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The Untold Story of Robert E. Lee — Allen Guelzo

The Untold Story of Robert E. Lee — Allen Guelzo

Real Talk: The Charles Mizrahi Show podcast

The Untold Story of Robert E. Lee — Allen Guelzo

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It’s the story of Robert E. Lee like you’ve never heard it … American historian Allen Guelzo pulls from thousands of letters written by the controversial Civil War general to tackle his life from a new angle. Guelzo joins host Charles Mizrahi to discuss what people get wrong about Lee and the real reason he chose to fight for the Confederacy.

Topics Discussed:

  • An Introduction to Allen Guelzo (00:00:00)
  • Stratford Hall (00:02:57)
  • Allen’s Inspiration (00:6:21)
  • Seeing Lee in a New Light (00:13:16)
  • Unearthing Lee’s Letters (00:20:51)
  • An Act of Treason (00:25:00)
  • Why Lee Chose the Confederacy (00:28:37)
  • Left Out of the Will (00:43:40)
  • Cleansing the Lee Name (00:48:04)
  • An Imposing Man (00:53:25)
  • Judgment and Compassion (01:02:45)

Guest Bio:

Allen Guelzo is an American historian, bestselling author, and senior research scholar at Princeton University. He’s at the forefront of Civil War-era scholarship and specializes in the life and legacy of Abraham Lincoln. His books on Lincoln have won numerous awards. And his most recent title (below) takes a new look at Civil War general Robert. E. Lee.

Resources Mentioned:

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Read Transcript

ALLEN GUELZO: When you talk about treason today, that almost sounds a little antique or medieval, but it’s real. It is definitely real. And that seems to have been the one thing that people just simply missed, even when they were being otherwise critical of Lee. And I thought: “It is time to address this.”


CHARLES MIZRAHI: My guest today is Dr. Allen C. Guelzo. Allen is a New York Times bestselling author, American historian and senior research scholar at the Council of Communities of Princeton University. He’s the author of several books about the Civil War and early 19th century American history.


CHARLES MIZRAHI: His latest book is Robert E. Lee: A Life. It has quickly become the definitive biography of the Confederate general. Allen gives us an intimate look at Lee in all his complexity: his hypocrisy and courage, his inner turmoil and outward calm, his disloyalty and his honor. I recently sat down with Allen and we talked about how behind Lee’s genteel demeanor and perfectionism lurk the insecurities of a man haunted by the legacy of a father who stained the family name and who was out of Lee’s life when he was just six years old.


CHARLES MIZRAHI: Allen, thanks so much for being on the podcast. I greatly appreciate it. I want to tell you, and I’m not joking here, I was a little bit nervous knowing that I’m coming into this interview. I looked at your body of work and it is just absolutely amazing scholarship.


ALLEN GUELZO: Well, I am actually very user friendly, Charles. So believe me, it’s a pleasure to be on your show and have an opportunity to talk with you.


CHARLES MIZRAHI: All right. So, this book here, Robert E. Lee: A Life … First of all, I want to tell you that this book is a pretty book.


ALLEN GUELZO: Yes, the publisher Alfred Knopf did an excellent job with the book. And the cover has what I think is a very interesting photograph of Robert E. Lee. It’s not that it’s an unknown photograph, that photograph has been very well known for a long time. It was taken in Richmond during the Civil War.


ALLEN GUELZO: What I thought it was unique about it when the cover design was first shown to me was that you actually only see half of Lee’s face on the cover itself. His face is wrapped around to the spine of the book. And what that does is that it creates a certain sense of unfinished business about Lee’s appearance. It is as though you’re looking at the man, but then you realize you’re not seeing everything that could possibly be there. And in a way that echoes much of what the book is about.


CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah. It has deckle pages and all. As you open the book, inside the first two pages — really the inside cover — there is a picture here. I guess it’s a print. I’m not really sure. It’s a picture that looks like it was inked in.


ALLEN GUELZO: It originally was a lithograph that appeared in Robert E. Lee’s own reprint edition of his father’s memoirs of the American Revolution, and the illustration was intended to show Stratford Hall, which was the home of his father, “Light-Horse Harry” Lee. And the place where Robert E. Lee himself was born in 1807.


CHARLES MIZRAHI: Oh, it’s gorgeous. You captured what the South was like. I don’t know. To me, it just spoke to me. I looked at this because I do enjoy oil painting. And I looked at this and it’s beautiful. It really captures everything about the South that I would think you have. You have a beautiful plantation here, big house. Then you have in the forefront slaves milking a cow. Everything about it is really something.


ALLEN GUELZO: Well, Stratford is an unusual place. It was built in the 1730s by one of Lee’s forebears, Thomas Lee, on the northern neck of Virginia. The northern neck is this long peninsula between the Potomac and the Rappahannock Rivers. And Stratford is built so as to face onto the Potomac River. It’s an extraordinary place. Myron Magnet once made the comment that Stratford Hall was a fanfare in brick. And it really is. It’s a beautiful place and beautifully maintained to this day. So, for people who have the inclination to visit famous Virginia houses, Stratford Hall is simply not to be missed.


ALLEN GUELZO: I’m going to take the risk of sounding like a billboard for Stratford Hall, but it’s a place worth visiting not only because of the fact that Robert E. Lee was born there, but also because this was the Stratford Hall of the Lee family. And the Lee family was so intimately bound up with the American Revolution and the creation of the American Republic.


ALLEN GUELZO: After all, it was Richard Henry Lee who offered the initial motion on the floor of the Continental Congress for Independence in 1776. We associate independence with Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration. But Thomas Jefferson’s declaration was actually intended simply as the framework for Richard Henry Lee’s motion.


ALLEN GUELZO: So, if you want to visit a place which has very close connections to American independence, well, by all means visit Mount Vernon, visit Monticello, but don’t under any circumstances miss Stratford Hall.


CHARLES MIZRAHI: Do many people tour there? Do many people go to Stratford Hall?


