I’ll admit that the War between the States is an area of history that I haven’t read or written about much recently. While I frequently discuss the events and legacy of the Revolution, the only book review I’ve done that relates to the Civil War is my review of Lee’s Lieutenants by Douglas Southall Freeman and the only other articles I’ve written on the topic are one on why we remember Lee and another on the Dwight Eisenhower quote about Robert E. Lee.
That’s not because of fear, I couldn’t care less if the blue hair crowd cancels me for saying Lee was one of the most honorable men to ever exist, but simply by chance; no Civil War books were on my reading list recently. In any case, I set out to correct that deficiency by reading Clouds of Glory by Michael Korda.
Although it took me longer than normal to get through the book thanks to its length (~700 pages), I’m quite glad I did so. The book has a major issue, but is a generally fair and well-done depiction of Lee.
To cut right to the chase, that makes it a book you need to read if you want to learn about one of the greatest men to ever walk the Earth. Robert E. Lee has been attacked as of late by the “disintegrationists” that want to erase our history, but he was a good, honorable man that must be remembered and honored. Clouds of Glory is a great way to learn about him and see why you should remember and honor him. Read it!
Summary of Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee by Michael Korda
Unlike most books about the Lee, Clouds of Glory does not focus a disproportionate amount of its pages on his role in the War between the States. To be sure, much of the book is about Lee’s role during the early days of the war, during which he served in multiple roles before eventually becoming the head general for the Army of Northern Virginia and, during the waning days of the war, as the head of all the Confederacy’s armies. However, the time spent on those years is only commiserate with his accomplishments, failures and experiences during them. The rest of it is, well, about the rest of his life.
On that note, Clouds of Glory begins before Lee was born and discusses his father, “Lighthorse” Harry Lee, a hero of the American Revolution turned financial failure and familial disgrace. Korda attributes many of Lee’s qualities, especially his deeply rooted sense of duty and commitment to always behaving honorably. Harry Lee eventually fled Virginia, leaving his wife and children in a state of distress, from which they eventually recovered.
Lee, therefore, grew up in a broken and poor, yet aristocratic family. His blood was some of the finest in Virginia and his family had been close with George Washington and other luminaries of that era. Additionally, his mother’s family owned many fine estates across the Old Dominion.
Korda then discusses Lee’s early years, covering both the state of the Old Dominion, where slavery was turning the population lazy and leading to animosity with the abolitionist-leaning North, and the circumstances under which Lee grew up.
After that, Korda turns in Clouds of Glory to Lee’s military career. Because his family couldn’t afford to send him to a private college, he attended West Point (after much political work that ensured he would be nominated by Virginia), where he excelled in mathematics and engineering. Additionally, with his focus on duty and discipline, he managed to make it through without a single demerit and thrived academically. He then joined the engineer corps, where he showed a knack for both getting his men to push through difficult projects and for getting out of dead-end assignments and into more interesting or career-boosting ones.
Eventually, Lee ended up in Mexico, where Korda says in Clouds of Glory that he served with distinction despite desperately missing his family (he was a family man to the end) and managed to use his engineering talents to help move the army across the dry Mexican territory and offload naval artillery that proved hugely beneficial.
After the war, however, Lee’s career stalled somewhat, as there were few wars to fight except for against the Indians in the West.
Then came the War between the States. Lee was not in favor of secession, nor was he a defender of slavery. He was, in fact, in the process of freeing the slaves that he had inherited. But he saw an invasion of Virginia as intolerable, so, when it decided to secede, he turned down an offer to run the Union war machine and instead volunteered in the South.
After spending most of the early stages of the war in varying positions, Lee was placed in command of the Army of Northern Virginia and commanded it masterfully. He made a few mistakes, all of which are noted in Clouds of Glory, such as Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg, not wiping out the Union force at Malvern Hill, and other tactical missteps, but, generally, led his forces to victory time and time again despite overwhelming odds.
In the end, however, it was not enough. As Korda tells it in Clouds of Glory, victory might have been possible, but Lee’s instinctive dislike of direct confrontation, which meant he wouldn’t pressure President Davis for more supplies or demand his subordinates, namely Longstreet, attack when they needed to, meant that the Army of Northern Virginia would have had a difficult time ever winning the war.
Additionally, Lee’s focus on defending Richmond meant that Grant was able to box him in and eventually wear him down by turning the battlefield into a meat grinder. And then, at the end of it all, Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox and retired from public life, eventually teaching at the school now known as Washington and Lee University.
Throughout his life, Lee was highly regarded by his peers. He was honorable, devoted to his family and duty, skilled, dependable, deeply religious, and possessed near every other virtue. From his time as a child to his time as president of Washington and Lee, he was one of the greatest men to have existed.
Analysis of Clouds of Glory by Michael Korda
Clouds of Glory was published in 2014 but is far more relevant now than when it was originally written. Back in 2014, the culture war was heating up but was nowhere near as intense as it now is. Back then, there were a few radical leftists that criticized Lee, but most people were generally positive about him, if they thought of him at all. Now, however, his reputation is under attack. The culture warriors on the far left protest his statues and try to tear them down, working with far more effort than is typical of their ilk to erase his memory. And, to be clear, those rabid dogs won’t stop with the Confederate statues.
And all for what? Because he briefly owned a few slaves? Because he sided with his beloved home state over a tyrannical Yankee government? Their hatred of him is as vitriolic as it is misinformed. Lee educated and freed his slaves once he inherited them. As Korda tells it in Clouds of Glory, he fought not for slavery but because he thought it was wrong for the federals to march past the Mason-Dixon and enforce their will on Virginia. He was a good, honorable man that they would do far better to emulate than to erase.
Clouds of Glory is excellent because, in it, Korda shows that. By describing Lee’s entire life in vivid detail, Korda shows the reader the extent of Lee’s virtue and greatness. Overall, it is well-written, well-researched, full of interesting quotes and primary sources, and does a good job of presenting his life fully rather than only partially. It’s exactly what you’d want from an introductory biography.
Well, almost exactly. The one problem with the book is that Korda spends an absurd amount of time talking about slavery and its evils. Not all at once, there’s no chapter on it. Rather, Korda brings the subject up time and time again, constantly picking at that old wound for no real reason.
It would be one thing if Clouds of Glory were about the antebellum South. Then, the constant mentioning of slavery might have been sensical. But it’s not. It’s a biography of Robert E. Lee and slavery was not a major part of his life. He only briefly owned slaves, was against the system, and wasn’t fighting for it. That’s all that needed to be said and Korda’s continued focus on it is the main weakness of Clouds of Glory. It’s unnecessary, distracts the reader from what should be the main point, the greatness of Lee’s character, and is blown far out of proportion.
Despite that, Clouds of Glory is mostly excellent and is a reasonably good book. But it would have been far stronger had the discussion of slavery been much diminished.
So, the $20 question: should you read Clouds of Glory? Yes. Absolutely yes. It’s full of fun stories, illuminating anecdotes, and a plethora of other information that will teach you the truth about Robert E Lee. You should absolutely read it.