No other general in American history has attracted the attention and adoration accorded to Robert Edward Lee, the peerless chieftain of the Confederacy. Indeed, in all of history, only Napoleon can vie with Lee for the hold he maintains on the imagination of students and admirers around the globe. Succeeding generations have invented and reinvented Lee, trying to make him a man for their own times, and year after year the writings of worshipers and revisionists—and occasionally even revilers—continue to come out.
It is time for a step back, to take a reflective look at Lee through neither the eyes of adoration nor iconoclasm, and that is what eminent Southern historian Charles P. Roland does in Reflections on Lee: A Historian’s Assessment. One of the country’s most distinguished students of the South and the Civil War, Roland used the accumulated wisdom of a long career to draw a fresh picture of Lee—the man, the soldier, the symbol.
Reflections on Lee is not a conventional biography, though the outline of the general’s life is here in full. Rather, it is a contemplative look at what made him the man he was, and how the man was made into the general he became. Though Roland takes issue with Lee’s recent and harsh critics, he is not uncritical himself; while he cuts through the patina of worshipfulness that has characterized so many Lee biographies, Roland has no hesitation in expressing his own admiration for this great and good soldier and man.
In the endless quest for understanding of this pivotal American hero, Roland’s book offers a firm anchor where the newcomer to Civil War studies can begin and the experienced reader can regroup and, in the light of Roland’s mature insights, make sense of all that has been written. After all, reflections on Lee are reflections on much of the American mind and spirit as epitomized in one of our defining characters. Reflections on Lee gives that character new definition for our own and future generations.
Dr. Charles P. Roland is emeritus professor of history at the University of Kentucky and has enjoyed a long, distinguished career as an educator and historian, including service as the visiting professor of military history at both the United States Army War College and the United States Military Academy. His biography Albert Sidney Johnston: Soldier of Three Republics is the definitive study of that controversial Confederate general. Among his other Civil War works are The Confederacy and An American Iliad: The Story of the Civil War. A former president of the Southern Historical Association, Dr. Roland lives in Lexington, Kentucky, with his wife, Allie Lee.