BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Emory M. Thomas, who is Robert E. Lee?
Mr. EMORY THOMAS (Author, "Robert E. Lee: A Biography"): Robert E. Lee was a
very great general who, I think, was a very great man. He was a greater man
than he was a general, and I think that's why he excites so many people. They
know he's--he's great. Not all that many people, I don't think, know exactly
why, but they perceive his greatness, which probably has something to do with
his--the tragic events in his life more than the--the victories and the
LAMB: What was the most tragic event in his life?
Mr. THOMAS: Well, it may have been his birth. It says somewhere in the
biography that he had a birth defect, and the birth defect was his father, who
was a hero in the Revolutionary War, who was a prominent public figure but
also had some problems with integrity and rascality and insolvency that drove
him out of--out of the house, out of the country, one step ahead of his
creditors when Robert was a young--young man--young boy. And he died trying
to come back to the country, terminally ill, when Robert was on the brink of
being a teen-ager. And I think Lee spent most of his life trying to forget
who his father was and also trying to live down his father's infame.
LAMB: I want to come back to "Light-Horse Harry" Lee, his father, but give us
just a--a brief synopsis of what Robert E. Lee did in his life...
Mr. THOMAS: OK.
LAMB: ...the main points.
Mr. THOMAS: Yeah. Well, I guess the first thing he did that would attract
anybody's attention was attend West Point. There he was second in his class,
accu--accumulated no demerits, which was a--not an unheard of thing, but it's
rare. He was then, for the next 17 years, an engineer and enjoyed some
significant success as an engineer, was good.
LAMB: In the Army?
Mr. THOMAS: Right, the Army Corps of--Corps of Engineers. He, for example,
diverted the course of the Mississippi River to make St. Louis a thriving
river port--or continue St. Louis as a thriving river port instead of throwing
the river over to the Illinois shore and making Brooklyn, Illinois, the port
that St. Louis continued to be. For the next 17 years of his life, he was
a--a warrior, beginning with the Mexican War, really. He went off to war and
served on the staff of General Winfield Scott and was very, very important in
several of Scott's victories in the campaign from Veracruz to Mexico City. He
then was superintendent of West Point for a time. He did some other--worked
on some other engineering projects but briefly, then went off to Texas,
changing his branch to the cavalry. He thought he was going to lead troops.
In effect--in reality, he endured a trial by court-martial--that is, he was on
a lot of courts-martial and spent a lot of time traveling around Texas and
sitting around in places like Brownsville, Texas, waiting for witnesses to
He came back to northern Virginia, to the Washington, DC, area at the death of
his father-in-law to settle his estate and spent really the next two or three
years doing that. In the course of that experience, he happened to be on hand
during the John Brown raid on Harpers Ferry in October of 1859, and thus, Lee
had a great role in putting down that raid and capturing John Brown.
Actually, let me inject here that Lee doesn't get credit for this, but he
endured a hostage crisis such as we're all too familiar with in these times
because John Brown had 13 hostages inside that fire engine house--the famous
fire engine house that everybody knows about. He only had four or five people
who were able to defend themselves, but they certainly could have
wreck--wreaked havoc with the hostages, and Lee was able to get those hostages
out, none of them harmed, and capture John Brown at the same time.
He went back to Texas rather briefly, but significantly, because at this point
he had a chance to be a landed planter in the course of dealing with his
father-in-law's significant wealth actually, but he chose to stay in the Army.
Went back to Texas, rejoined his regiment and there he was when the secession
crisis boiled over, at which point he came back to northern Virginia, turned
down field command of the United States Army offered to him by Scott, resigned
from the Army and shortly thereafter accepted command of the Army and--and
Navy, actually, of the state of Virginia, and thus began his Confederate
career. He spent a--well, a year in--in--sort of at fallow for the first year
of the Civil War and then came to command 92,000 troops in the Seven Days
Campaign, the campaign before Richmond in the spring of '62, and really Lee
had never really commanded anybody but those Marines at Harpers Ferry before
In addition, I think, in this first year of the Civil War, 1861 and the spring
of '62, Lee had traveled around enough and experienced enough of the war to
know that it was going badly and that the Confederacy was not really prepared
to fight this war.
LAMB: Let me interrupt...
Mr. THOMAS: Yeah, please.
LAMB: You say 1862, 1863. How old would he have been? What year was he
Mr. THOMAS: He was born in 1807, so let's see. Let's subtract--well, he'd
have been 53 in 1860, so go 54, 55, 56--mid-50s.
LAMB: Mid-50s, and what rank does he have on his shoulder?
Mr. THOMAS: At this point in the Confederate army, he is a full general, one
of the first eight full generals made by President Jefferson Davis, perhaps so
made more for political reasons, but also because Lee enjoyed a significant
reputation who--from Winfield Scott, who, of course, was on the other side of
this war. But a lot of people believe that Lee was a great--great warrior.