ALLEN GUELZO: Yes, it has a steady stream of visitors. It has programs that it does all through the year. It does programs about famous Lee over there. It also does a range of programs about the slaves who lived on the Stratford plantation. So, high and low history and art, even wine tasting goes on at Stratford Hall.


CHARLES MIZRAHI: Beautiful. All right, there you go, folks. Allen is not only an eminent scholar and historian, he’s a tour guide. Fantastic. All right. So, I opened up this book and I always look to any book that I read who the author dedicated the book to. Because I wrote one book. Anyone who ever wrote a book, it just takes the lifeblood out of you. You live the book, you think the book. It becomes part of your life. And who you dedicate it to says a lot about who you are writing to and what was in your mind and thoughts. I’m looking here at your book, and I want to read the dedication: “To the memory of the grandmother I scarcely knew — Ruth Blumenthal (1902 to 1961) — but who blessed me exceedingly.” Tell me about that.


ALLEN GUELZO: Ruth Blumenthal was my grandmother on my father’s side. She was born in Chicago. She was the child of an immigrant — a Jewish tailor from Munich — Jacob Blumenthal, who immigrated to the United States at the end of the 19th century and set up shop in Chicago. Ruth Blumenthal married my grandfather, Karl Guelzo senior. And of course, then my father was the result of that. So, she was my grandmother. And by every testimony that I have ever heard about her, she was a marvelous person. Well-loved by everybody who knew her. And this doesn’t often happen with daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law. But my mother, as her daughter-in-law, just adored Ruth Blumenthal.


ALLEN GUELZO: I have only very short and scattered memories of her, but everything that I know about her was just the epitome of gracefulness. And she took such an interest in me, even as little as I was. She was very concerned about me. She always wanted to know how I was doing. She sent all kinds of presents whenever there was a holiday or a birthday, and I still have — over here in the cedar chest, just a few feet away — an afghan that she quilted and sent to me. So, I have all kinds of remembrances of her, and that remembrance is very sweet and it’s a very important one to me. So, I wanted to dedicate the book to her memory.


CHARLES MIZRAHI: Beautiful. That’s the only book you dedicated to her? You wrote how many other books?


ALLEN GUELZO: Well, I’ve written a number of other books. I can’t say that I’ve ever sat down and counted them. I dedicated a book that I wrote about the Battle of Gettysburg to my son, who is a serving army officer. I’ve dedicated a survey history of the Civil War to my wife. She was my Civil War lady. I dedicated a book that I wrote on the Lincoln-Douglas debates to my one-time English teacher in high school, Miss Janet Hurt, who now lives in Nashville, Tennessee. Because Miss Hurt was another tremendously formative influence on me, young adolescent that I was. I try in these dedications to single out people who have had important roles in my life. And certainly, those are people who have.


CHARLES MIZRAHI: That’s beautiful. When you told her that you were dedicating the book in her honor, what did she say?


ALLEN GUELZO: Miss Hurt took it perfectly in stride. I think she was much more pleased than she would reveal. But it was important for me to dedicate that book to her because there’s a story that goes along with it. When I was was in 10th grade, I had her for English and she was quite a forbidding teacher to many people. I wrote a theme for her. I wrote a little essay. It was a school assignment about the Arthurian legends — which she was very interested in, and so was I. I wrote it about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.


ALLEN GUELZO: And I wrote this little essay, came in and turned it into school. I got it back several days later, all marked up and read. In that school, they were able to employ what they called a “lay reader,” someone who would assist the teacher by giving the first reading to school assignments that were turned in. Well, this lay reader had gone through my piece with that notorious red pen. And she scrawled all over it, and at the end, she said: “This essay was clearly plagiarized. Do you know how serious that is?” I looked at it. I was so mortified.


ALLEN GUELZO: I walked this up to Miss Hurt’s desk, put it in front of her and said: “Is that what you think?” And Miss Hurt looked at me and said: “Oh, no, no, don’t worry about that. I know you.” And it was like the clouds suddenly dispelled and the sun came out. It was an affirmation of me as a writer. I’m in 10th grade, but I’m already thinking about writing. And that moment from her, it was just like: “Go ahead, you’re on the right track. Keep following that.”


ALLEN GUELZO: And I had her also in 12th grade English. I wrote more about the Arthurian legends for her and a number of other subjects. And I just had the most wonderful relationship with her and have stayed in touch with her through all these years. And you might say that in some ways, the writer that I am is because Miss Hurt removed a roadblock from my path long, long ago. So, I wanted her to have the satisfaction of seeing the person whom she helped so much be able to dedicate a book to her.


CHARLES MIZRAHI: Wow. See, I’m not a nice person like you. I would have dedicated it to that lay reader. Look what I’ve become! Plagiarize this, lady!


ALLEN GUELZO: Yeah, that would be a little edgy.


CHARLES MIZRAHI: Like I said, you’re a much nicer person than I am. All right. I have to honestly say, I have to read this book. I just had so many other books to read. I read a few chapters of this, but you have maybe 50 pages of notes — well-researched, outstanding. You told me it took seven years of your life.


CHARLES MIZRAHI: My question is this … There are other biographies about Robert E. Lee. Why did you feel driven to devote so much of your life to write the definitive biography, as you see it, of Robert E. Lee? What did the other guys miss?


ALLEN GUELZO: When I set out on this task, there were several things that were pushing and pulling me toward it. One was this: I have written most of the things that I have written about Abraham Lincoln and the Union in the Civil War. I’m a Yankee, Charles. I’m a Yankee from Yankeeland. I’m a Pennsylvania boy. And for me, to look at the Civil War is to look at it almost automatically from the eyes of a northerner.


ALLEN GUELZO: Grandmothers have played a big role in my life. My other grandmother who went to school in Philadelphia, she was a schoolgirl in the early decades of the last century. She told me stories about the old veterans of the Union Army on Decoration Day — that was what they called Memorial Day then. On Decoration Day, these old veterans and their blue jackets and their little blue caps would come to the school to tell the students there what the real story of the Civil War was.


