The best books to understand Robert E. Lee

Who am I?

I am the author of The Lost Indictment of Robert E. Lee and A Fire in the Wilderness: The First Battle Between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. I’ve been a teacher, editor, and writer for over twenty-five years. The Civil War, in particular, has been my passion since I first read Bruce Catton’s The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War as an elementary school student in the 1960s. My articles on Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant have been featured in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and on the History News Network.


I wrote...

A Fire in the Wilderness: The First Battle Between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee

By John Reeves,

Book cover of A Fire in the Wilderness: The First Battle Between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee

What is my book about?

A Fire in the Wilderness tells the story of that perilous time when the future of the United States depended on the Union Army’s success in a desolate forest roughly sixty-five miles from the nation’s capital. Robert E. Lee, who faced tremendous difficulties replacing fallen soldiers, lost 11,125 men—or 17% of his entire force during the battle. On the opposing side, the Union suffered 17,666 casualties.

The alarming casualties do not begin to convey the horror of this battle, one of the most gruesome in American history. The impenetrable forest and gunfire smoke made it impossible to view the enemy. Officers couldn’t even see their own men during the fighting. The incessant gunfire caused the woods to catch fire, resulting in hundreds of men burning to death. “It was as though Christian men had turned to fiends, and hell itself had usurped the place of the earth,” wrote one officer.

The books I picked & why

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

By Elizabeth Brown Pryor,

Book cover of 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 She had access to numerous unpublished documents from Lee’s descendants, and used this invaluable material to provide a more complete and realistic portrait of the man.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.

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

By Elizabeth Brown Pryor,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Reading the Man as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Pryor's biography helps part with a lot of stupid out there about Lee - chiefly, that he was, somehow, 'anti-slavery.'" - Ta-Nehisi Coates, theatlantic.com

An "unorthodox, critical, and engaging biography" (Boston Globe) - Winner of The Lincoln Prize

Robert E. Lee is remembered by history as a tragic figure, stoic and brave but distant and enigmatic. Using dozens of previously unpublished letters as departure points, Pryor produces a stunning personal account of Lee's military ability, shedding new light on every aspect of the complex and contradictory general's life story. Explained for the first time in the context of the young…


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

By Alan T. Nolan,

Book cover of 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.

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

By Alan T. Nolan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Lee Considered as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In a careful re-examination of the historical evidence, Alan Nolan explodes many long-standing myths about Robert E. Lee and the American Civil War. The book may change readers' perceptions of the South's premier icon, as Nolan separates the Lee of reality from the Lee of mythology. The book should be of interest to general readers as well as Civil War buffs.


Robert E. Lee: A Biography

By Emory M. Thomas,

Book cover of 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.

Robert E. Lee: A Biography

By Emory M. Thomas,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Robert E. Lee as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The life of Robert E. Lee is a story not of defeat but of triumph-triumph in clearing his family name, triumph in marrying properly, triumph over the mighty Mississippi in his work as an engineer, and triumph over all other military men to become the towering figure who commanded the Confederate army in the American Civil War. But late in life Lee confessed that he "was always wanting something."

In this probing and personal biography, Emory Thomas reveals more than the man himself did. Robert E. Lee has been, and continues to be, a symbol and hero in the American…


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

By Douglas Southall Freeman,

Book cover of 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.

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

By Douglas Southall Freeman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked R. E. Lee as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Book by Freeman, Douglas Southall


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

By John William Jones,

Book cover of 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.

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

By John William Jones,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Personal Reminiscences, Anecdotes, and Letters of Gen. Robert E. Lee as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Robert E. Lee lived only five years after the end of the War Between the States. Dedicated to his work in directing the education of young men at Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, where he served as president, he did not have time or opportunity to write his memoirs. One of his chaplains with whom he was quite close in Christian fellowship ─ his familial friend, J. William Jones, set about to prepare a near approximation of Lee’s memoirs, which was endorsed both by the Lee family and Washington (and Lee) College. Lee’s story is told topically as Jones looks…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Robert E. Lee, the South, and military officers?

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