Emory Thomas
Emory Thomas
Robert E. Lee: A Biography
ISBN: 0393316319
Robert E. Lee: A Biography
Professor Emory Thomas discussed his book, "Robert E. Lee: A Biography," published by W.W. Norton. The book covers Lee's family background and Civil War career. General Lee lived only five years after the end of the war, during which time he was president of a small college. Professor Thomas discussed the image of General Lee and how it has been "revised" to that of a troubled, shy person. Professor Thomas also talked about his own writing and his life in academia.
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TRANSCRIPT
Robert E. Lee: A Biography
Program Air Date: September 10, 1995

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Emory M. Thomas, who is Robert E. Lee?
Mr. EMORY THOMAS (Author, "Robert E. Lee: A Biography"): Robert E. Lee was a very great general who, I think, was a very great man. He was a greater man than he was a general, and I think that's why he excites so many people. They know he's--he's great. Not all that many people, I don't think, know exactly why, but they perceive his greatness, which probably has something to do with his--the tragic events in his life more than the--the victories and the successes.
LAMB: What was the most tragic event in his life?
Mr. THOMAS: Well, it may have been his birth. It says somewhere in the biography that he had a birth defect, and the birth defect was his father, who was a hero in the Revolutionary War, who was a prominent public figure but also had some problems with integrity and rascality and insolvency that drove him out of--out of the house, out of the country, one step ahead of his creditors when Robert was a young--young man--young boy. And he died trying to come back to the country, terminally ill, when Robert was on the brink of being a teen-ager. And I think Lee spent most of his life trying to forget who his father was and also trying to live down his father's infame.
LAMB: I want to come back to "Light-Horse Harry" Lee, his father, but give us just a--a brief synopsis of what Robert E. Lee did in his life...
Mr. THOMAS: OK.
LAMB: ...the main points.
Mr. THOMAS: Yeah. Well, I guess the first thing he did that would attract anybody's attention was attend West Point. There he was second in his class, accu--accumulated no demerits, which was a--not an unheard of thing, but it's rare. He was then, for the next 17 years, an engineer and enjoyed some significant success as an engineer, was good.
LAMB: In the Army?
Mr. THOMAS: Right, the Army Corps of--Corps of Engineers. He, for example, diverted the course of the Mississippi River to make St. Louis a thriving river port--or continue St. Louis as a thriving river port instead of throwing the river over to the Illinois shore and making Brooklyn, Illinois, the port that St. Louis continued to be. For the next 17 years of his life, he was a--a warrior, beginning with the Mexican War, really. He went off to war and served on the staff of General Winfield Scott and was very, very important in several of Scott's victories in the campaign from Veracruz to Mexico City. He then was superintendent of West Point for a time. He did some other--worked on some other engineering projects but briefly, then went off to Texas, changing his branch to the cavalry. He thought he was going to lead troops. In effect--in reality, he endured a trial by court-martial--that is, he was on a lot of courts-martial and spent a lot of time traveling around Texas and sitting around in places like Brownsville, Texas, waiting for witnesses to show up.

He came back to northern Virginia, to the Washington, DC, area at the death of his father-in-law to settle his estate and spent really the next two or three years doing that. In the course of that experience, he happened to be on hand during the John Brown raid on Harpers Ferry in October of 1859, and thus, Lee had a great role in putting down that raid and capturing John Brown. Actually, let me inject here that Lee doesn't get credit for this, but he endured a hostage crisis such as we're all too familiar with in these times because John Brown had 13 hostages inside that fire engine house--the famous fire engine house that everybody knows about. He only had four or five people who were able to defend themselves, but they certainly could have wreck--wreaked havoc with the hostages, and Lee was able to get those hostages out, none of them harmed, and capture John Brown at the same time.

He went back to Texas rather briefly, but significantly, because at this point he had a chance to be a landed planter in the course of dealing with his father-in-law's significant wealth actually, but he chose to stay in the Army. Went back to Texas, rejoined his regiment and there he was when the secession crisis boiled over, at which point he came back to northern Virginia, turned down field command of the United States Army offered to him by Scott, resigned from the Army and shortly thereafter accepted command of the Army and--and Navy, actually, of the state of Virginia, and thus began his Confederate career. He spent a--well, a year in--in--sort of at fallow for the first year of the Civil War and then came to command 92,000 troops in the Seven Days Campaign, the campaign before Richmond in the spring of '62, and really Lee had never really commanded anybody but those Marines at Harpers Ferry before that.

In addition, I think, in this first year of the Civil War, 1861 and the spring of '62, Lee had traveled around enough and experienced enough of the war to know that it was going badly and that the Confederacy was not really prepared to fight this war.
LAMB: Let me interrupt...
Mr. THOMAS: Yeah, please.
LAMB: You say 1862, 1863. How old would he have been? What year was he born?
