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New biography of Robert E. Lee shows a cruel White supremacist behind the heroic myth

Robert E. Lee, America's Greatest Monster.

David W. Blight

Pryor demures the "debunking of mythology," although in the end she does just that. She exposes some of Lee’s fateful mistakes as a general, especially at Gettysburg. She carves the mysticism away from Lee’s "decision" to join his state and therefore the Confederacy in 1861, rather than fulfill his oath to the United States government. Pryor pulls the protective curtain away from Lee’s views about slavery and race, revealing a conventional white supremacist who was a beleaguered slavemaster. The old creed in the Lost Cause catechism that Lee "never fought for slavery" crumbles in this book. And even Lee’s vaunted post-war reconciliationist spirit, quite real in public ways, had a private, opposite underside. Pryor judiciously chips away at the marble encasements around the real Lee. . . .


Lee married into ownership of nearly 200 slaves at Arlington and adjoining properties. Pryor forthrightly confronts this side of Lee’s life; he disliked slavery and found it a burden, but he was no "good" master, communicated badly with his slaves, and considered them naturally indolent and incapable of freedom. He confronted an "epidemic of runaways" (264) in the late 1850s and oversaw one brutal beating of a returned fugitive, including brine sewn into the wounds. Modern day Lee lovers will cringe at some of Pryor’s conclusions, rooted in strong evidence: Lee broke up families and "denied the slaves’ humanity" (275).
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