They didn't have a whole lot of solid evidence because, as I said, he didn't
really command anybody, but he looked like a general. He was the handsomest
man in the United States Army and his pictures reveal that, I think. His...
LAMB: You--you had a little statistic, though, I wanted to ask you about
this. At one point you say, what--how tall was he? Five...
Mr. THOMAS: I say he's 5'11".
LAMB: But you said he had 4 1/2 C-size shoes?
Mr. THOMAS: Yeah, tiny feet.
LAMB: Now mine are, I think, 8 1/2. You mean that he really had half the
Mr. THOMAS: Exactly. Tiny, tiny feet. That does--I have no--no--no
explanation for that, but it's--it's true and I'm--you get--I can get these
numbers from Edward Valentine, who did a sculpture of Lee. He was supposed to
do it from life and he did take the measurements while Lee was still alive,
and one of the things he measured where those feet.
LAMB: Middle of the 1860s, Civil War--let's not--I don't want to shortchange
it. Let's jump beyond the Civil War maybe toward the end and ask you
about--what was his final--I mean, he ran the--the army of northern Virginia,
but then what did he do at the end of the Civil War? Where was he?
Mr. THOMAS: At the very end, he was made by Jefferson Davis and the
Confederate Congress general in chief of all Confederate forces and...
LAMB: How long did he have that job?
Mr. THOMAS: Really from January of '65 until April, when he--April 9th, to be
precise, when he surrendered. He didn't surrender all of the armies. He
didn't think that was i--within his authority. He only surrendered the one
army, the army of northern Virginia, that he had actively commanded ever since
that day in--June 1st of 1862.
LAMB: After the Civil War was over, where did--what did he do?
Mr. THOMAS: He accepted, somewhat haltingly, the presidency of a tiny liberal
arts college in Virginia, Washington College, named for George Washington and,
indeed, endowed by Washington initially. And Washington College was the only
college anywhere around--anywhere nearby that had any money at all, because
they still had that endowment or the principle from it. They had to convince
the state of Virginia to turn--turn loose the money, but they had it. And Lee
took the reins of this school and led it for the last five years of his life
and it is now, of course, Washington and Lee University, named for both
Washington and Lee. And I think he was a very creative, imaginative educator.
Some of the most exciting ideas that he had in his life came very near the end
of his life.
LAMB: And he's buried there.
Mr. THOMAS: Yes.
Mr. THOMAS: He--the--the entire family's there now. He--he's buried in
the--in a crypt in the chapel, the chapel that he oversaw the
const--construction of at Washington and Lee in Lexington, Virginia. His
children are buried there, his wife is buried there. His--his father,
Light-Horse Harry, was even brought up--dug up on Cumberland Island and
brought--brought there. And only within the past year has Lee's daughter, who
died in 18--in October of 1862, Annie--she died in North Carolina and she was
reinterred there after a certain amount of controversy because the--the nice
people in North Carolina really thought they were doing just fine taking care
of her grave and thought it was just awfully nice to have her there, but I
guess consistency prevailed and she moved--she moved to the Lee Chapel.
LAMB: This is really off the subject. When they take--when you take a tour
down there, they tell you that one of the jokes--this may not be a joke to
anybody, but--that they buried his horse, Traveller, standing up, but it's
really not true--I mean, right outside the--the chapel there, but the...
Mr. THOMAS: Right.
LAMB: Did they plan to put the whole family in that area, I mean, all the
descendants? Because there's a--you know, there's a family tree there...
Mr. THOMAS: Right.
LAMB: ...and there are all kinds of slots in the wall.
Mr. THOMAS: Well, I--I think they--it's--the space is there. Put it that
way. And so revered is Lee in Lexington and at Washington and Lee, and
LAMB: You start this book by talking about your childhood.
Mr. THOMAS: Yeah.
LAMB: The--tell that story. I mean, when you start off with a
historian--listening to a historian on radio.
Mr. THOMAS: Yeah. Well, the--the--a constant in my life in some--some ways
has been Douglas Southall Freeman, whose four-volume biography of Lee, written
in the mid-1930s--1935--not only won a Pulitzer Prize but certainly deserved
it and also has remained, I think, the--the definitive biography of Lee ever
since. And in many ways it is still the definitive biography of Lee because
it's four volumes, it's encyclopedic. It almost knows--tells the reader where
Lee was on every day of his life. This I don't pretend to...
LAMB: Literally every day of his life?
Mr. THOMAS: Practically every day. Let's put it that way.
LAMB: And that was the attempt that he made?
Mr. THOMAS: He wanted to know that. I'm not sure he--he did and I--I'm--and
Douglas Freeman was an honest man, probably would have confessed that, no, he
didn't know where he was on some days. But he actually went into some
discussion as to where he might have been and where he should have been. But
he was that meticulous a researcher.