Mr. THOMAS: He was born in 1807, so let's see. Let's subtract--well, he'd have been 53 in 1860, so go 54, 55, 56--mid-50s.
LAMB: Mid-50s, and what rank does he have on his shoulder?
Mr. THOMAS: At this point in the Confederate army, he is a full general, one of the first eight full generals made by President Jefferson Davis, perhaps so made more for political reasons, but also because Lee enjoyed a significant reputation who--from Winfield Scott, who, of course, was on the other side of this war. But a lot of people believe that Lee was a great--great warrior. They didn't have a whole lot of solid evidence because, as I said, he didn't really command anybody, but he looked like a general. He was the handsomest man in the United States Army and his pictures reveal that, I think. His...
LAMB: You--you had a little statistic, though, I wanted to ask you about this. At one point you say, what--how tall was he? Five...
Mr. THOMAS: I say he's 5'11".
LAMB: But you said he had 4 1/2 C-size shoes?
Mr. THOMAS: Yeah, tiny feet.
LAMB: Now mine are, I think, 8 1/2. You mean that he really had half the size of...
Mr. THOMAS: Exactly. Tiny, tiny feet. That does--I have no--no--no explanation for that, but it's--it's true and I'm--you get--I can get these numbers from Edward Valentine, who did a sculpture of Lee. He was supposed to do it from life and he did take the measurements while Lee was still alive, and one of the things he measured where those feet.
LAMB: Middle of the 1860s, Civil War--let's not--I don't want to shortchange it. Let's jump beyond the Civil War maybe toward the end and ask you about--what was his final--I mean, he ran the--the army of northern Virginia, but then what did he do at the end of the Civil War? Where was he?
Mr. THOMAS: At the very end, he was made by Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Congress general in chief of all Confederate forces and...
LAMB: How long did he have that job?
Mr. THOMAS: Really from January of '65 until April, when he--April 9th, to be precise, when he surrendered. He didn't surrender all of the armies. He didn't think that was i--within his authority. He only surrendered the one army, the army of northern Virginia, that he had actively commanded ever since that day in--June 1st of 1862.
LAMB: After the Civil War was over, where did--what did he do?
Mr. THOMAS: He accepted, somewhat haltingly, the presidency of a tiny liberal arts college in Virginia, Washington College, named for George Washington and, indeed, endowed by Washington initially. And Washington College was the only college anywhere around--anywhere nearby that had any money at all, because they still had that endowment or the principle from it. They had to convince the state of Virginia to turn--turn loose the money, but they had it. And Lee took the reins of this school and led it for the last five years of his life and it is now, of course, Washington and Lee University, named for both Washington and Lee. And I think he was a very creative, imaginative educator. Some of the most exciting ideas that he had in his life came very near the end of his life.
LAMB: And he's buried there.
Mr. THOMAS: Yes.
LAMB: Interred.
Mr. THOMAS: He--the--the entire family's there now. He--he's buried in the--in a crypt in the chapel, the chapel that he oversaw the const--construction of at Washington and Lee in Lexington, Virginia. His children are buried there, his wife is buried there. His--his father, Light-Horse Harry, was even brought up--dug up on Cumberland Island and brought--brought there. And only within the past year has Lee's daughter, who died in 18--in October of 1862, Annie--she died in North Carolina and she was reinterred there after a certain amount of controversy because the--the nice people in North Carolina really thought they were doing just fine taking care of her grave and thought it was just awfully nice to have her there, but I guess consistency prevailed and she moved--she moved to the Lee Chapel.
LAMB: This is really off the subject. When they take--when you take a tour down there, they tell you that one of the jokes--this may not be a joke to anybody, but--that they buried his horse, Traveller, standing up, but it's really not true--I mean, right outside the--the chapel there, but the...
Mr. THOMAS: Right.
LAMB: Did they plan to put the whole family in that area, I mean, all the descendants? Because there's a--you know, there's a family tree there...
Mr. THOMAS: Right.
LAMB: ...and there are all kinds of slots in the wall.
Mr. THOMAS: Well, I--I think they--it's--the space is there. Put it that way. And so revered is Lee in Lexington and at Washington and Lee, and rightly so.
LAMB: You start this book by talking about your childhood.
Mr. THOMAS: Yeah.
LAMB: The--tell that story. I mean, when you start off with a historian--listening to a historian on radio.
Mr. THOMAS: Yeah. Well, the--the--a constant in my life in some--some ways has been Douglas Southall Freeman, whose four-volume biography of Lee, written in the mid-1930s--1935--not only won a Pulitzer Prize but certainly deserved it and also has remained, I think, the--the definitive biography of Lee ever since. And in many ways it is still the definitive biography of Lee because it's four volumes, it's encyclopedic. It almost knows--tells the reader where Lee was on every day of his life. This I don't pretend to...
