By Michael Korda
Robert E. Lee is known in history as the leading Confederate general in the Civil War. He was so much more and his sterling reputation and legacy pay tribute to his remarkable life. Michael Korda has written a major biography of Robert E. Lee. This man is a paradox in many ways. How could the losing general of the Civil War be so loved and lionized after that war, not only by the South but also by much of the North?
Lee was a lifelong soldier, a brilliant military engineer who led the mission of the Army Corps of Engineers to make sure that the Mississippi River did not bypass St. Louis. In the Mexican War of the 1840s, he fought brilliantly and fearlessly as a soldier. General Winfield Scott considered him the finest soldier in the U.S. Army. Later, he would become the superintendent of West Point. When the Civil War broke out, President Abraham Lincoln offered him the command of the Union Army in 1861. But he turned Lincoln down because he could not “draw his sword” against his own children, his neighbors, and his beloved Virginia. Shortly after that Jefferson Davis offered the post of General of the Army of Northern Virginia. He would become the leading general for the Confederacy.
With far fewer resources and far fewer troops than the Northern generals, he gave them fits. He was a daring, bold, aggressive, fiercely determined general. He had no qualms about attacking a much larger opposing army. He was considered a brilliant military strategist.
Personally, he was fearless in battle. He had no concern for his own life. He felt that his life was in God’s hands and he had complete peace. He would expose himself to dangerous situations just as his close friend and fellow general Stonewall Jackson would do. Both were men of deep Christian faith and conviction.
In fact, his faith shaped his life. He was influenced by his wife Mary Lee, and his wife’s mother, Mary Custis, and their devotion to Jesus Christ. He was fully surrendered to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and trusted God deeply in times of peace and in times of war.
He was a man of deep and genuine humility, which is not an easy matter when you command 100,000 soldiers in battle and you are revered by millions. But he seemed to be free of all desire for acclaim and recognition.
Paradoxically, his father was considered a scoundrel when it came to character. He was a military hero in the Revolutionary War, a close friend of George Washington, but he mismanaged money terribly and he lacked moral integrity. However, despite this lineage Lee had incredible integrity and character all his life. He was a devoted husband and father. He loved being with his family even though he had to spend long stretches away from them while with the U.S. Army. Along this line, it is interesting that Lee continually questioned his choice of profession as a soldier. Should he have taken a different route? In fact, until the Civil War broke out he would have considered himself a failure in life.
It should be noted that Lee was no fan of slavery. He did not oppose it as the abolitionists did, but he was no fan of it either. He thought it was a moral evil and that it would pass away in God’s good time. But he did not want the country to split apart and he would not oppose his native Virginia when it left the Union.
Why did Lee live such a remarkable life, and make such an impact on the people of his day and on subsequent history? The only explanation is God’s hand upon him. He was a flawed man, a man who chose the wrong side in the war. And yet a man deeply devoted to Christ and perhaps the most brilliant general that the United States has ever had.