From the Duke boys’ car named the General Lee on the “Dukes of Hazzard” TV show to his appearance on a U.S. postage stamp, Robert E. Lee has come to “embody and glorify a defeated cause,” Michael Korda asserts in a monumental new biography, Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee.

Korda, a former publishing executive and author of many books, including a popular biography of U.S. Grant, exhaustively explores Lee’s life and times, probing the Southern general’s personality, his political and religious views, and the brilliant military strategies that catapulted him into the position of commander of the Confederate armies. The book traces Lee’s life from his relationship with his father, the famous light cavalry leader, Light Horse Harry Lee, to his college days at West Point—where he graduated as one of the top three in his class. When the Civil War began, his early battles in the Virginia mountains showed Lee how difficult the coming war would be and how to put into practice the lessons he learned from studying Napoleon at West Point.

Accompanied by 30 maps of battles and dozens of illustrations, Korda’s deftly painted portrait depicts a man whose strength of conviction established him as a great leader just as it caused him to make painful decisions. When Virginia seceded, Lee resigned his commission as Colonel of the 1st Regt. Of Cavalry, painfully bringing to an end his 36-year career, because he “would not participate in any Union attack against the South.” Korda illustrates Lee’s complexity as a Southerner who disagreed with secession and disliked slavery, but would fight to defend his beloved state of Virginia.

Lee emerges from Korda’s biography as a “fallible human being whose strengths were courage, his sense of duty, his religious belief, his military genius, his constant search to do right, and his natural and instinctive courtesy.”

 

This article was originally published in the May 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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