Clouds of Glory – The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee was the third book I read about the famed general, and by far the most detailed of his life and character. Michael Korda, author of the acclaimed biography on Ulysses Grant and former editor-in-Chief of Simon & Schuster, wrote this book on Lee from an objective perspective – which truly gives the reader a glimpse inside the mind of a man who is so often written about as if he were a saint.
I’m an admirer of Robert E. Lee, but I noticed in the previous two books I read about him that he was hailed by the authors as a man who could do no wrong. If something went wrong — Gettysburg, for example — it was Longstreet’s fault, or simply due to the fact that the Confederates were so outnumbered. This, of course, is oversimplifying to avoid harming Lee’s reputation. Lee’s strategy and decisions were rarely called into question in the two other books I read about him.
No man is perfect. And when reading about hugely accomplished historical figures, such as Lee, I want to learn about everything, including when and how he went wrong. And that’s one of the reasons why Michael Korda’s book is the best I’ve read on General Lee.
5 Interesting Things I Learned About Robert E. Lee While Reading Clouds of Glory
General Lee loved to flirt: Robert E. Lee was a man of great character, and he had a strong moral compass, yet he regularly flirted with women. Married with several children, Lee enjoyed flirting with women at social functions and even via letter. This may sound scandalous, but it never was. He was the furthest thing from an adulterer. Lee simply appreciated beautiful women and wasn’t afraid to let them know what he thought of their beauty.
It was all about Virginia for Lee: While it is commonly known that Robert E. Lee was not a supporter of slavery (in fact, he hated the institution of slavery itself), opinions vary on why he supported the South. Truth is, Lee wanted nothing to do with the Civil War. He was a decorated military man and successful West Point instructor prior to; and the thought of fighting against his fellow countrymen made him sick. As a result, he chose to stay neutral so long as his first love, the state of Virginia, did not pick a side. For a while, that worked. Virginia was on the fence as to which side it would join, but finally chose the South. This gave Lee little choice but to defend his home state he was so proud of. And probably not coincidentally, Virginia ended up being the most contested state in the Civil War – home to some of the most gruesome battles.
Bad maps lost Lee several battles: Particularly early on in the Civil War, Lee led the Confederates to a few hard fought losses due to poor quality intel. Things such as getting the wrong directions and not having a map that properly scoped out a massive hill on a battlefield cost the Confederates casualties and led to an uproar in the South about Lee’s suitability as General. Southerners erroneously viewed him as ‘too cautious’ and quickly tagged him with the nickname ‘Granny Lee’. Of course, as the war progressed, and people started to see just how aggressive Lee truly was, that nickname disappeared.
Lee’s true agenda for the Civil War: While Lee fought every battle to win, and win decisively, his overall mission was to inflict enough damage on the North so to get to the bargaining table. He never believed the South could force the North to surrender. He wanted to win battles so to embarrass Abraham Lincoln enough to negotiate a reasonable deal for the South. And Lee’s correspondence with the President of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War, Jefferson Davis, indicated that. It was Lee’s belief that winning just a few critical battles of the Civil War would give the South enough leverage to negotiate a reasonable and long-term deal.
The Civil War cost Lee his life savings: After watching his war hero father (Light-Horse Harry) drive his family into unmanageable debt, Robert E. Lee became a diligent saver who was frugal with his money so as to avoid his father’s fate. After decades of military service, and before the Civil War, Lee put together a solid nest egg (today’s equivalent of $1 million before his 50th birthday). He also had valuable and beautiful properties which were paid off. Regrettably, when he joined the South, he had to exchange his savings for Confederate dollars, which inevitably became worthless after the surrender. Not only that, but virtually all of his property was destroyed in the war. Although he had enough to provide for his family after the war, Lee had lost almost all of his net worth, a devastating blow for a man who had spent his life living frugally to accumulate substantial wealth.
There are many other great events in Lee’s life that are documented in detail throughout Michael Korda’s biography on the general. However, these are some of the lesser-known, although very interesting, facts about arguably the greatest general in American history. Clouds of Glory is a fantastically written biography that really allows the reader a get-to-know Robert E. Lee opportunity for both his flaws and many strengths.