ALLEN GUELZO: Now of course, when they talked about the real story, they meant “not what them Johnny Rebs are trying to tell you.” They had a very definite view about the Union and emancipation. And my grandmother as a girl took that in and that was what I heard at her knee growing up. And so, that was bred into my bones. Now, having written as much as I have written from that perspective, the question was in my mind, what would it look like? What would it look like to look at the Civil War from the other end of the telescope? And what better telescope to use than that of Robert E. Lee?


ALLEN GUELZO: The Confederacy, at least from my perspective, was not rich in compelling and interesting characters. Abraham Lincoln’s opposite number, Jefferson Davis, I always found to be a fairly dreary political type. You go down the list of Confederate leaders, and there’s not a whole lot that compels you there, except for Robert E. Lee. So, I thought, all right, let’s do something different. Let’s look at the Civil War. Let’s look at this great subject through the other end of the telescope.


ALLEN GUELZO: The second thing — which was a compulsion for me — was curiosity. And that was this: How do you write the biography of someone who commits treason? Because I’m not using that word lightly, I’m not just throwing it around just to be provocative. My father was a serving army officer. He took the oath. My son is a serving army officer. He took the oath. I took the oath when I became a member of the National Council on the Humanities back in 2006 — President Bush’s appointment. I take that seriously. Here was another person who took that same oath, and who walked away from it, fought against it, tried to undermine it. So when I say there’s a challenge here to write the life of someone who commits treason, I’m not using the term as some kind of cheap disparagement. I think that’s a very serious category.


ALLEN GUELZO: So, what Lee represents is difficult biography. There are some people with whom it’s easy to write a biography because you can sympathize with them. Abraham Lincoln, you can love, you can you can sympathize with Abraham Lincoln. You can sympathize really, even with Ulysses Grant. I mean, he certainly had his failings and made his mistakes. But definitely, he’s on the side of the angels. You can write biographies of Franklin Roosevelt, you can write biographies of Ronald Reagan. These are people you can admire. But Robert E. Lee? And yet you cannot not write difficult biography. Because there are difficult people out there. And there have been in the historical record people who have fallen considerably short of a standard that you would call admirable and their lives have to be written about as well.


ALLEN GUELZO: Even Plutarch did this in the Parallel Lives that he wrote in ancient times. A number of the people he wrote about were really not very admirable at all. I mean, he’s writing a life of Alcibiades. There’s very little really honestly to admire there. And yet you have to write this because this is a person who, whatever his defects, played an important role.


ALLEN GUELZO: All right. How do you do that? How do you do it without being carried away? How does the biographer’s empathy remain intact and untainted by collusion with the subject? Because that’s always the big temptation. When you’re writing about someone, you’re spending a lot of time in their company, so to speak, and you’re trying to reconstruct their life. The temptation is for that always to slop over into a kind of cheap sympathy. How do you avoid that? That’s a challenge. And I wanted to come at that challenge.


ALLEN GUELZO: And then I guess the third reason for going at Lee was that there are so many biographies in the Civil War era of Lincoln — I’m guilty of committing some additions to that body of literature. Ulysses Grant — there have been eight freestanding biographies of Grant in the last 25 years. Likewise, even for William Tecumseh Sherman, Uncle Billy Sherman has had 10 biographies in the last 35 years. Do we really need another Grant or another Sherman?


ALLEN GUELZO: But Lee is another story. The great Mount Everest of the Lee literature is Douglas Southall Freeman’s R. E. Lee, published in four volumes, extraordinary, comprehensive and well-written, but done in the 1930s. So, we’re almost a century on from Freeman’s Lee. And between Freeman’s Lee and the present, there really has not been a lot of really impressive material. Probably the most important was Emory Thomas’s biography of Lee, and that was published in 1995. So we’re talking 25 years ago. There is a big hiatus in the Lee literature that you don’t find in the literature on a number of other major figures of the Civil War era. That seemed to me to be an opportunity because if I’m writing about Grant or Sherman, I’m really plowing up the ground that’s only been very recently plowed up by others. But Lee, there’s something missing here, and that likewise beckoned to me.


CHARLES MIZRAHI: What did you plow up here that hasn’t been plowed since 1930 or 1995?


ALLEN GUELZO: Letters. Robert E. Lee was a compulsive letter writer. He would write two and three letters a day. Overall, my estimate is he probably wrote something like 6,000 to 8,000 personal letters in his lifetime. Now, here’s the problem. Unlike Ulysses Grant … The letters and the papers of Ulysses Grant have all been taken together in a 27-volume scholarly edition. Unlike the collected writings of Abraham Lincoln, which have been taken together and published in an eight-volume collected works of Lincoln. Believe it or not, unlike even Jefferson Davis and Andrew Johnson, there’s no standard edition of the letters of Robert E. Lee. There is no central collection. There’s no central archive of the papers of Robert E. Lee.


ALLEN GUELZO: There are some fairly hefty collections in some places in Richmond and Washington, but a great deal of Lee’s material is scattered all over the country, quite literally from the Morgan Library in New York City, all the way to the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. And at all points in between — the Missouri historical archives, the library of a state university in Georgia. And what’s more, Lee material continues to bob up on auction sites on the web. I actually had two friends of mine who were more or less keeping an eye open for what might show up on auction sites and eBay in the way of Lee material. A lot of this stuff had never been cited, or at least never used systematically.


ALLEN GUELZO: So, a great deal of the time that went into the making of this book really went into tracking down this is enormous body of correspondence, which was just scattered in so many different places. Well, that, of course, explained to me to why there had not been a host of biographies of Robert E. Lee. Because anyone who wanted to go at the subject of Robert E. Lee was going to find they were going to have a tremendous amount of tracking down to do. And that probably discourages any number of people. But there was a lot to do that way.