LAMB: Literally every day of his life?
Mr. THOMAS: Practically every day. Let's put it that way.
LAMB: And that was the attempt that he made?
Mr. THOMAS: He wanted to know that. I'm not sure he--he did and I--I'm--and Douglas Freeman was an honest man, probably would have confessed that, no, he didn't know where he was on some days. But he actually went into some discussion as to where he might have been and where he should have been. But he was that meticulous a researcher.
LAMB: Where did you have your...
Mr. THOMAS: Well...
LAMB: ...first contact with him?
Mr. THOMAS: ...he was the--at the time, the editor of the Richmond News Leader, the afternoon newspaper in Richmond, and did a 15-minute radio program at 8:00 in the morning, sort of a commentary on the day's events, and as far as I knew, everybody in Richmond--I'm sure they didn't, but as far as I knew, everybody in Richmond listened to Dr. Freeman at 8:00 in the morning. And only when Dr. Freeman was--was through with his commentary did I pack up my little books and trundle on off to Ginter Park Elementary School or Chandler Junior High School, when I was that age.
LAMB: Where were you born?
Mr. THOMAS: I was born in Richmond and lived there for a long time, reading Dr. Freeman's newspaper and listening to him on the radio as a--a youth.
LAMB: How did you get into the business of writing and teaching?
Mr. THOMAS: I did--made, for me, the right decisions for all the wrong reasons. And I don't think you know this story, but--or series of stories, but I left Richmond for the first time really, in living somewhere else, to go to Charlottesville to attend the University of Virginia, which--I felt like I lived in Charlottesville for four years. And I went there to get an undergraduate education, but also to play football. And so I really wanted to be a football coach for a good portion of my adolescent and post-adolescent years, actually. I became a history major instead of an English major because I got an A in history and a--and a B in English. I entered the honors program primarily because you wrote papers instead of going to classes, and that seemed to me an--an interesting alternative at the time.

I went to Rice University because they offered me a fellowship. I worked on a PhD primarily because I still wanted to be a football coach and only at Rice--and that's 1,500 miles from the capital of the Confederacy now. Only at Rice did I became--become convinced that there was a great deal of intellectual viability in the Confederate States of America and that this was an exciting topic and that this football stuff, I had out--ou--I had outgrown, and that I did not want to spend most of my life trying to persuade 17-year-olds and 18-year-olds to come and play football for wherever I happened to be coaching, and that I would rather have something else to say to 17- or 18-year-olds, that there was some--some intellectual excitement going around.
LAMB: What year did you get out of Rice?
Mr. THOMAS: Well, really, I left Rice in '65. I got my degree in '66 because I had an ROTC commission and an obligation to spend a couple of years in the Army.
LAMB: Did you do that?
Mr. THOMAS: Yes. I defended Cincinnati and Dayton against the evil empire during 1965 and si--yeah, and '66 and '67.
LAMB: When did you write your first book? And how many have you written?
Mr. THOMAS: Let me start with the second question. I've written seven, and the first book, as you might expect, was my PhD dissertation, which I did with Frank Vandiver at Rice. And it was about Richmond in the Confederacy, "The Confederate State of Richmond: A Biography of the Capitol." Almost simultaneously I did a--an essay book about the Confederacy called "The Confederacy's Revolutionary Experience." It was essentially about 150 pages' worth of essay in which I explored some ideas that I had about the Confederacy and that were a little bizarre and excited me anyway.
LAMB: And what about "Confederate Nation"? What year did you write that?
Mr. THOMAS: "Confederate Nation" came out in 1979 and it is essentially a--a summary history of the Confederacy. It's--at the time it was a--a synthesis of the best ideas I could think of about the Confederacy.
LAMB: "Light-Horse Harry" Lee.
Mr. THOMAS: All right.
LAMB: How many prisons did he actually spend time in?
Mr. THOMAS: I think he s--he spent time in--in two debtors prisons, one in Westmoreland County at Montross, Virginia, ironically where he had once served as a gentleman justice and where George Washington--to which George Washington had once ridden to cast a very decisive vote for Light-Horse Harry when he ran for Congress. He fell on evil times. He spent a lot of money, he borrowed a lot of money. He was a pretty reckless speculator in land and other schemes, and so he got to the point of not being able to satisfy his creditors. He--he was holed up inside of Stratford Hall, the old Lee mansion there, had a chain across the door to try to keep the creditors away, but he couldn't, and they finally arrested him and put him in--in--in jail for debt.

He was also, I think, in jail in Spotsylvania Courthouse. He once wrote a letter to then-President Monroe, I guess it was--Madison--Madison, yes, recommending one of his relatives to be a federal judge. And I suggested--I don't know the--whatever the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of `chutzpa' is, but whatever it is, Light-Horse Harry possessed it in great abundance because it takes a tr--a great man of gall to write a letter recommending someone to be a federal judge from a jail, although he just simply dated it Spotsylvania Courthouse.
