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Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters, by Elizabeth Brown Pryor.

Pryor searched Lee’s letters to find (to quote her epigram, by Stephen Vincent Benet)

That solitary gentleness and strength
Hidden behind the deadly oratory
Of twenty thousand Lee Memorial days…

What came through for me, in Pryor’s portrait, was a man rigid, passionate, strong-willed and fiercely determined to win, a man who locked the devotion and lives of his daughters to himself (none of them married, though they surely could have had their pick of any man in Virginia and beyond), prizing self-control, but occasionally losing it when balked, and most of all a man firmly of his time and place.

Pryor’s explication of Lee’s milieu, whose families veered from eccentric to outright dysfunctional, is masterful, both in content and technique. Structurally, she intersperses into a more traditional chronological treatment topics including religion; relations between slaves and slaveholders; the three wars that defined Lee: the War of 1812, in which his father was a hero, the Mexican War, in which Lee first saw action, and the Civil War, in which Lee went from being considered a headquarters lightweight to the commander of the CSA’s bodies and hearts; and Reconstruction.

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