ALLEN GUELZO: And then, there was another aspect too — which I thought needed to be treated much more, shall we say, incisively, than it had been in the past. Robert E. Lee’s biographers have, until very recently, almost routinely put a halo around his head. Robert E. Lee very quickly became the symbol — after his death — of the lost cause mythology. And no one put that halo of the lost cause more firmly around Lee’s head than Douglas Southall Freeman. When you read Freeman’s biography of Lee, I mean, it’s like reading a hagiography out of the Middle Ages on the lives of the Saints.


ALLEN GUELZO: And Freeman says very plainly, at the beginning of his series of four volumes, that the life of Lee can be told very simply because Robert E. Lee was a very simple person by character, and there’s nothing complicated and nothing complex. There’s nothing hidden about the man. He’s just pure nobility and duty. And I look at that and that almost immediately sends all the red lights going off in my head because I’d never met anybody like that. And I don’t think anybody like that actually exists. So I felt the opportunity was here to pull back a curtain. And to find if there was something else going on behind this image of Saint Robert Edward Lee. And there sure was. And that’s what became the book.


CHARLES MIZRAHI: Wow. Because your book definitely delves in the complexity of Lee — the hypocrisy, inner turmoil, his relations with his father, or lack of relations with his father, his disloyalty and his honor. It’s really a mumbo jumbo kind of thing. It’s not as clear cut as you would like it to be. Well, put it this way, the little that I’ve known of Lee, you have torn apart because he was always that simple figure of honor and courage. And he was accepted. When you said traitor, I remember we spoke on the phone just last week. I said, you’re writing a book about a traitor? I don’t think it’s ever couched in that way. You would agree with that?


ALLEN GUELZO: You’re right. There have been in recent times books critical of Lee. And I think here particularly of Alan Nolan’s Lee Considered. There’s Lee Considered, there’s The Making of Robert E. Lee by Michael Fellman, there’s even Thomas Connelly’s The Marble Man — which was actually the very first book I ever read about Lee, many years ago.


ALLEN GUELZO: In the case of Connelly, he believed that Lee had attracted too much attention to the Eastern Theater of the war, when Connolly was convinced that the real victory of the North was won on the other side of the Appalachians and what happened in the Confederate west. And being a historian of the Confederate west, Connelly always resented the amount of attention that was bestowed on Robert E. Lee and Lee’s army of Northern Virginia and the Eastern Theater. So, Connelly got out the knives in 1977, really for the first time.


ALLEN GUELZO: But he was not critiquing Lee as treason. He wasn’t even focusing on Lee and slavery. Alan Nolan will focus on Lee and slavery. Michael Fellman will focus on Lee and slavery. But even when you take Fellman and you take Nolan and you take Connelly together, it really struck me that they seem to have missed the most obvious thing of all. And that is, here’s a man who commits treason. Who has served in the army of the United States for 30 plus years, and then who turns around and raises his hand against the Constitution, against the flag, against even the people he used to serve alongside.


ALLEN GUELZO: And partly, I think that people missed that because, for a lot of people today, I mean, we live in a globalized environment. When you talk about treason today, that almost sounds a little antique, sounds a little medieval, but yet it’s real. It is definitely real. And that seems to have been the one thing that people just simply missed, even when they were being otherwise critical of Lee. And I thought, it is time to address this. And that in large measure is what became the book. It’s where the book starts and it’s where the book ends, is with that question.


CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, yeah, two things I want to bring up. It’s fascinating, really. Like when you mentioned it to me, I stopped for a second. I said: “Wow. It’s never couched in that way.” But why were they shocked? Why was Lincoln shocked? Why was Grant shocked? Why were they so shocked when Lee decided to give up his commanding position and go fight for Virginia? What were they missing? The little I know, and I keep showing my ignorance, is I remember reading several books on this, and they were begging Lee, shocked that Lee went to Virginia. What were they missing?


ALLEN GUELZO: Well, one of the difficulties that people had is that there were many southerners in 1861 at the outbreak of the Civil War who, despite the fact that they were southerners, did not in fact fight for the Confederacy, but who stayed loyal to the Union. And in that respect, Lee was almost an outlier. Think of it this way, Charles, at the outbreak of the Civil War, about one third of the commissioned officers of the United States Army resign and go south to fight for the Confederacy. Now that sounds like a lot, but understand the United States Army in 1861 was a very small shop. The United States Army was not much more than a frontier constabulary. It was like the Mounties. All told, it was maybe about 16,000 men, plus or minus. So, everyone knew everyone else, and it was a very small place.


ALLEN GUELZO: When you say that two thirds of the officer cadres went south, you’re not really talking about a lot of people. And what’s more, most of those who went south were younger officers — the lieutenants, maybe the captains. In other words, the people who could look at service of the Confederacy as a way to move up, in a way that would not have been ordinarily possible in the old United States Army. Lee is one of the most senior people in the United States Army to turn around and serve the Confederacy instead. Why does he do it?


CHARLES MIZRAHI: Before we go to the “why,” would it be fair to say he’s one of the most revered?


ALLEN GUELZO: Well, he’s certainly deeply respected professionally. He’s not hugely well-known, and you can tell that he’s not hugely well-known, broadly speaking, for how many people get his name wrong. Many newspapers of the day referred to him as “Robert Edmund Lee.” In other words, he was not a household name. But professionally within the army shop, he was well-known. And he was particularly well-known to the general in chief of the army, which was Winfield Scott.


ALLEN GUELZO: He had served on Scott’s staff during the Mexican war in 1847, and he had emerged as a really key figure for Scott’s command of the expedition that moves from the coast of Mexica at Veracruz, inland and captures Mexico City. It’s one of the great campaigns of the 19th century. If you’re doing military history in the 19th century, Scott’s Mexico City campaign is one of the marvels of the 19th century. And Scott said over and over again that everything that he won on that campaign was really due to having Robert E. Lee working for it. So, Scott had this very high opinion of Robert E. Lee. At one point, Scott was quoted and said: “If I was on my deathbed and the United States was being threatened and the president asked me who should take command, I would say Robert E. Lee.”