LAMB: Robert E. Lee was which child of his?
Mr. THOMAS: Well, actually Light-Horse Harry had two families. Hi--his first family with a woman named Matilda, whom he called `the Divine Matilda,' included a son and a daughter. Robert was in the second family, was the third son and the fourth child, I think, and there was one following him, a--a daughter.
LAMB: And Robert E. Lee's father had how many different positions at--of note besides one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence?
Mr. THOMAS: Well, he was a colonel in the American Revolution and a rather significantly decorated one. He was a hero. He was governor of Virginia. He was--well, he was made a general to lead the expedition against the whiskey rebels in western Pennsylvania in the 1790s. He was a United States congressman, coined the phrase about George Washington, `First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen,' or at least he's given credit for that. So he was a distinguished man in addition to being a--a--an inmate in debtors prison.
LAMB: When did he leave the family?
Mr. THOMAS: He left the--left the family in the summer of 1813. He had been severely injured in a--a riot that occurred in Baltimore in 1812 and he--he had to recover. It was thought--actually, it was thought he was going to die, but he survived, and as soon as he rec--could recover his--enough of his health, he set out for the West Indies to try to recover some more of his health and also to recoup his finances, which was a rather forlorn dream, I think.
LAMB: You--you know, anybody that--and millions of Americans come to this town. Anybody that's been here knows the Lincoln Memorial. But if you go over to Arlington Cemetery and go up to the top to the Arlington House, the National Park Service folks up there will tell you to look down the Memorial Bridge and say...
Mr. THOMAS: Exactly.
LAMB: In the '20s in this country, they felt the necessity to connect Lincoln and Lee. Explain why--with the Potomac River splitting the North and the South, why would it be in the '20s? I know that the Lincoln Memorial was 1922 and I think the Arlington House was 1925 when it became a memorial to Robert E. Lee.
Mr. THOMAS: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: Why the connection?
Mr. THOMAS: Well, I think the--the '20s pro--probably would cap a period of reconciliation and that kind of mood in the country in which an American nationalism seemed very strong. Probably--it may have had something to do with the isolationist feeling abroad in national politics, that if this is going to be one nation, then it ought to be--we ought to knit it as strongly as possible, North and South. Generally, 1900 is kind of a benchmark when you think in terms of the South sort of believing its national identity all over again and being--forgetting a little bit more the--the late unpleasantness. We--by that time we'd had a Southern president, Woodrow Wilson. We'd had a--a war that had produced disillusion but had also proved, as did the Spanish-American War, that Southerners would fight for a--an American nation all over again. So I guess it had a lot to do with this reconciliation moment and also, I think, the heroism of Lee, the integrity and the--the status the man had.
LAMB: Now that--that home, Arlington House, also is referred to as the Custis Lee Mansion.
Mr. THOMAS: Well, that's--that's for Lee's father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis, who's another--among father figures, Lee had some real--real doozies. Custis was a--well, if Lee was handsome and tall and fit, Custis was short and--well, when I look at his pictures, I say ugly, sort of paunchy and defiantly undistinguished. The man dabbled in lots of things--sheep breeding to writing plays to painting to poetry, and most of these things he did rather badly or with, let's say, indifferent success. But the one thing he did have was that he was the adopted son of George Washington, and consequently, if anybody wanted to hear anything about George Washington on any occasion, George Washington Parke Custis could give a speech, and the speech, I'm sure, would go on for quite some time and it would--Washington would end up a saint.

He was even a major for some staff honorar--honorific staff position that he held during the War of 1812, and he could--he could lord that over Lieutenant Lee, who'd married his daughter. Lee didn't--well, it would have taken a saint to take Custis very, very kindly. There's no--there was no obvious friction between the son-in-law and the father-in-law and the--and the--and the father there. But there's one letter that Lee wrote--and I'm paraphrasing here--in which he tells a--a close friend that, `The major is rushing on with this and that project. He's going to plant corn, but he hadn't bothered to plow the fields yet and he's'--says that his play, which was roundly criticized, was criticized for political reasons because somebody resented Custis' staunch conservatism.

So Lee did resent his father-in-law in--in some way, although it never quite surfaced, except, a--again, in that one private letter. But he did spend a lot of time there because Lee's wife, Mary Custis--Mary Custis Lee, was the only child of George Washington Parke Custis and his really lovely wife, Mary--another Mary--who heaped love upon Mary Custis and she returned that and she wanted to spend as much time as she could in her ancestral home, which had been built, really, during her youth. She was roughly the same age as her husband, and Arlington House was really built during a s--a couple of stages in the early years of the 19th century.
