August 24, 2014

Korda on Lee: A papier-mache bio of a plaster saint

Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. LeeClouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee by Michael Korda
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

A horrible, ethically challenged book that's also not that new, not that good

Korda's treatment of the Seven Days campaign is the only good think in this book, but not enough to save it from a 1-star rating.

First, despite the volume of endnotes, there's really not a lot of depth, so it's not that new in that way. That's especially true of him never referring by name to a 2007 Lee biography which is much "newer" than his, especially in matters off the battlefield. I find Korda's editors to be flat-out deceitful in their blurbs for this book, and Korda as well for never even mentioning Elizabeth Brown Pryor's 2007 work in the main text.

Related to that, when you're referring to D.S. Freeman once every dozen pages and Fuller and others once every 25, it looks more like you're either cribbing from them, or cribbing from views opposing theirs, than writing anything new.

On the not that good side, here's just a couple of highlights.

1. NO MENTION by Korda that Lee was offered the leadership of the Klan before it was given to Nathan Bedford Forrest after Lee said no. Whether Lee would have accepted without the issue of poor health, who knows. But, it's inexcusable for Korda to not even mention it.

2. On Grant, the man who rapid-marched from Fort Henry to Fort Donelson, then, just over a year later, masterminded the Vicksburg Campaign, didn't have Lee's skill at maneuver, let alone his taste for it, according to Korda???

3. Despite repeatedly talking about Lee's failure to name a chief of staff, the indirectness of his orders, and (contra the work of Longstreet) failure to allow for adequate time for infantry reconnaissance of battle ground, especially in unfamiliar territory like Gettysburg, Korda flat-out refuses to make an overall assessment of Lee's generalship. It's like he's got his plaster saint in mind as military leader and isn't going to listen to reality.

4. As for Lee's relative enlightenment on slavery? Not so fast.

For her 2007 biography, Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters, historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor, per this interview, "drew on a cache of previously unknown Lee family papers, discovered in 2002 in two sturdy wooden trunks that Lee's daughter stored in a Virginia bank about a century ago. Pryor presents a multifaceted man, more accessible and at the same time more puzzling than ever.  Lee not only believed in slavery; he was capable of treating his own slaves cruelly."

Pryor notes:

"He also started hiring slaves to other families, sending them away, and breaking up families that had been together on the estate for generations. ... He also petitioned the court to extend their servitude, but the court ruled against him."

So, on the public persona of Lee as a "moderate" on slavery just doesn't ring so true.

In short, this book looks like a cheap knockoff by Korda to capitalize on the Civil War sesquicentennial. I thought he was better than this as an author, and better ethically.

I've read other books by Korda that if not five-star, were decently four-star. But, after this crap, and there's no other word for it in light of Pryor's book, I'll never read anything by him again.

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