ALLEN GUELZO: So, Scott almost regarded him with the affection of a member of his family. And it crushed Winfield Scott, who was himself, by the way, a Virginian. It really crushed Winfield Scott when Lee came to his headquarters in Washington in April of 1861 and told him that he was resigning from the army and would not accept command of federal forces in suppressing the Confederate secession. One person said that Scott just laid down on the sofa in his office with a towel over his head and didn’t want to talk to anybody, and especially no one was to mention the name of Robert E. Lee to him. It was a moment of real personal humiliation and struggle for Winfield Scott.


ALLEN GUELZO: But it does mean that when the war breaks out … And Scott is general and chief. By this point, Scott’s too old to take active command in the field, and he knows it too. But if he can point to someone who could take command for him of the armies that actually are deployed on the field? Well, his recommendation is immediately Robert E. Lee. And that recommendation goes to the Secretary of War, Simon Cameron. And it goes to the new president, Abraham Lincoln. And since Scott’s the man who knows the story about the army and its personnel, they agree. And Secretary of War Cameron and President Lincoln commission one of the great old Washington political hands, Francis Preston Blair Sr., to invite Lee to a meeting at Blair’s House on Pennsylvania Avenue.


ALLEN GUELZO: And it’s there that Blair explains: “Well, it looks like things are coming to smash. If Virginia secede from the Union, we would like to present command of federal forces to you, Colonel Lee.” And Lee says to Blair: “I can’t do it, I can’t do it.” Turns him down. But he was the first name that comes to the mind of Winfield Scott, and it’s Scott who makes that presentation to Lincoln and Cameron. And they make the offer, but he turns them down. That, of course, is what generates the great question: Why did he do it?


CHARLES MIZRAHI: And your theory?


ALLEN GUELZO: 1861 looks very open and shut to us. The Civil War begins because the seceding states in the south opened fire on Fort Sumter. Lincoln announces he is not going to take this, this is a rebellion, he is going to treat it that way. And civil war occurs, and we have four years of civil war. And everybody thinks it’s cut and dry, that’s just what was going to happen.


ALLEN GUELZO: Charles, in April of 1861, no one really knew what was going to happen. It was all over the air, and especially it was up in the air concerning Virginia. Seven of the southern states had seceded from the Union. But there were still four southern states which had not: Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas. That was up in the air. What were they going to do? They could jump either way. Maybe go independent themselves.


ALLEN GUELZO: Lee is trying to calculate what is going to happen. And I went back and I reconstructed step by step, every witness, every interview, every comment, everything that was written in those days between April 15 and April 22, 1861, having to do with Robert E. Lee. And this was what I came up with. Lee is concerned about Arlington. Now when we think about Arlington, we think about Arlington National Cemetery across the Potomac from the District of Columbia. Well, that big white columned house up on the hill at Arlington Cemetery? That was Lee’s home. It wasn’t a cemetery then.


ALLEN GUELZO: It was Lee’s home because he had married Mary Custis. And Arlington was originally the property of Mary Custis’ parents, George Washington Park Custis and his wife, Mary Fitzhugh Custis. In the normal course of things, when Mary Custis’ parents die — her father dies in 1857 — you would expect then that the property would pass into the hands of Robert E. Lee and his wife, right? Logical. Because Mary Custis is the only child of her parents. It’s not what happens. George Washington Park Custis writes one of the most bizarre wills you could design. And the most bizarre twist in that will was that the property did not go to Robert E. Lee, did not go to Robert and Mary Lee. It went instead to Robert’s oldest son, George Washington Custis Lee. In other words, old Custis cut his son-in-law out of the will. All that they got was a life interest in living on the property for Mary.


ALLEN GUELZO: All right. Think of the situation, it now presents. The Arlington property, along with two other Custis properties in Virginia, is now going to Robert E. Lee’s sons. The decision that he makes about this offer is going to affect that property. Because think of it this way, if Virginia secedes from the union and follows the other southern states, and Robert E. Lee has taken command of federal troops, what do you think the Commonwealth of Virginia is going to do? They’re going to confiscate Arlington. Oh, my goodness. There goes his children’s future. If it had been up to him, maybe he would have said: “All right, if this property is mine, I’ll give it away for the name of the Union. I’ll suffer that.” But he can’t do that on behalf of his children.


ALLEN GUELZO: All right, so what is he going to think? He’s going to think that if he takes that command, he’ll lose Arlington. But here’s the other side of the coin.  Let’s suppose that he resigns his army commission, declines this offer to take command. There’s no guarantee there’s going to be war. In fact, al; the discussion seemed to point towards the fact that there was going to be a lot of political turmoil and then after several months, all the seceding states were going to get together with the northern states again. They were going to have a big national convention. They were going to reconstruct the Union. Everybody was going to get back together and it was all going to be one great, big happy nation again.


ALLEN GUELZO: Now, if Robert E. Lee chooses Virginia — and that’s what happens — then he not only keeps Arlington for his children. But he is in the perfect position to play the role of peacemaker and peace broker and mediator between Virginia and the other states of the Union. If you’re trying to calculate the odds of what is going to happen, if you’re trying to peer into the future and figure out what is likely to take place, what decision would you make?


CHARLES MIZRAHI: Do you find this in any of his letters? Does he allude to any of this?


ALLEN GUELZO: He doesn’t put this into a letter. I wish he did. It would make it so much easier. What he does is he talks about it. And he talks about it in front of witnesses who themselves later record this. And the most telling witness is Winfield Scott’s adjutant, Edward Townsend. Because Townsend afterwards speaks about Lee’s visit with Scott, where he tells Scott he’s going to resign as commissioner of the army. And when Scott begs him not to do it, his response is: “I have to do this. I have to protect Arlington for my children.” And at that moment, it’s like, OK, that gives it all the way. That’s the missing key to why Lee is making this decision.