LAMB: Right up on top of the hill, when you look--come across the Memorial Bridge and see the eternal flame of the John F. Kennedy grave right up on--on top...
Mr. THOMAS: It is a beautiful sight, and Lee was one of the first Washington commuters because he lived at Arlington House when he was working for the chief of the Bureau of Engineers in Washington. And so he rode down that hill and across not that bridge but one similarly placed and over to the War Department Office to work and, except in very, very bad weather, he rode back for dinner.
LAMB: Robert E. Lee married Mary Custis when?
Mr. THOMAS: In 1831.
LAMB: How'd they meet?
Mr. THOMAS: Well, in a way, they'd always known each other. They were distantly related--very, very distantly--and Robert E. Lee's mother, who was really the heroine, the--the survivor in the--in the family--she's the one who kept that family together. Well, she insisted that her children enjoy the genteel upbringing to which she believed them--they deserved. And so she went on protracted visits, primarily, I guess, to keep from having to make ends meet at home--went on protracted visits to various relatives and close family friends, and one of these friends was Mary Fitzhugh, who'd married Custis, and so they visited Arlington House. And the two children at the time knew each other and they continued to know each other in a sort of circle of--of friends in northern Virginia.
LAMB: How many children did they have?
Mr. THOMAS: Mary and--and Robert E.? They had seven, all of whom survived infancy. The first one to die was Annie in 1862. She contracted scarlet fever, I think, and died in Warrenton, North Carolina.
LAMB: Two things that come through--or three things: one, that both Robert E. Lee's mother and Robert E. Lee's wife and lots of other people were always sick.
Mr. THOMAS: You know, in many ways--well, there--there's a--supposedly a tradition in which Southern boys are supposed to marry their mothers. I don't believe Lee married his mother, although there were things that Mary Lee had in common with Anne Carter Lee, Lee's mother. I think he married his mother's aspirations for a loving family, which certainly they had, a--a stable family, which certainly the Custises had, and for a certain amount of status and security, which the Custises enjoyed, which Light-Horse Harry and--and his wife, Anne, and the children did not enjoy.
LAMB: But the sickness part, the rheumatism...
Mr. THOMAS: Yeah.
LAMB: ...or the tuberculosis...
Mr. THOMAS: Anne Carter Lee, Lee's mother, was sick a lot during Robert's youth and, indeed, he had to--to take charge and sort of be the, quote, "man of the house," unquote, because his mother was physically incapable. And supposedly he took her on carriage rides and chinked the cracks in the carriage with papers which he pushed in with his penknife and all that, and Mary Lee, his--I mean, his wife, was often sick and by 1863 was an absolute invalid from arthritis, rheumatism, whatever.
LAMB: Robert E. Lee's wife?
Mr. THOMAS: Right. And she was ac--but she was rather sickly before that, and some of it had to do with having seven children in roughly 14 years. On one occa--after one childbirth, she had a terrible infection that really wracked her and, as Robert pointed out, affected her brain. She became very apprehensive and very concerned about--she didn't want to go anywhere or see anybody, that kind of thing. Another--on another occasion, she got--she'd been ill so long that her hair became so tangled that she became so frustrated that she cut it all off. And Lee was wondering what in the world he was going to do with this wife with a, in effect, crewcut, but I guess it grew back.
LAMB: Another thing that you--there's a thread through your book that Robert E. Lee was always away and that part of that was related to the way he felt about being around too many people or having his own way. Explain that.
Mr. THOMAS: Well, I--I think Lee was a shy man. He--it's ironic that he should inspire so much admiration and, indeed, adulation, but he himself was a very shy man who did not like being around crowds of people that he didn't know. His idea of a good time was to be with some very good friends and for them to be only one or two. And if--in the best of all circumstances, they should be women, because he was far more comfortable with women. He liked women a lot better than he liked men, although he worked with men. I mean, he was in this manly profession. He worked with men all of his life. He related to them--when he went to war, he--he did go to war. I mean, this--for Robert E. Lee, the Civil War was a foreign war. He never came home un--except on rare occasions and he stayed in that command tent most of the time. So he's worked with men all of his life and yet he liked women.

But a very shy man who did--also did not like confrontation. I mean, here's a man who's a warrior, who's a soldier, whose living is fighting and killing, who doesn't like confrontation, doesn't like conflict, and there are numerous instances in his life in which he shrinks from conflict. He once said, when he went back off to Texas in 1860, that since his tastes--Lee's tastes and the family's were so different, that he hoped that the family was much happier now that he was gone.
LAMB: Wh--what did he think of religion and God?
