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Robert E. Lee: A Biography

4.11  ·  Rating details ·  634 ratings  ·  41 reviews
The life of Robert E. Lee is a story not of defeat but of triumph—triumph in clearing his family name, triumph in marrying properly, triumph over the mighty Mississippi in his work as an engineer, and triumph over all other military men to become the towering figure who commanded the Confederate army in the American Civil War. But late in life Lee confessed that he "was al ...more
Paperback, 496 pages
Published June 17th 1997 by W. W. Norton Company (first published 1995)
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 ·  634 ratings  ·  41 reviews

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Fred Klein
Sep 13, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I thought it was high time for me to read a biography about Robert E. Lee because his name was in the news so much recently, with the controversy about whether to take (tear?) down statues honoring him. By the way, I am against tearing down any statues without some kind of orderly process. I am not in favor of mobs.

Anyway, I found this to be an illuminating portrait of Lee. Was he a perfect man? Of course not. But what you will find when you read this is that he was a human, which means he had m
Dec 09, 2014 rated it it was amazing
You ever read a biography and wish you could meet the subject? This is one of those books. Gives a great view of the man and the General. Compelling and straight-forward guy who had a strong character and genuine desire to help people, and who struggled with the legacy of his father for much of his life. He certainly didn't have the best views on race equality, but he was a man who had his convictions and this book does a great job of highlighting that. ...more
Jun 24, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This was a very well written biography that really focused on the man behind the myth and painted a more realistic portrait of Lee (aristrocratic & slaveholding). I thoroughly enjoyed how the author used original source material from Lee's own papers and diaries to illustrate Lee's views on the war and his own life. I also enjoyed reading the other first hand accounts from people that knew him personally. --- My personal impression of Lee after reading this bio was that he led a very frustrated ...more
Rob Carl
The book is detailed, very detailed with letters from those who knew him and his personal letters to his wife and kids. This is not a story about him it is a Biography. If you like biographies you'll love this, but if they are not apart of your normal diet, it can bog down. The author repeats himself with small details.

As a result of the book I felt like I could relate to him and identify with him and his shy personality. He didn't want the job and he didn't think the South had the resources to
Erik Graff
Oct 20, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Lee/American Civil War fans
Recommended to Erik by: no one
Shelves: biography
I'd previously read another biography of Lee concentrating on his career as the commander of the Army of North Virginia and later of the entire Confederate Army. This study explores the whole man, beginning with his parents and ending with his demise in 1870, aged sixty-three. The Civil War, while eventful, only occupied somewhat under five years of his life--about the same length of time as his last career as a college president. Here, the other five-plus decades--his years of childhood, at Wes ...more
Lib DM
Sep 07, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Robert E. Lee was certainly an enigma of a man. Some (many) people are quick to denigrate him with very little or no understanding of the man. Some paint him as a racist traitor, others a god. So I wanted to read more about the man and this was the single volume that was most recommended. I tried to go into this with a free mind and make decisions for myself.

Lee was put in an incredibly difficult position. He did not hate the North, although he certainly thought the north was unfair to the south
Jul 21, 2019 rated it liked it
I listened to this as part of a run of Civil War biographies including Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Although the book kept my attention, I found it to be the least engaging of the three biographies. Surprisingly, the portions of the book dedicated to the Civil War were the least useful to me. The narrative bogged down in tactical details, whereas I would have liked to hear more about Lee's strategic considerations (which are certainly included) and the interpersonal / political tensio ...more
William A.
Sep 08, 2020 rated it liked it
Competent is the word I would use to describe this biography and by that I mean that it is well-researched. The book's framework consists of the known facts about Lee's life. This structure is filled in with excerpts from Lee's letters, his battlefield reports, other historical documents and most irritatingly speculation from Thomas about Lee's thoughts. I largely disregarded the latter and focused on the citations from historical documents and letters.