ALLEN GUELZO: A lot of people have tried to explain Lee’s decision in terms of saying: “Well, look, Robert E. Lee was a Virginian. And Virginia is going to secede from the Union.” Well, except the problem is it hadn’t done that yet. “Virginia’s going to secede from the Union, he has to follow his native state” — sometimes they’ll say things like that. I can’t draw my sword against my native state. I looked at that and I thought, I could be more convinced of that if it weren’t for the fact that Robert E. Lee did not live in Virginia for most of his life.


ALLEN GUELZO: He’s born in Virginia, born in the northern neck, but the family moves to Alexandria when he’s five or six years old. Well, Alexandria is not in Virginia at that time. Alexandria is then part of the District of Columbia. That side of the Potomac is not retroceded to Virginia until the 1830s, when Robert E. Lee has long since moved on. So, he grows up in the District of Columbia, not Virginia. He goes to college where? West Point. The last time I checked, that’s in New York — four years in New York. He’s then commissioned into the Corps of Engineers. Where does he go? He goes to work in Georgia. He goes to work in St. Louis, rebuilding the wharfage there. He goes to work in Baltimore. In fact, one of the longest spells that he puts down roots anywhere is at Fort Hamilton. Fort Hamilton is in New York, it’s Brooklyn.


CHARLES MIZRAHI: I pass it all the time.


ALLEN GUELZO: And to this day, fort Hamilton is the last functioning U.S. Army installation of the five boroughs. From Baltimore, he goes to become superintendent of West Point. And he’s there until 1855, when he leaves the Corps of Engineers, transfers and is commissioned Lieutenant Colonel of the 2nd Cavalry, whereupon he takes command of the 2nd Cavalry in Texas. This man has lived most of his life somewhere else than Virginia.


CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, it begs the question: Why does his father-in-law leapfrog Robert E. Lee to give it to his children? Because you’re telling me now … This is amazing. The whole entire Civil War could have played out so differently if his father-in-law would have given him the land. Is it that simple?


ALLEN GUELZO: It comes close. Why doesn’t George Washington Park Custis leave Arlington to Robert E. Lee? You know why? Because his name was Lee. When we think of Lee, we think of Robert E. Lee. And we think of Robert E. Lee, a man of duty, the man of honor. And we forget about all of his relatives.


CHARLES MIZRAHI: We basically trim down the family tree because there’s a lot of bad stuff going on there.


ALLEN GUELZO: Oh, my goodness, you look at the Lee family, especially the Lee family, after the Revolution … Up until the Revolution, the Lees are one of the first families of Virginia. No question. Francis Lightfoot Lee — signer of the Declaration of Independence. Richard Henry Lee — signer of Declaration of Independence. The Lees are a very important family in that way. And yet something in the years after the Revolution just goes “snap!” And what do you get? You get Robert E. Lee’s father, “Light-Horse Harry” Lee.


ALLEN GUELZO: “Light-Horse Harry” Lee earns that nickname from the command he has during the Revolution, of light cavalry for George Washington’s army. And during the Revolution, he’s great, he’s famous, he’s wonderful. He’s one of these young men whom Washington takes into his military family, like Henry Laurens and Alexander Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette. But after the war, Lee never finds a niche for himself. He stumbles from one catastrophe — economically, financially and politically — to another. It’s really hard to look at what happens to Light-Horse Harry in the years after the Revolution. It’s really pathetic.


CHARLES MIZRAHI: Let me just interrupt for a second. You know, thinking about what you’re saying in light of that, Light-Horse Harry wasn’t a good businessman, to say the least. Perhaps Robert E. Lee’s father-in-law says: “If he’s anything like a chip off the old block, we’re losing this.”


ALLEN GUELZO: Well, this is the thing. It’s not just Light-Horse Harry, either. Light-Horse Harry had two children from an earlier marriage, and one of them was of course “Harry” — Henry Lee IV. Henry Lee IV actually is, for a short time, the proprietor of Stratford Hall. But my goodness, he loses it. He loses it because he seduces his teenaged ward and then pilfers money from her trust fund. He acquires the name “Black-Horse Harry” Lee. You get so many of these people that, after a while, people start to wonder if the Lee family really has something wrong with it.


ALLEN GUELZO: And when you reflect on that, then you begin to understand why George Washington Parke Custis was not going to will Arlington to Robert. Because he is a Lee, and at the end of the day, even his father-in-law is still haunted by this sense that the Lees cannot be trusted. The Lees cannot be relied upon. There’s some little screw, some little bolt, which has come loose in the Lee brain and you just cannot confide in them.


ALLEN GUELZO: And that hangs over George Washington Parke Custis to the point where he cuts Lee out of the will, except for two little lots in the District of Columbia, at which point you want to say: “Whoop-de-do.” Arlington? Nothing to him. It’s going to leapfrog over Robert Lee’s head. And in a way, it is almost the final crowning insult to the Lee family reputation.


CHARLES MIZRAHI: Does Lee become who he becomes because of this?


ALLEN GUELZO: I think so. I think Robert Lee spends his whole life trying to cleanse the Lee reputation of the taint it had earned, especially through his own father. You know, Charles, one of the peculiar things that I found when I was working through that enormous body of correspondence of Lee’s is that from 1824 — when we have the earliest letter that Lee writes, at least the earliest surviving one — up until 1861, in all of the letters that Lee writes in all those years, and it’s a huge correspondence, Lee never once mentions his father. Now, this is strange because his father is the famous “Light-Horse Harry” Lee.


ALLEN GUELZO: Whenever Robert Lee is introduced to the Virginia Legislature, when they were about to hand him a commission as a brigadier general of Virginia forces in 1861, what do they do? They preface it by invoking Light-Horse Harry, the famous revolutionary general. And I’m thinking, I wonder if they knew what was going on in Robert’s mind when they were saying that. Here’s the dog that doesn’t bark in the night. Lee never refers to his father in any of those letters. That is really bizarre. It’s the sheer absence there that speaks more loudly than anything else. Lee is struggling to find a way to put distance between himself and the mistakes and the embarrassments of his father’s career.


