Alan Nolan’s Robert E. Lee

Alan Nolan’s, Lee Considered: General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History is a book that continues to bother me. The book was published by the University of North Carolina Press back in 1991 following the successful publication of McPherson’s Battle Cry and Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary. I still think there are some positive attributes of the study but weaknesses abound. As some of you know, Nolan is a lawyer from Indianapolis, Indiana and a graduate of Indiana University and Harvard Law School. Nolan is the author of an earlier study of the Iron Brigade. There are plenty of lawyers who have taken the plunge into Civil War history. No surprise there as they are trained to analyze and cross-examine sources, apply perspective and struture a clear and concise analytical argument. Nolan tackles important questions such as Lee’s decision to resign from the army in 1861, his views on slavery, and his responsibility for Confederate defeat. While academics such as Drew Faust, Gary Gallagher, and James McPherson praised the book upon release, southern heritage groups called on people to burn it. (That may be a reason in and of itself to praise the book.) What I like about the book is that it forces the reader to step back and question long-standing assumptions about this man. Nolan argues convincingly that our tendency to see Lee as anti-slavery is a mistake. “His attitudes and personal acts in regard to slavery, and his feelings about those who attacked the institution,” argues Nolan “were convetional.” Nolan also challenges the standard picture of Lee struggling over his decision to resign his commission from the army in April 1861. While I am not sure Nolan argues successfully that Lee was “committed to the Southern cause before Virginia seceded by virtue of his feelings about slavery and its expansion and by his sense of sectional loyalty,” he does challenge the traditional notion that his decision was made apart from such worldly considerations.

The book follows closely on the heels of Thomas Connelly’s, The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society, which was published in 1977. What troubles me about this book is its overall approach. As opposed to Connelly’s fine study, Nolan seems to take on the role of a lawyer in his indictment of Lee. One has the image of Lee strapped down on the witness stand withot any recourse. Nolan sets out to justify conclusions that are already established in his own mind. The result is an argument that lacks any serious attempt to place Lee in a historical context. Don’t get me wrong I have no problem trying to get below the surface of this man as opposed to D. S. Freeman who maintained that Lee was transparent. Unfortunately Nolan’s approach has spawned a number of flawed studies that attempt to make some of the same points. They include books by Edward Bonekemper, Bevin Alexander and Charles McKenzie.

The weakest sections of the book center on his claim that somewhere in mid-1864 Lee understood that the cause was lost and that he should surrender. If it were not for his pride and personal considerations, according to Nolan, Lee could have ended the war and not squandered lives. Nolan believes that Lee was personally responsible for the continuation of the war past this point of realization. It is here that Nolan goes off the deep end; there is little attempt to understand the perspective of the participants in both the army and on the home front. And the argument that Lee was morally responsible tells us nothing of any historical value. Nolan argues that Lee could have won the war by sticking to a defensive posture as he did at Fredericksburg. Nolan completely misses the mark here as he fails to draw any relevant comparisons with Joe Johnston’s retreat up the Virginia peninsula in the summer of 1862 nor does he attempt to connect military operations with the important goal of maintaining civilian support for the war. In short, this is a horrible case of Monday morning quarterbacking.

Here is how Robert K. Krick closed his review of the book:

It wonderfully suits the Zeitgeist by appealing to the semipiternal yearning to smash idols, which inevitably afflicts a noisy segment of the race. The itch to fling dead cats into sanctuaries usually does more good than harm. In this instance it also affords a limitless appeal in a smug way to the political-correctness wowsers. Fortunately for the historical record, Lee himselff is readily accessible to anyone who genuinely cares to see him. Hundreds of thousands of words from his pen–official, semiofficial, and unofficial–can be found without much effort. They reveal the original Lee for each individual to review for himself, without recourse to historians of the Nolan stripe–or of the Krick antinomian heresy either.

I think it safe to say that he didn’t like the book either.

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