LAMB: Where did you have your...
Mr. THOMAS: Well...
LAMB: ...first contact with him?
Mr. THOMAS: ...he was the--at the time, the editor of the Richmond News
Leader, the afternoon newspaper in Richmond, and did a 15-minute radio program
at 8:00 in the morning, sort of a commentary on the day's events, and as far
as I knew, everybody in Richmond--I'm sure they didn't, but as far as I knew,
everybody in Richmond listened to Dr. Freeman at 8:00 in the morning. And
only when Dr. Freeman was--was through with his commentary did I pack up my
little books and trundle on off to Ginter Park Elementary School or Chandler
Junior High School, when I was that age.
LAMB: Where were you born?
Mr. THOMAS: I was born in Richmond and lived there for a long time, reading
Dr. Freeman's newspaper and listening to him on the radio as a--a youth.
LAMB: How did you get into the business of writing and teaching?
Mr. THOMAS: I did--made, for me, the right decisions for all the wrong
reasons. And I don't think you know this story, but--or series of stories,
but I left Richmond for the first time really, in living somewhere else, to go
to Charlottesville to attend the University of Virginia, which--I felt like I
lived in Charlottesville for four years. And I went there to get an
undergraduate education, but also to play football. And so I really wanted to
be a football coach for a good portion of my adolescent and post-adolescent
years, actually. I became a history major instead of an English major because
I got an A in history and a--and a B in English. I entered the honors program
primarily because you wrote papers instead of going to classes, and that
seemed to me an--an interesting alternative at the time.
I went to Rice University because they offered me a fellowship. I worked on a
PhD primarily because I still wanted to be a football coach and only at
Rice--and that's 1,500 miles from the capital of the Confederacy now. Only at
Rice did I became--become convinced that there was a great deal of
intellectual viability in the Confederate States of America and that this was
an exciting topic and that this football stuff, I had out--ou--I had outgrown,
and that I did not want to spend most of my life trying to persuade
17-year-olds and 18-year-olds to come and play football for wherever I
happened to be coaching, and that I would rather have something else to say to
17- or 18-year-olds, that there was some--some intellectual excitement going
LAMB: What year did you get out of Rice?
Mr. THOMAS: Well, really, I left Rice in '65. I got my degree in '66 because
I had an ROTC commission and an obligation to spend a couple of years in the
LAMB: Did you do that?
Mr. THOMAS: Yes. I defended Cincinnati and Dayton against the evil empire
during 1965 and si--yeah, and '66 and '67.
LAMB: When did you write your first book? And how many have you written?
Mr. THOMAS: Let me start with the second question. I've written seven, and
the first book, as you might expect, was my PhD dissertation, which I did with
Frank Vandiver at Rice. And it was about Richmond in the Confederacy, "The
Confederate State of Richmond: A Biography of the Capitol." Almost
simultaneously I did a--an essay book about the Confederacy called "The
Confederacy's Revolutionary Experience." It was essentially about 150 pages'
worth of essay in which I explored some ideas that I had about the Confederacy
and that were a little bizarre and excited me anyway.
LAMB: And what about "Confederate Nation"? What year did you write that?
Mr. THOMAS: "Confederate Nation" came out in 1979 and it is essentially a--a
summary history of the Confederacy. It's--at the time it was a--a synthesis
of the best ideas I could think of about the Confederacy.
LAMB: "Light-Horse Harry" Lee.
Mr. THOMAS: All right.
LAMB: How many prisons did he actually spend time in?
Mr. THOMAS: I think he s--he spent time in--in two debtors prisons, one in
Westmoreland County at Montross, Virginia, ironically where he had once served
as a gentleman justice and where George Washington--to which George Washington
had once ridden to cast a very decisive vote for Light-Horse Harry when he ran
for Congress. He fell on evil times. He spent a lot of money, he borrowed a
lot of money. He was a pretty reckless speculator in land and other schemes,
and so he got to the point of not being able to satisfy his creditors. He--he
was holed up inside of Stratford Hall, the old Lee mansion there, had a chain
across the door to try to keep the creditors away, but he couldn't, and they
finally arrested him and put him in--in--in jail for debt.
He was also, I think, in jail in Spotsylvania Courthouse. He once wrote a
letter to then-President Monroe, I guess it was--Madison--Madison, yes,
recommending one of his relatives to be a federal judge. And I suggested--I
don't know the--whatever the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of `chutzpa' is, but
whatever it is, Light-Horse Harry possessed it in great abundance because it
takes a tr--a great man of gall to write a letter recommending someone to be a
federal judge from a jail, although he just simply dated it Spotsylvania
LAMB: Robert E. Lee was which child of his?