The main things I learned from Thomas' boo
Christopher Sturcke
Sep 11, 2018 rated it really liked it
This might just be the best single volume R.E. Lee biography out there. Emory Thomas did a masterful job of compiling information from previously unused sources which included letters, diary entries, and other personal papers not only from Lee himself but also those around him. The author did allot of digging and what resulted is a biography that cuts Lee down to proportion by highlighting the General's humanness without tearing down Lee's legacy. Lee was a big man (physically speaking as well), ...more
Jun 02, 2017 rated it really liked it
At the recommendation of historian Kevin Levin (author of "Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder") I read Emory Thomas's biography of Lee with high expectations, and wasn't disappointed. Originally published in 1995, Thomas thoroughly engages critical source material left out of earlier Lee biographies, analytically revealing a man neither demigod nor devil. Thomas declutters past Lee mythologies to present a man seemingly defined by paradoxes: a doting, loving father who also rebu ...more
Fred Stevens
Apr 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
I felt that my formal education regarding Lee was an exercise in hagiography (even though I was schooled in the North). I picked this book as I thought it might provide a more balanced and objective view of him. It was successful. Lee was a skilled engineer and military officer. He had many admirable qualities: he was a good father and he was very disciplined in his personal and professional life. Lee also believed very strongly that it was incumbent upon him to do right by his fellow man. Parad ...more
Sometimes gets bogged down in the details, ie, much of the engineering of forts was a bit beyond me. However, Thomas shows Lee as a man who was heroic, human, introverted--someone who made mistakes, who had convictions, and someone who was very much a product of his family circumstances, as well as his place and time in history. Not sure I buy some of the psychological conclusions, but others have made the same conclusions. Thomas states that Lee believed he would have been victorious at Gettysb ...more
Nov 02, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Thomas's book is still the best modern biography of Lee. Neither hostile nor hagiographic, Thomas has a remarkable gift for landing precisely on the most reasonable interpretation of controversial matters. He is rarely eloquent, and I understand that his somewhat humdrum prose can make the book a slog for some readers. Personally, I find his plain, unpretentious style fits well with the good common sense and lack of agenda which make the book admirable. ...more
Jul 08, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: civil-war
Well crafted biography designed to reveal the man behind the many myths. In addition, it serves as a corrective to the harsher critiques of Lee by Thomas Connelly and Alan Nolan. Thomas is no Lee apologist and puts human clothes on the man. Points of Lee's wit shine especially in this regard - and serve both to let us know Lee better and to dispel those mythic trappings. ...more
Jay Carper
Apr 25, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, biographies
It's very difficult to get an unbiased opinion of Robert E. Lee. He's either a demigod or a demon, depending on who you ask. Emory's biography paints a picture of a good, but flawed, man who tried to make the best of a bad situation. Lee became a man I could relate to, tragic and admirable, but, most of all, human. ...more
Hugh T. Harrington
Feb 24, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Excellent. I found this biography thoroughly documented with excellent primary sources. This is an in-depth look at Lee; warts and all. This is not the mythical Christ figure but rather the man himself. I could not be more pleased.
Michael Baranowski
Like most people, I know how many Southerners idolize Lee, but I didn't know much beyond that. Thomas' book gave me an appreciation for Lee's complex character and for what made him such an icon to generations of Southerners. ...more
Michael Geiger
Feb 15, 2018 rated it really liked it
excellent read, Thomas kept me interested and wanting more, which is important with biographies.
Mar 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing
David Rogers
Apr 08, 2019 rated it it was ok
Shelves: civil-war, biography
I quit this book. I got bored with it.
Apr 19, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
An excellent biography that lives up to its reputation as the best one volume biography of Lee. Well written that gives us the picture of the complete Lee.
May 19, 2020 rated it really liked it
Neutral, informative, interesting and plenty of primary source material. Should be required reading, especially in the South.
Mar 16, 2017 rated it liked it
I'm going to rate the book a 3 and the subject/story a 5.
Lee was a remarkable man, engineering degree from West Point, only later to discover that he was probably a better soldier than engineer. His tackling of the river problems near St. Louis was amazing. In the end a tragic figure. The author's style just turned me off a bit, the sort of thing that gives history a bad name.
Jun 11, 2017 rated it really liked it
Few events in the history of the United States have captured the same interest and emotion as the Civil War has. Due to the recent increased media focus on the war, its legacy, and those who fought in it, I picked up Emory M. Thomas’s biography on Robert E. Lee published in 1995, seeking a more scholarly view and it was satisfying. Thomas, Regents Professor of History at the University of Georgia and the author of a number of other books on the Confederacy and the American Civil War, describes ...more
Nov 01, 2011 rated it really liked it
Emory Thomas gives a southerners perspective on the life of Robert E. Lee. The preface of this book gives the reader a sense that they will be given a pro-southern view of the war and while that is true at times the biography is generally balanced well. Lee is portrayed as a hero which he was to the south and shown as a military genius which was mostly true. Lee accomplished amazing things by bold actions and the principles of movement and concentration. This book tracks his childhood where he l ...more
Feb 13, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: american-history
Surprisingly readable and reasonably insightful. Here and there the author strays into pontificating on his own ideas, which he sometimes does by "interpreting" what Robert E. Lee himself said on a particular topic. At one point, he freely substitute his words for Lee's and the assigns some different meaning to what Lee says. Troubling, but no so egregious that it ruins his work.

Fascinating man, of course and this book seems to cover all you'd need to know. Where I found it slightly lacking was
May 07, 2013 rated it liked it
I trudged through this book like a Confederate soldier! It reads like a textbook and I seriously contemplated quitting more than once. The writing is cumbersome and the author lacked the passion that I find in many historical accounts/biographies. After I completed it, I have to admit I learned a lot about the Civil War and Robert E. Lee. With that said, if you plan on reading it, plan on taking your time!
Sep 03, 2015 rated it it was amazing
While on vacation, we visited Lexington, Virginia, where Lee's tomb is located. In the museum gift shop were arrayed any number of biographies of Gen. Lee. I asked the attendant to recommend the most concise, readable edition, and she recommended this one.
It was most readable and enjoyable! Informative, and enlightening, this book is well researched, anecdotal, and lends respect to a legendary figure of American history. Highly recommended.
Apr 24, 2008 rated it liked it
Lee was quite an enigma and historians have been trying for decades to figure him out. In the South, he is seen almost as a Christ figure (especially right after the War). Elsewhere, he is seen by many as a traitor to his country. In truth, he was just a good human being who reacted well to the various situations life threw at him. I enjoyed this biography.
May 31, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: ryan-p
This book is about a man named Robert E. LEE. It talks about his childhood and the way he grew up. It talks about his major achievements in life. This is about a book that says he is not all bad. He might have been a confetert but he fought for his home. He is a great person and i think you should learn about him.
ryan peyton
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A noted scholar of the Civil War, Emory Thomas is a Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Georgia.

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