Mr. THOMAS: He was in favor of them. He--he grew up an Episcopalian; that is, his mother supposedly taught him his catechism at her knee. On his deathbed, one Episcopal bishop of Virginia said that he had to call him Robert and not General, and this is in 1862. He had to call him Robert and not General because he'd heard his catechism too often. He had been--this bishop had been the rector of Christ Church in Alexandria. So Lee was--almost inherited the Episcopal Church, but he never joined that church until the 1850s and then he joined it almost as a matter of convenience because two of his daughters were going to be confirmed. And it was almost as though, `Well, yeah, why not? I'll--I'll come along, too,' or `I will come with you.'

I think Lee's religious life is probably best summed up in a--in a line that he wrote in a letter and also in an essay that he wrote in the back of a diary that he was keeping in the 1850s, when he said about the moral development of children that `the great duty of life'--and when somebody says the great duty of life, you--you sort of perk up and pay attention--`the great duty of life is to see to the--the happiness and welfare of our fellow man.' He believed in a selfless--selflessness was the--the greatest good. And, conversely, the greatest evil, the source of any sin in the world, was selfishness. And I think he lived that out, and I think that's a big part of his moral and religious thinking.
LAMB: You have a--a minister in your family?
Mr. THOMAS: Yes, I do. I have a--a second son, who is the Reverend John T. Thomas, who currently is serving in Christ Church, Pensacola, Florida. Incidentally, deep in the--in a footnote that most people are never going to read is an excuse for a limerick that I wrote about Lee that says something about, `Though--though seemingly idyllic, pious in Virginia philic, not God, he was Lee; no Puritan he. The Paul he resembled was Tillich,' in which I try to make--point out that Lee was what we would call a very liberal Christian. He's often seen as this pious, hidebound, rigid, authoritarian moralist. But I don't think so. And I think many of the things that he did in his life as well as that--those lines about happiness and welfare of our fellow man, reveal him as this very, very open, warm, humanist Christian.
LAMB: Explain this. This is one little tiny point here and I--I di--I--it's not easy for me to understand. You say, `My first wife, Frances Telaferro Thomas.' I gather that was a--there is no second wife?
Mr. THOMAS: That--no. No, my first wife is my current wife. And that was my sort of pitiful attempt to say something smart-ass, actually. And I've--I've suffered for it. I've had people call me with--and--and--and come up to me at professional meetings with sort of shifty eyes and strange--strange looks on their face and say, `Tell me about Fran.' You know, with a leading question, like, `Has she died?' or `Have you run off with some steel-bellied airhead?' or whatever. No. No, no. Fran is constant.
LAMB: Well, a--yeah, because you refer to something that was written in 1992 that she did which--you'd have to be moving pretty fast here if there was a second one.
Mr. THOMAS: Precisely. Well...
LAMB: What about your life now? Where do you live now?
Mr. THOMAS: Well, I live in Athens, Georgia, and I've actually lived there since 1967--for 28 years. I went there as an assistant professor, intending to stay three to five years, which was then the--the--the norm in the profession. The profession then shut down and for a while there I thi--I felt I was trapped in Athens, Georgia, but then, when I've had a chance, subsequently, to move, I've always looked at--at another prospect and said, `Gosh, I'm having too much fun here. And I want to do this and I want to do that and I don't want to leave.' And I've been able to do a lot of things within one job--that is, in one place. I've focused on different research projects and done a lot of different--different kinds of things right there in Athens and also been able to get away from Athens for periods of time and that's--enables me to go back and really appreciate the place.
LAMB: What is your job now down there?
Mr. THOMAS: Well, I have a--I'm a profe--professor of history, titled Regents professor of history. And Fran and I--my first wife and I live in an old house, a 100-year-old house in a wonderful old neighborhood of Cobbham. It's a very eclectic neighborhood. I have--next door to me used to live, until about a year ago, Bill Berry, who was the drummer with R.E.M., the music group. You may remember him from--he--he's the one that had the embolism this summer that canceled their European tour for the time being. He's fully recovered now. Catty-corner from me on the--on the opposite side of the street in an apartment lived, until about--I don't know--a year and a half ago, lived Dean Rusk, former secretary of state. And behind the apartment that Dean Rusk lived in--and his wife still lives there, Mrs. Rusk--lives Bill McFeely, who's of some consequence as the biographer of Ulysses S. Grant. So I think...
LAMB: Won a Pulitzer with that.
Mr. THOMAS: Exactly. So we--we pretty well have--have the American Civil War nailed down on--at the confluence of--of Hill and Franklin streets in Athens, Georgia.
LAMB: Now how important of all the books you've written--is this the--you said seven books; is this the eighth or is this the seventh book?
Mr. THOMAS: This is the seventh.
LAMB: How important is this biography to you?
