Grant’s story, just hearing it on the surface, is a quite captivating one. The man was not a good manager of his money; he loved his wife Julia; and following the conclusion of two terms as president, he entered into a faulty business deal that basically broke him. In addition to these money woes, the man was also dying of cancer from his incessant attachment to all the cigars smoked over the years.
So as to keep his wife from worrying about finances, he wrote his memoirs, in essence, as a last final gasp; and with the help and encouragement of friend Samuel Clemens, they were an overwhelming success.
Ever since hearing these circumstances of what led the former general and president into writing his memoirs, I have always found myself curious as to what the man wrote. He, apparently, had a style that spoke directly to the people, to the common man, which Grant himself was. I have yet to purchase a copy of his words; but, in a way, their presence led me to these memoirs of Robert E. Lee.
I learned of the existence of General Lee’s memoirs through the inclusion of a story in another book. It was referenced that on the day General Lee was in retreat from the Battle of Gettysburg, a wounded Union soldier, lying helpless across the field of battle, spied Marse Robert passing by with his men. The man yelled out something in a hurrah to the Union, and the words caught the general’s ear.
Turning towards the wounded Union soldier, General Lee alighted from his famous horse Traveler and approached where the man lay. The two men were enemies. It was the end of a fierce battle where thousands of their comrades lay dead. Conventional wisdom would dictate the incapacitated soldier would soon join them because of his rash outburst. The general of all generals was striding his way. What other result could this action deliver?
Instead, where the soldier assumed the end had come, General Lee did something quite different. He grasped the man’s hand, and he encouraged him. He did not curse him. He did not run him through with his sword. He blessed him – as the Godly man Robert E. Lee was known to do.
My knowledge of Robert E. Lee journeyed no further than the basics: the general who led the Confederate forces during the Civil War, from Virginia, surrendered at Appomattox, etc. etc. etc. He was the great general. Of all the generals in American history, none exceeded him in skill, military strategy, and so forth and so on. Such is the titular knowledge most people would probably regurgitate if ever questioned. It was, in essence, all I ever heard. Now I heard something new: a little story exhibiting unheard of compassion.
When the e-reader craze was just starting to blossom into something of merit and use, I invested a portion of my income into purchasing one of the devices; and it is an expenditure of funds I have not regretted. The reason for this is “The Memoirs of Robert E. Lee”. I recognized the chances of discovering it within a nearby bookstore, or even placed upon the shelves of a local library, were remote at best. Yet through an e-reader collection, a far more significant volume of books become available to those seeking the more obscure and unheard. A mere typing in of the title brought up several options. I downloaded one and began my read.
The first thing to mention, would be, this is an old book. The author wrote it in 1886, a time after Robert E. Lee’s own death, which raises the question of “memoirs” being an appropriate appellation. Memoirs are normally written by the person themselves, as in the case of “The Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant”. It was suggested to General Lee he should take pen to paper; but when he died, the task fell to a member of his staff, Armistead Long, a colonel in the Confederate cause, promoted to General before the war ended.
His writing skills are not to be questioned here. There is no mention, within any of the text, of A.L. Long pursuing writing as a vocation following the conclusion of the war. His intent is merely to honor the great man he knew and respected, which he does quite well.
This is not to say the book is well put together. It is not. The consistent thread one looks for in any read, to carry one’s interest from the beginning, through the middle, and towards the conclusion of the end is less than present. Only a curiosity of history, and of the man known as Marse Robert, will deliver one safely to the final page.
Such is the impetus which propelled me forward.
All begins well enough with an ample supply of biography. Long relies heavily upon letters from Lee’s own hand, along with reminisces of those who knew the general well, to craft a chronological pathway of Lee as a boy assuming a disciplined responsibility for his mother, to Lee as a young man at Westpoint, establishing a standard for all future cadets to aspire toward, to Lee as a soldier in the Mexican War.
My understanding of the Mexican War was astoundingly enhanced through the reading of this text. I knew next nothing of the conflict: why it began, nor what the results ultimately were. What astounded me were the similarities in border skirmishes of that era with the problems we face along our Southern border today.
When Texas was formally taken into a union with the United States, Mexico, which had never recognized Texan independence, bolted in defiance. Troops were sent to the border. Mexico crossed into Texas and killed American soldiers. General Zachary Taylor crossed into Mexico and took possession of the Mexican city of Matamoras. The war was commenced.
Robert E. Lee’s role was that of a captain and a scout. He volunteered for a dangerous mission to confirm report of the location of Santa Anna’s army. Venturing miles into the Mexican countryside, with none but a frightened guide as companion, he ascertained initial reports as flawed. Santa Anna had yet to cross the mountains, which opened the way for U.S. Calvary to reach there first.
Such stands out as the interesting parts of this story; and whenever Long focuses upon Lee himself, the tales are quite compelling. Robert E. Lee comes to life as an admirable man of great ability and character. Long relays a story towards the end of the book, following the conclusion of the war where Lee assumes the role of president to Washington College and inspires students to the better angels of their nature, he tempers the furor of some over disturbing a public meeting of emancipated slaves.
One comment Long writes, I believe, could stand as the thematic statement to Lee’s life: “The majesty of truth came to be vindicated by his calm and sustained conduct.”
I enjoyed reading the stories of this remarkable individual. They served as an instruction guide to any burgeoning new man on how to be a man in any era of time. Where I became lost was in the narratives of the battles. When Long begins his treatise on the war, I easily found myself lost. Was this a Union general or a Confederate general? Was I in the North, or was I in the South? I realize the audience for whom he was writing, they clearly were familiar with the people and the terrain. For a 21st century reader though, a scorecard and a map would serve extraordinarily well.
I cannot report “The Memoirs of Robert E. Lee” as an easy read. It was not. It was an important read. It was historically pertinent to any American seeking a more personal connection to their country, as it offers a perspective of events seldom reported.