ALLEN GUELZO: And it is not until Robert E. Lee comes into his own in 1861 and 1862 during the Civil War … It’s not until he becomes General Lee on his own merits that he is finally willing to start talking about his father, that he’s finally willing to start coming to terms with what you can only describe as a kind of trauma that Robert experienced — not just from his father’s reputation, but also from the fact that his father up and leaves him when he’s six years old. And Robert never sees him again. When you talk to the psychology people, they will tell you that there is no heartbreak quite like the loss of a parent before one enters into adolescence. And Robert Lee experiences that in spades.


ALLEN GUELZO: Now, the curious thing is that Robert has — from Light-Horse Harry’s second marriage to Anne Carter Lee — siblings. He has a number of older siblings. He’s got two sisters. He’s got two brothers. The two brothers are very nice, but comparatively dull people. They’re nice but they’re dull. There’s nothing exciting about them. His two sisters, one of them, as soon as she marries, leaves for France and never comes back. That’s his sister, Mildred.


ALLEN GUELZO: Then there’s his sister, Anne, who — and this is a real curiosity — marries a lawyer in Baltimore named William Marshall. Marshall becomes a committed anti-slavery person. In fact, he will be part of the very small Maryland delegation that goes to the Republican National Convention in Chicago in 1860 that nominates Abraham Lincoln. Anne Lee Marshall’s son fights in the Union Army against his uncle, Robert E. Lee. So, it’s as though all of Lee’s siblings are trying to put as much distance as they possibly can. And it’s almost like Robert takes unto himself the responsibility to repristinate the Lee name.


CHARLES MIZRAHI: Has any historian come to the conclusions you did?


ALLEN GUELZO: I don’t think that’s really been seriously dealt with. I think people have acknowledged there’s a problem here with Light-Horse Harry, but have they delved into it? Have they really understood how much this has gone into the making of Robert E. Lee? I don’t really think so.


CHARLES MIZRAHI: You connected all the dots. When you put these dots separately, they don’t sound to be so credible. But when you start connecting them … Oi. Son-in-law loses out the whole entire Arlington. What could have caused that? The father, the Lees, the reputation, the embarrassment — especially in the 1800s — of stealing and misappropriating money — or taking money from a trust — that wasn’t good.


CHARLES MIZRAHI: Wow. Fascinating. Allen, I could speak to you all day. Or rather, I could listen to you all day. I have nothing much to add. One thing before I let you go. And we talked about this for a bit, the pictures in this book are fantastic. I know you told me that some of these never appeared before anywhere in a collection like this. But I didn’t realize how tall Lee was — 6′ 1″!


ALLEN GUELZO: Oh yeah. He was a big man. Sometimes you don’t notice this because most of Lee’s height was in his trunk, in his body. There are several full-length photographs of Robert E. Lee. Probably the most famous of them was taken right after the conclusion of the war in Richmond by Mathew Brady. And Lee had just returned from Appomattox to Richmond. He comes to the house that the family has “rented” — because the owner simply refused to take any fee from General Lee. His wife is there. His son is there. A couple of members of his staff accompany him to this house in Richmond. And it’s still there — 717 Franklin Street in Richmond.


ALLEN GUELZO: Matthew Brady shows up at the door and wants to take photographs. I can’t believe that this was entirely welcome to Robert E. Lee. This was not the moment he wanted a photographer setting up on the premises. But all right, he cooperates. And the photographs that Brady takes is a wonderful series of photographs. One of them captures Robert E. Lee. And it’s a full-length Robert E. Lee. He is standing there, full height, straight as an arrow. And the look of defiance on the man’s face … It’s like, you can try to hit me in the head, you can try to hit me in the heart, but you’re not going to knock me down.


CHARLES MIZRAHI: I’m looking here and it looks like his jaw is clenched.




CHARLES MIZRAHI: And you know, this is back in the day when you had to hold that post for a while. He looks pretty pissed.


ALLEN GUELZO: Yes, and there is where you get a real sense of the man’s height. Yet you might miss it because, as I say, the height is all in the trunk. What you really need to see is him standing next to somebody.


CHARLES MIZRAHI: But even if you look at his jacket, he must have been an extra-long. Because it’s really like you said, his height is really carried in his torso.


ALLEN GUELZO: Oh, yeah. But his legs are not long. His feet were surprisingly small. I mean, he wore a very small sized shoe. All the height really is in the main part of the body. But it was imposing all the same. Ulysses Grant, in his memoirs, talks about when he arrives at the McLean House at Appomattox Courthouse for the surrender. He meets Lee. He only ever met Lee once before in his life, and that was years before, during the Mexican War. And it was so brief that I doubt whether Lee seriously noticed him then.


ALLEN GUELZO: All right. Grant talks in his memoirs about how small he felt compared to Lee. He said he was looking at this man dressed in this gorgeous full-dress uniform, with his beautiful sword, and he was tall and imposing. And listen, if you’re the sort — physically speaking — who can intimidate Ulysses S. Grant, that’s saying something just on its own terms. So physically speaking, he is an extraordinary specimen. He is a big man, especially for the middle of the 19th century. He’s a big man. He has physical presence. It is extraordinary. And he knows how to use it, too.


CHARLES MIZRAHI: And Grant is only what? 5′ 8″? And he’s wearing a rag torn kind of uniform, a lieutenant uniform with some patches put on it. The Virginians knew how to dress, right? Washington as well. They dress the part.


ALLEN GUELZO: Oh, they did. Both of them knew how to make an impression. And Lee certainly knew how to make it in that photograph. And that photograph is such an extraordinary piece. You can see, though, that this is a man who looks in that photograph in 1865 to be in the very pink of health. But in fact, he’s not. He has suffered at least two serious heart attacks in the war years. And in the next five years of his life, the heart disease is going to eventually sap his energies. And you can see in some of the other photographs in the books. One photograph, I think, taken right in 1870, shortly before his death. He looks old, tired, stooped and worn out. He is. Because his heart trouble has simply drained the vitality from him.


CHARLES MIZRAHI: And he dies at 63? The same age as Grant, right?