Mr. THOMAS: I think I--it may have to do something with the aging process, but I think I spent a lot of myself on this book and gave it a lot of energy and a lot--an awful lot of concentrated and intense work. I--well, there's some books that people can kid you about and you--and I knew this from my own mentor, Frank Vandiver. You could kid Frank about a l--a lot of things that he'd written, but you didn't say anything unpleasant about "Mighty Stonewall," which was his biography of Jackson. This may be the--the book that I'll probably smile if somebody says something nasty about it, but I will--it--it'll hurt, because I--I poured a lot of myself into it. This and I guess "The Confederate Nation." I don't know. I don't think people do throw-away books. That's too hard work.
LAMB: How long did this take?
Mr. THOMAS: It took--I guess I started working on it full-time when I finished this--the biography of J.E.B. Stuart. I guess '87, maybe, I started working on it, and then here it is '95, so that's eight--seven, eight years.
LAMB: Talk about secondary resources, secondary new material. Where did you find it?
Mr. THOMAS: Actually the--some of the exciting stuff that I found about--about Lee came out of mat--material that has been around for a long time. It's been in print. It's primary material. That is, it's stuff that he wrote himself. There's a--there's a ferment about Lee alive in the nation that not many people know about. I mean, you have to be a specialist to know about it, but there's a--a revisionism in the secondary literature that began with the--really began in earnest, let's say, with my old friend, Tom Connelly--Thomas L. Connelly, in a book called "The Marble Man," which was a study of the Lee image in American society. He takes it all--he took it all the way down to--to 1960. But if you want to talk about image--that is, perception of Lee, you need to deal with reality at some point. And so when it came to reality, Connelly had some pretty disturbing things to say about Lee. He thought he was a bundle of complexes, who was a--at one point he said he was a--that Lee was--perceived himself a failure as a parent, a career officer and moral individual, which is a pretty--pretty stern condemnation. Connelly's work, I guess, in--and I spent an awful lot of my professional life arguing with Tom Connelly.
LAMB: Where was he?
Mr. THOMAS: He was a good friend and I first met him at Rice. He and I were graduate students at the same time.
LAMB: Houston.
Mr. THOMAS: In Houston, Texas. And even--he was--he spent most of his professional life at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, South Carolina. And periodically we would get together at professional meetings or, in--on some occasions, he--I would go to Columbia. Connelly never went anywhere. He--he was not an i--an average person. But we argued about Lee an awful lot and, at first, it was just pure fun and--and then I began to really wonder if I could do this biography. About the time I began to wonder that, Connelly--Tom Connelly had signed a contract to do it. However, he found that he was so immersed in the image of Lee that he couldn't get beyond that. And so he really wanted to do something else, at which point I felt that Lee was--was up for grabs--that is, the project was--was available and so, with--I don't know--not a--not a great deal of--of reverence I jumped in and began the research.
LAMB: Chronological?
Mr. THOMAS: Yeah. Well, the re--research job--you s--you sort of go where the materials are and they jump around some. The Virginia Historical Society and other repositories in Richmond have an awful lot of Lee material. I guess the Virginia Historical Society has the most. But you al--I also went to West Point, New York; went to St. Louis; found Lee materials in lots of different places. There's a cache of Lee materials at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. There--there's a rich resource in the National Archives here in Washington, but one that I'm afraid I didn't tap. Well, yes, I tapped, but not as thoroughly as I would like. Michael Music, who is a wonderful man in the military records division, could probably occupy me for the rest of several lifetimes, looking for Lee materials there. And at some point I had to say, `Well, I'm just not going to live long enough to spend those lifetimes in the National Archives.'
LAMB: You say that he never made very many speeches.
Mr. THOMAS: He really never made an--well, OK, he made two or three, but they were never longer than a paragraph. And I think this had to do with his shyness. He was not a--a--he did not perceive himself as a--as a public person, although he certainly was for most of his life. He served the public.
LAMB: Did he ever get together with Abraham Lincoln?
Mr. THOMAS: Not that I know of.
LAMB: They didn't know each other?
Mr. THOMAS: They didn't know each other, no. He knew Grant, of course, and even visited Grant in the White House when Grant was president. But that relationship was kind of testy, I think. And I'm not--no one really knows what went on when the two former enemies went into the White House and closed the door and spoke privately, but I'm not sure that was a very jolly meeting.
LAMB: Why?
Mr. THOMAS: Well, Lee met Grant, I think, in Mexico when they both served there. Grant was a--a young lieutenant, Lee was a--a captain. That meeting couldn't have been very consequential and I think only Lee remembered it. I'm not even sure Grant did. Certainly the two knew each other from 1864 in northern Virginia and all the way to Appomattox.

But--well, second Cold Harbor, June 3rd, 1864, was a terrible mistake on Grant's part. It was essentially a series of frontal attacks against an entrenched army of northern Virginia and it was slaughter. It was really over in one morning and an awful lot of people were dead, wounded and dying out there on the battlefield. In the wake of other battles, generally the--the general who'd had it worst--who'd, in effect, lost--if the armies remained in place, would ask for a truce to retrieve the wounded and bury the dead. In this case, Grant didn't want to admit that he'd lost and so he offered Lee--or sent a message through by a white flag of some circumlocution of this official request and Lee was as good as--was just as stubborn and made Grant ask in the regular manner.

