Saturday, February 21, 2015


In Dickens' Bleak House there is a chapter in which we learn that poor Caddy is engaged to a young man named Prince Turveydrop.  Prince is neither here nor there, but his father, the elder Mr. Turveydrop, is a quintessential Dickens character, a man with little learning or ability, but renowned for his astonishing deportment, which he nurtures with all the strength of his being.

It's a term I'll admit I found a little vague on the occasion of meeting Mr. Turveydrop, and which I continued to find vague on taking leave of him--a kind of absurd propriety, an affected grace, a superiority of manners.

The memory of this character (and characteristic) was revived on the occasion of my beginning Douglas Southall Freeman's R.E. Lee.   The eighteen-year-old Lee is from a good family, but his father, Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee, has died abroad after impoverishing his second family through improvident speculation.  Lee sees his best chance in a military career, and, in pursuit of an appointment to West Point, has the following recommendation send to the then-Secretary of War, John C. Calhoun.

Robert Lee was formerly a pupil of mine. While under my care I can vouch for his correct and gentlemanly deportment. In the various branches, to which his attention has been applied, I flatter myself that his information will be found adequate to the most sanguine expectations of his friends. With me he has read all the minor classics in addition to Homer & Longinus, Tacitus & Cicero. He is well versed in arithmetic, Algebra & Euclid. In regard to what he has read with me I am certain that when examined he will neither disappoint me or his friends.
W B Leary

What caught my eye was the prominence of the first recommended trait:  "his correct and gentlemanly deportment."  It is one of those small distinctions that confirmed my decision to finally begin Freeman's biography.

I like to read all sorts of history and literature, and it is satisfying to find, in so traveling to the past, both a common humanity and significant differences.  In fact, one of the great pleasures of reading about, say, classical antiquity, is in the dim perception of their own self-understanding, wholly innocent of the considerable train of events that has formed ourselves after the intervening ages.

 It's a paradox of this kind of reading that, just as I am often surprised at how little has changed over the millennia, I am still surprised by how much can change in just a few generations.  In some ways Freeman's Lee, and Freeman himself, seem very, very far away.

My interest in Lee is somewhat personal.  I am a Southerner by birth, if not much by inclination.  I attended a Robert E. Lee High School.  Like many, many Southern towns, the first high school was named after the city, the second, after Robert E. Lee (or Jeff Davis or Jeb Stuart).  The burden of the loss of the Civil War was still quite real when I was growing up, and left many traces, some of them quite ugly.  Defeat was humiliating, the cause was hardly anything to brag about, the aftermath was devastating, and the former slaves, if freed, were kept in subjegation by laws that were beginning to be set aside when I was born, but which left a poisonous social and economic legacy.

Robert E. Lee was singled out, however, as a figure who somehow embodied the virtues of the defeated South.  If he was a slaveholder, he was a reluctant one, no worse, at least, than Washington or Jefferson.  He opposed secession, and took up arms not so much against the Union as in defense of Virginia, which, we tend to forget, had a claim to loyalty that has all but vanished this last century.  He was a gentleman and an outstanding soldier, and, in defeat, he made reconciliation his priority.  His life has something of the dignity of tragedy, and his commitment to ideals even then vanishing, an odd combination of chivalry and Jeffersonianism, lends him a touch of Don Quixote.

I had, in high school American history, a teacher, Bob Wyche. who was a notorious eccentric, and a huge Civil War buff.  He was a very good teacher, whose particular enthusiasms I never adopted, but whose love for and dedication to learning from the past I never lost sight of.  I remember him excitedly playing for us a tape of Douglas Southall Freeman discussing the historian's work, the careful sifting and organization of evidence, a voice whose surface flatness only slowly revealed the satisfaction of uncovering historical truths, and communicating them for posterity.  So I have always had a notion to one day read Freeman.

And I find much value in reading him.  He was a journalist, not a professional historian.  Like many biographers, he much admired his subject, and didn't seek to conceal that admiration.  He was, nevertheless, careful to qualify its implications:

For more than twenty years the study of military history has been my chief avocation. Whether the operations have been those of 1914‑18, on which I happened to be a daily commentator, or those of the conflict between the states, each new inquiry has made the monstrous horror of war more unintelligible to me. It has seemed incredible that human beings, endowed with any of the powers of reason, should hypnotize themselves with doctrines of "national honor" or "sacred right" and pursue mass murder to exhaustion or to ruin. I subscribe with my whole heart to the view of General Lee that had "forbearance and wisdom been practised on both sides," the great national tragedy of 1861 might have been prevented. If, in this opinion, I have let my abhorrence of war appear in my description of Malvern Hill after the battle, and in a few indignant adjectives elsewhere, I trust the reader will understand that in these instances I have momentarily stepped back on the stage only because I am not willing to have this study of an American who loved peace interpreted as glorification of war.

Some will object to a description of Lee as "an American who loved peace."  But Freeman takes Lee at his word, and he may not be wrong to do so.

The biography itself can perhaps best be described as possessing a certain "gentlemanly deportment."  Here is Freeman on the scandal that destroyed the career of Lee's older half-brother, Henry:

Impoverished and embittered, Henry Lee had tried to make a living by writing. By inheritance he was a Federalist, but he had become a protagonist of Andrew Jackson. He had resided at "The Hermitage" after the sale of Stratford, had been engaged in arranging Jackson's military papers, and had written several polemic in behalf of "Old Hickory." Jackson found these last to be indited in a temper that matched his own and he felt much gratitude to Lee. When he became President, he named his defender United States consul to Morocco. It was a vacation appointment, which Lee was very glad to accept. He left the country for his post, only to find that he left a storm behind him. His wife had a younger sister, co-heiress to her father's estate. In some way, Henry Lee became enamoured of her and had been guilty of misconduct with her.

"Guilty of misconduct."  This reticence is characteristic.  We are left in no doubt as to what happened, but we are allowed no unsavory details.  It is an old-fashioned approach, exactly appropriate to the temper of its subject.  If it gives us less than the three-dimensional man, one can reasonably respond that what we today conventionally consider the whole man may be nothing more than our post-Freudian speculations.  Arguably, Freeman delineates the legend.  But the legend is set out strictly on the basis of the facts and the documents.  It could be criticized as selective history, were it not for the fact that all history is selective.  We never, and can never, reproduce the whole.    

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