Study Guide

Robert E. Lee in The Killer Angels

By Michael Shaara

Robert E. Lee

Man Behind the Myth

For a long time, Lee was almost a mythical figure in the South: Superman, Southern style. He was considered the height of Southern nobility and gentility—the kind of aristocrat that Buster Kilrain tends to see as the real enemy to American equality.

For people who were into the lost Confederate Cause, Lee represented everything good about the South, all the traditions and manners that had been overturned by the Civil War. The fact that Lee wasn't a big fan of slavery and thought of himself as someone fighting primarily for the rights of his state, Virginia, against Northern aggression helped boost the Southern notion that the war wasn't really about slavery, but about something else, like states' rights.

While Shaara doesn't do a hatchet job on Lee, he does pick at the Southern myth. Shaara's Lee makes a lot of mistakes: while he loves his soldiers, his poor judgment and health problems cause many of them to die needlessly at Gettysburg. The mad offensive of Pickett's Last Charge runs against Lee's reputation as a brilliant strategist and tactician.

At the same time, Lee demonstrates a lot of character when he admits to his retreating soldiers, after the failure of the charge, "It is all my fault." (4.5.4). While he acts as if he still thinks the Confederates have a chance, he also seems to feel that fate has turned against them, maybe once and for all.

A Fan of the Divine Plan

Lee is way religious. Of all the characters in the book, he's the one who seems the most confident that God is controlling both the action on the battlefield and the final outcome of the war: "He believed in a Purpose as surely as he believed that the stars above him were really there. He thought himself too dull to read God's plan, a servant only. And yet sometimes there were glimpses" (3.6.13). Yet Lee fails to have the kind of glimpse of insight that might have prevented Pickett's Charge. His own blindness to fate actually undoes his army.

While Lee is committed to the Cause, he's not entirely confident in his own judgment; he believes that God's judgment is what really matters, and he comes to wonder if God might be siding with the anti-slavery people, after all. That's his tragedy—to simultaneously believe in destiny and to be defeated by destiny. He has nothing left to do but stand his ground with stoic courage, as his Cause starts to become unattainable:

And so he took up arms willfully, knowingly, in perhaps the wrong cause against his own sacred oath and stood now upon alien ground he had once sworn to defend, sworn in honor, and he had arrived there really in the hands of God, without any choice at all; there had never been an alternative except to run away, and he could not do that. (3.6.25)

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