And that went on--that sparring went on for five days, during which time the poor guys are out there--the one--the ones who are wounded are screaming and crying and calling for water and calling for help and asking to die and we're talking about the pride of a couple of generals here. Well, maybe the pride--the corporate pride of their armies is at stake, too. But I don't think either one of them covered themselves with a great deal of glory in this instance. By the time they went out there to retrieve the wounded--now a lot of wounded had slipped back to their own lines at night or been--been hauled away during the dark. But by the time they went out there, by the time Grant finally said, `OK. OK,' and asked for the truce in the accepted way, there were only two people alive. Everybody else was dead.
LAMB: A--you know, you go down--Appomattox down here in Virginia is...
Mr. THOMAS: Right.
LAMB: ...easy to get to and you can visit it. There's a home over here in Alexandria. We have a Leesburg Pike that comes into our community around here and then we talked about the Arlington House. And you got me thinking, because I live near Jefferson Davis Highway...
Mr. THOMAS: Yeah.
LAMB: ...which is Route 1. But I guess--why is it--and maybe I'm wrong about this, why did Robert E. Lee end up being the one that everybody admires instead of Jefferson Davis?
Mr. THOMAS: Well, I think Lee could--you could associate with victory, because he did win some astounding victories.
LAMB: How many did he win and how many did he lose?
Mr. THOMAS: Well, I don't know if we can quantify that.
LAMB: I mean, did he win 10 times and lose twice or did--and what was his biggest loss?
Mr. THOMAS: Well, his biggest loss was obviously Gettysburg. He may have--have suffered more than--well, perhaps Malvern Hill was a--was another terrible day in--in his army. But generally he won at the Seven Days. The enemy was at the--in the suburbs of Richmond when the campaign started and when it was over they were cowering beneath their gunboats 23 miles away, Harrison's Landing there on the James. He won at Second Manassas, Second Bull Run, in which he defeated John Pope and is--and roughly an army--Union army his--his size. He certainly won at Chancellorsville. He certainly won at Fredricksburg, which was another slaughter not unlike Cold Harbor, in which Burnside directed 12, I think...
LAMB: Did he always have fewer troops...
Mr. THOMAS: ...frontal attacks.
LAMB: ...than the other side?
Mr. THOMAS: Sometime--on occasion he had parity; rarely he--he had more people at--at the point of attack, at the decisive place. He often had more because that's what he was trying to achieve. But generally speaking, from 1863 on, he had fewer and fewer. The campaigns against Grant, he usually had about roughly half the size of his enemies.
LAMB: We don't have much time.
Mr. THOMAS: Yeah.
LAMB: He--he--he died in 1870 and five years at Washington and then what was called Washington and Lee University today.
Mr. THOMAS: Right.
LAMB: What were his last five years like?
Mr. THOMAS: Well, in many ways they were frustrating. Clearly, he had lost a very large war. He wrote to a friend, `I am perceived--I'm seen as such a monster now'--that is, he was a rebel. He was the enemy. But he was a very innovative educator. He took this struggling little liberal arts college, he transformed the curriculum, introduced elective courses, brought in the sciences, brought in applied science--we would call engineering--abolished compulsory chapel for the students.
LAMB: But went himself.
Mr. THOMAS: But went every day himself and set the example that way and, thus, attracted the students to come.
LAMB: What'd he die of?
Mr. THOMAS: Died of a stroke. He came home--his last real act as a--on the public stage was in a vestry meeting in which they were trying to balance the budget and the thing had gone on for three hours. And finally, in order to end it, in order to resolve the controversy, Lee said, `I will make up that sum.' He would give the $50 or so necessary to balance the budget and to pay the rector. Naturally, the rector's salary was the last thing they considered.

He came home. He--his wife chided him for being late, which was moderately funny because it was she that was always late. He went to the head of the table and attempted to say the blessing over the supper and couldn't do it. His mouth opened but no words would come. He was--he sat down. He was flushed and--I think what had happened he had--he--he had a stroke, a rare stroke that did not provoke parva--paralysis. He lingered for a couple of weeks and died on October 12th, 1870, having been silent all those days. And the people who watched by his bed really couldn't get over that silence, but really, what is more appropriate than for Lee to die silently, because this was a man who was act. He wasn't a man of words; he was a man of deeds. And so what--what more appropriate way for him to get free.
LAMB: This is the cover of the book and it's a biography about Robert E. Lee by Emory Thomas. And we thank you for joining us.
Mr. THOMAS: Thank you very much. I've loved it.


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