ALLEN GUELZO: Well, yes, he’s 63 years old when he dies. And he dies partly because he suffers a stroke in September, the end of September 1870. He looked like he was going to survive the stroke. But my best therapeutic guess is that his heart failed. His heart just could not stand the strain. And he dies on October 12, 1870.


CHARLES MIZRAHI: It’s a mazing. Both generals live only 63 years. That’s crazy. Wow, this is outstanding. The pictures are just amazing. I’ve never seen any of these pictures before. Not all of them, but some of them I’ve never seen before. You really collected a great bunch.


ALLEN GUELZO: I had wonderful help for doing it. I had help from the staff, for instance, of Stratford Hall. And I have to pay tribute to them. Because the staff at Stratford, with the resources they have for research there and the archival materials they have there, it’s just a pleasure to visit there. And I’m saying that not just as a tourist, I’m saying it as a visiting investigator. They bend over backwards to assist in any way they possibly can. And the people of Stratford were just wonderful that way.


ALLEN GUELZO: But not only Stratford, so many other people that I dealt with in pulling this together. The people at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture in Richmond were just marvelous. And there were a number of private collections, including one Lee ancestor — a direct descendant of Robert E. Lee — who was so wonderfully helpful in helping to pull together materials.


CHARLES MIZRAHI: Where do they live?


ALLEN GUELZO: He lives in New York City.


CHARLES MIZRAHI: Isn’t that something? I was just amazed that Lee was at Fort Hamilton, which I pass virtually every day.


ALLEN GUELZO: Oh, yes. And he was the post engineer at Fort Hamilton. And his engineering notebook from the Fort Hamilton years … Because he was responsible for maintenance. There was a hurricane that hit New York while he was there, and he had to rebuild parts of Fort Hamilton. That notebook is in the archives of the New York Historical Society.


CHARLES MIZRAHI: I always try to get my wife to go there, she says: “No, I’m not going there on a Sunday with you.” So, I’m just going to take the train there one day.


CHARLES MIZRAHI: This is great, Alan. You know, in fact, I looked it up and I thought it was you. In 2010, I bought on Great Courses your lectures on Lincoln.


ALLEN GUELZO: Oh, yes! Very good.


CHARLES MIZRAHI: I did buy them. I remember listening to them.


ALLEN GUELZO: Well, Charles, I’ll do a commercial for myself and tell you that that’s one of seven courses that I’ve done for The Teaching Company, also known as The Great Courses. And I’ve done one on as you’ve seen Lincoln, but I’ve also done courses on a number of other topics in American history, and especially I’ve done one on the Constitutional Convention. I’ve done another one on the history of American philosophy, which is really my long suit as a historian.


CHARLES MIZRAHI: And this is all The Great Courses, right?


ALLEN GUELZO: Yes, The Teaching Company.


CHARLES MIZRAHI: They just went to a monthly subscription now and you get everything for one monthly fee.


ALLEN GUELZO: That’s right.


CHARLES MIZRAHI: I think I paid $50 or $60 for that. They were sold in components of $50 or $60 or whatever, and I bought a few of them. But yours is one that I remember listening about Lincoln, which is fascinating. Wow, and I never thought I’d be sitting down with you for an hour and just sharing your wisdom. Look where life takes you, huh?


ALLEN GUELZO: Well, this is great, and it’s been fun to talk about Robert E. Lee. Although I will say, having done my Confederate book, this Yankee is going to be writing about Abraham Lincoln for his next opus. So, it’s back to Lincoln for me.


CHARLES MIZRAHI: Folks, the name of the book is Robert E. Lee: A Life by Allen Guelzo. It’s phenomenal. If you love history, you’re going to love this book. Even if you don’t love history, it’s just fascinating to see a part of our history through a different lens. And I commend you for that, because Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s partner, always says to take your best idea and destroy it.


CHARLES MIZRAHI: And here you are, writing so much from the Union side, from the northern side, from Lincoln, from Gettysburg, and you do a 180 and say: “Let me look at history through the lens of Robert E. Lee and try to be as impartial as possible.” Which must have been extremely hard at points, where your emotions got the best of you, trying to make him look good or bad, depending on the situation.


ALLEN GUELZO: Well, I’m not really all that committed to looking at someone as good or bad by my own personal lights. Because then I’m simply exercising personal interest, and that’s not really what a historian should be doing. A historian should be asking deeper questions about how a person’s behavior conforms to eternal principles of right and wrong. How a person’s life is an exemplar of natural right and natural law. And those are the standards by which we have to judge. And historians do have to judge. I mean, otherwise, why are we writing history? History is about judgment.


ALLEN GUELZO: But judgment is also something that has to be exercised in tandem with compassion. Compassion is not just softness, it’s not just sweetness and light. Compassion is an evaluation of someone, understanding fully what they did wrong, but also understanding they’re a human being, too. And what I have tried to follow is a rule from a great literary critic that I admire very much, John Gardner, who said that when you write, you have to write with compassion and with will. No true compassion without the will to judge, but no true judgment without compassion. And I’ve tried to make that a rule in all that I’ve done and said in the lead biography.


CHARLES MIZRAHI: Outstanding. Continued success to you. You just keep pounding out these books. When’s your next book coming out?


ALLEN GUELZO: As soon as I get it finished!


CHARLES MIZRAHI: There you go. All right, as soon as you get that out, you’re coming back on the podcast.


ALLEN GUELZO: All right. We have a deal then.


CHARLES MIZRAHI: Excellent. The name of the book is Robert E. Lee: A Life. Folks, go out and get this book. This man put so much time, effort and brilliance into it. Really amazing. Continued success to Alan. Thank you so much.


ALLEN GUELZO: Thank you.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Charles Mizrahi Show. If you’re a new listener, welcome! If you’ve been listening for a while, we’re glad to have you back. Either way, we’d love to know what you think of the show. Please leave a review if you listen on Apple Podcasts. Reviews make it easier for others to find the show. You can also see the video of the interview on The Charles Mizrahi Show channel on YouTube.


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