid - review by Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson

Civil Warrior

Robert E Lee: Icon for a Nation


Weidenfeld & Nicolson 271pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

General Robert Lee was the South’s answer to Lincoln: a leader and hero who could also be turned into a saint. Brian Reid’s opening chapter – the most interesting in his book – surveys the way in which Lee’s image and reputation have been handled, by Southerners and others, since his death in 1870. He has been overpraised, both as general and man, and that in turn has provoked critical reassessments; but on the whole historians agree that he was a fine general and a man of impeccable honour. Indeed, ‘honour’ was a word often on his lips. He had no affection for slavery and little more for slaves’ rights, but loved his state, Virginia, even more than he loved his country, and felt honour-bound to come to her aid in her hour of need, when, as he saw it, she was invaded by the North. He tried to fight an honourable war against impossible odds, and when the almost inevitable defeat came he might have echoed François I’s words after the disaster of Pavia: ‘All is lost save honour.’

Lee came from a distinguished Virginia family. Reid quotes Washington saying in 1771, ‘I know of no county that can produce a family all distinguished as clever men, as our Lees.’ It included two who had been ‘signers’ (of the Declaration of Independence). His father, a distinguished cavalry commander known

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