The best books on Robert E. Lee

The Books I Picked & Why

Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters

By Elizabeth Brown Pryor

Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters

Why this book?

Pryor’s work has become essential for scholars of Robert E. Lee. She had access to numerous unpublished documents from Lee’s descendants, and used this invaluable material to provide a more complete and realistic portrait of the man. In one chapter, she explores Lee’s complex attitudes toward slavery. She writes, “He embraced the legal and economic aspects of the master-slave system without really grasping its complex underlying relationships.” The Lost Cause notion that Lee opposed slavery is not supported by the evidence. Pryor provides new insights on his decision to resign from the army in 1861, and offers a detailed account of the creation of Arlington National Cemetery at Lee’s former estate.


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Lee Considered: General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History

By Alan T. Nolan

Lee Considered: General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History

Why this book?

Alan Nolan became one of the first to challenge the Lee myth that had been created in the decades after the general’s death in 1870. He starts with the premise that Lee was a good man whose actions have been distorted beyond all recognition. He then subjects the historical record to a withering cross-examination. Nolan asks: Why did Lee commit treason? Did he really oppose slavery? Did his stubborn persistence harm his beloved state of Virginia? What did he do to unite the nation after the war? Nolan even challenges to the traditional belief that Lee was magnanimous to his enemies, writing, “The historical record shows that Lee constructed a demonic image of the Federals.” This book takes no quarter and may infuriate Lee’s supporters.


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Robert E. Lee: A Biography

By Emory M. Thomas

Robert E. Lee: A Biography

Why this book?

This book remains the best one-volume biography of Robert E. Lee almost twenty-five years after its publication. Thomas is far more balanced than either Lee’s critics or devotees. Early on, he offers fascinating material about Lee’s parents and private life in general. His discussion of Lee’s father, Light-Horse Harry Lee, is particularly riveting. Despite being born into one of Virginia’s leading families, young Robert E. Lee grew up in an insecure environment after losing his father at a young age. Throughout the book, Thomas provides concise, though somewhat limited, summaries of Lee’s military exploits.


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R. E. Lee: A Biography, Vol. 3

By Douglas Southall Freeman

R. E. Lee: A Biography, Vol. 3

Why this book?

Freeman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning, four-volume account of Lee remains the gold standard among the numerous biographies of the general. Freeman tirelessly examined the documentary record, and wrote a compelling narrative of Lee’s eventful life. The coverage here of the crucial battles of the Civil War is outstanding. One must be careful with Freeman’s biography, however. Freeman is unabashedly devoted to Lee and is extremely biased in his opinions. In the final volume, Freeman admits that he came “to respect and to love” the subject of his biography. In the third volume, which I recommend here, Freeman argues that Lee would have been successful at Gettysburg, if not for the insubordination of General James Longstreet. The Wilderness Campaign is also examined in this volume. Despite all of the hagiography, Freeman’s R.E. Lee remains an essential work for anyone interested in the Confederate general.


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Personal Reminiscences, Anecdotes, and Letters of Gen. Robert E. Lee

By John William Jones

Personal Reminiscences, Anecdotes, and Letters of Gen. Robert E. Lee

Why this book?

The documents for this important collection, first published in 1874, were originally intended for an official biography of Lee. When that book was abandoned, Jones published all of the documents along with accompanying observations and anecdotes. Lee’s wife approved of the project. One historian said this collection “became a source book for all future Lee biographers.” The hagiography here in some of Jones’s anecdotes actually exceeds that of Douglas Southall Freeman, but it’s still an essential book for serious students of Robert E. Lee. Jones knew Lee personally and had access to all of his private papers.


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