Connelly, Thomas L. The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American
Society. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1977.
Thomas L. Connelly in The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society explores the image of Lee that writers created during the Reconstruction years through the 1961-65 Civil War Centennial. Connelly is convinced that Robert E. Lee became an American legend only after so many writers portrayed him in that light. His great feats and successes were exaggerated, while his disappointments were minimized. For these reasons, Connelly feels Lee’s true biography and history has yet to be written, and this is what he hopes to do with The Marble Man.
Thomas Lawrence Connelly was a professor of history at the University of South Carolina for several years and is also an author or coauthor of several books on the Civil War. Some of these books are, The Politics of Command: Factions and ideas in Confederate Strategy, God and General Longstreet: the Lost Cause and the Southern Mind, Army of the Heartland: The Army of Tennessee, 1861-1862, and Autumn of Glory: The Army of Tennessee, 1862-1865. Connelly has received several awards for his works, including the Jefferson Davis Award and the Fletcher Pratt Award.
The author immediately states his intentions in the preface for this book as. “an attempt to probe the image of Robert E. Lee in the American mind…” (p. xi) There are numerous biographies on Lee, but no author before Connelly truly explored the manner in which Lee’s image actually established once the American Civil War ended. A difficult and delicate task that Connelly skillfully unearths layer by layer. He holds throughout this work that Lee and Virginia “cults” have so distorted fact that the real Lee was buried under mounds of soil. “Consequently, a man who is a great historical figure in his own right was shaped into what others wished him to be, and has become something that he never was.” (p. xiii)
If there was one question this book answers well, it is, “Why has Robert E. Lee had such a hold on the American mind?” (p. 3) As Connelly writes in the prologue, Lee’s biographers wrote that he was the saver of small animals, a model parent and husband, and the “epitome of reserve, humility, and self-sacrifice.” (p. 3) His demeanor has been matched to George Washington, and his code of honor compared to that of Christ. Before 1900, Lee was thought of well and as a superior general but not elevated to a national hero or deity status. However, after 1900 to around World War I, Lee’s star was illuminated.
Connelly begins this work with an account of Lee’s death in 1870 before flashing back to evaluate Lee’s standing in the community by his social group. He had the respect of his military peers but not well known other than that. Chapter One spends quite a bit of time showcasing several Confederate leaders who surpassed Lee in either military coups or in personality. General Thomas Stonewall Jackson had more emotional appeal, General P.G.T Beauregard competed with Lee for Southern affection, General Joseph E. Johnston had more political contacts and local support, and then we have Albert Sidney Johnston who Connelly writes matched all the other men combined. “He was a Southern Hamlet figure, the ill-starred tragic hero, doomed to fail by uncontrollable forces and destined to be struck down at the height of success.” (p. 23)
The second chapter is where Connelly meticulously studies the various Virginians and their groups that promoted Lee through the end of the nineteenth century. “They were a clannish lot, possessed of that inbred Virginia sense of conceit, and fiercely jealous of their war hero.” (p. 27)
The Lee promotional groups had various reasons for what they were doing. The author shares that, of the variety of motives, admiration, personal ambition, and to cover up wartime mistakes ranked highest. In the summer of 1890, Connelly says the press was either hostile or bored with dedications to Lee but by 1910 he was a national hero. Connelly quotes Harper’s Weekly. In 1890 they wrote that Lee “personified what was best of a bad cause,” but by 1910 Harper’s changed their tune considerably when they wrote that Lee was, “the pride of the whole country.” (p. 99) Even President Theodore Roosevelt said that he was a “matter of pride to all our countrymen.” (p. 99)
Connelly claims that the worshipful tone surrounding Lee was perpetuated by such authors as Franklin Riley and his book General Robert E. Lee after Appomattox, which, according to Connelly, eulogized Lee’s personality, Robert E. Lee the Soldier by historian Sir Frederick Maurice, The Life of Robert E. Lee for Boys and Girls, which claimed to be a more inspirational portrayal for the youth, and William Johnstone’s Robert E. Lee: The Christian that Connelly says, “…discussed in tedious fashion Lee’s temperament.” (p. 130)
Professor Connelly ends this work with a reappraisal of Lee. He discusses what remained of Lee’s unsatisfied desires. As a staunch Southerner, he was disappointed over the South’s difficulty during Reconstruction. Though he had a position at Washington College, Lee longed to live in his beloved Virginia once more, but a duty to the Confederacy had him staying the course. Lee wished to own a small farm but “…died without possessing his own land, a tenant in the house of his college.” (p. 218)
There will be some readers who find Connelly’s conclusions unacceptable. One should remember that The Marble Man is by no means this author’s first go at detailing out history. His books on the Army of Tennessee alone show Connelly’s rigid portrayal of details. This book is often referred to as a work that tries to debunk Lee. One might not agree with Connelly on each point, but, it is not a wasted experience for any history, American Civil War, or Southern enthusiast. It will only add further insight of the famous general.
Of the few important themes that emerge in this book, the first is that Robert E. Lee was not the only Confederate hero or even the main one. He vociferously maintains that Stonewall Jackson easily rivaled Lee in fame. Connelly states that a hero-like worship appeared after Appomattox and this led to an exaggerated interpretation of Lee’s military acuity.
Another theme that Connelly spends a great deal of time on are the groups, or cliques, of Virginians who wanted nothing more than to see Lee shrines everywhere. He believes that through their efforts, General Lee achieved such a lofty stature after the war. The author believes these Virginians had self-serving motives. Not only did they immortalize Lee, they made Virginia and the South synonymous with one another, and made it appear as though anything outside the eastern theater was almost unimportant. Connelly explains that two central factors influenced these groups to wax on with ever-increasing vigor. First, several of the associations were headed by Lee’s soldiers, and were a “reflection of the Confederate mind during Reconstruction.” (p. 47) Secondly, it was a way for Ex-Confederates to assimilate the notion that the cause they had stood behind had come to naught. So the groups would write these stories and give speeches about the wonders of Lee to help ease some of their lingering emotional strain. “To maintain some sense of victory, they would gather in crowded veterans’ halls and exaggerate the military prowess of Robert E. Lee” (p. 47)
An argument could easily be made that Connelly does not take into consideration that Lee already had a reputation as a really great soldier and also as a leader. Also, Virginia was in the position of being a major battleground of the war and did not necessarily need the cultish organizations pushing people toward that idea, even Northerners considered this to be true. Connelly does a great job of exploring and rooting out problem areas in Lee’s hero status transformation. The author is correct about how the values of a society can reflect the images it produced.
This solicits the question, are not all great generals, at some time, made to appear just a little more than human? Braver? Faster? Smarter? Men and women will always attach super-hero qualities on a person who not only fights hard, but is intelligent, and stands strong in the face of danger. Is every word uttered about Napolean Bonaparte, Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, or Tran Hung Dao absolute? Was Robert the Bruce truly inspired to destroy the English after watching a spider making its web? Most generally there is always a grain of truth, or more than a grain, if historical material is available. Should we re-evaluate every great general and leader to ascertain whether or not we’ve been led astray? For this reviewer though, I appreciate Professor Connelly’s position and his attention to detail. General Robert E. Lee picked a side and made decisions to the best of his ability, and whether or not the man actually saved a bird during a battle is surely inconsequential.
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