Mr. THOMAS: Well, actually Light-Horse Harry had two families. Hi--his first
family with a woman named Matilda, whom he called `the Divine Matilda,'
included a son and a daughter. Robert was in the second family, was the third
son and the fourth child, I think, and there was one following him, a--a
LAMB: And Robert E. Lee's father had how many different positions at--of note
besides one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence?
Mr. THOMAS: Well, he was a colonel in the American Revolution and a rather
significantly decorated one. He was a hero. He was governor of Virginia. He
was--well, he was made a general to lead the expedition against the whiskey
rebels in western Pennsylvania in the 1790s. He was a United States
congressman, coined the phrase about George Washington, `First in war, first
in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen,' or at least he's given
credit for that. So he was a distinguished man in addition to being a--a--an
inmate in debtors prison.
LAMB: When did he leave the family?
Mr. THOMAS: He left the--left the family in the summer of 1813. He had been
severely injured in a--a riot that occurred in Baltimore in 1812 and he--he
had to recover. It was thought--actually, it was thought he was going to die,
but he survived, and as soon as he rec--could recover his--enough of his
health, he set out for the West Indies to try to recover some more of his
health and also to recoup his finances, which was a rather forlorn dream, I
LAMB: You--you know, anybody that--and millions of Americans come to this
town. Anybody that's been here knows the Lincoln Memorial. But if you go
over to Arlington Cemetery and go up to the top to the Arlington House, the
National Park Service folks up there will tell you to look down the Memorial
Bridge and say...
Mr. THOMAS: Exactly.
LAMB: In the '20s in this country, they felt the necessity to connect Lincoln
and Lee. Explain why--with the Potomac River splitting the North and the
South, why would it be in the '20s? I know that the Lincoln Memorial was 1922
and I think the Arlington House was 1925 when it became a memorial to Robert
Mr. THOMAS: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: Why the connection?
Mr. THOMAS: Well, I think the--the '20s pro--probably would cap a period of
reconciliation and that kind of mood in the country in which an American
nationalism seemed very strong. Probably--it may have had something to do
with the isolationist feeling abroad in national politics, that if this is
going to be one nation, then it ought to be--we ought to knit it as strongly
as possible, North and South. Generally, 1900 is kind of a benchmark when you
think in terms of the South sort of believing its national identity all over
again and being--forgetting a little bit more the--the late unpleasantness.
We--by that time we'd had a Southern president, Woodrow Wilson. We'd had a--a
war that had produced disillusion but had also proved, as did the
Spanish-American War, that Southerners would fight for a--an American nation
all over again. So I guess it had a lot to do with this reconciliation moment
and also, I think, the heroism of Lee, the integrity and the--the status the
LAMB: Now that--that home, Arlington House, also is referred to as the Custis
Mr. THOMAS: Well, that's--that's for Lee's father-in-law, George Washington
Parke Custis, who's another--among father figures, Lee had some real--real
doozies. Custis was a--well, if Lee was handsome and tall and fit, Custis was
short and--well, when I look at his pictures, I say ugly, sort of paunchy and
defiantly undistinguished. The man dabbled in lots of things--sheep breeding
to writing plays to painting to poetry, and most of these things he did rather
badly or with, let's say, indifferent success. But the one thing he did have
was that he was the adopted son of George Washington, and consequently, if
anybody wanted to hear anything about George Washington on any occasion,
George Washington Parke Custis could give a speech, and the speech, I'm sure,
would go on for quite some time and it would--Washington would end up a saint.
He was even a major for some staff honorar--honorific staff position that he
held during the War of 1812, and he could--he could lord that over Lieutenant
Lee, who'd married his daughter. Lee didn't--well, it would have taken a
saint to take Custis very, very kindly. There's no--there was no obvious
friction between the son-in-law and the father-in-law and the--and the--and
the father there. But there's one letter that Lee wrote--and I'm paraphrasing
here--in which he tells a--a close friend that, `The major is rushing on with
this and that project. He's going to plant corn, but he hadn't bothered to
plow the fields yet and he's'--says that his play, which was roundly
criticized, was criticized for political reasons because somebody resented
Custis' staunch conservatism.
So Lee did resent his father-in-law in--in some way, although it never quite
surfaced, except, a--again, in that one private letter. But he did spend a
lot of time there because Lee's wife, Mary Custis--Mary Custis Lee, was the
only child of George Washington Parke Custis and his really lovely wife,
Mary--another Mary--who heaped love upon Mary Custis and she returned that and
she wanted to spend as much time as she could in her ancestral home, which had
been built, really, during her youth. She was roughly the same age as her
husband, and Arlington House was really built during a s--a couple of stages
in the early years of the 19th century.
LAMB: Right up on top of the hill, when you look--come across the Memorial
Bridge and see the eternal flame of the John F. Kennedy grave right up on--on
Mr. THOMAS: It is a beautiful sight, and Lee was one of the first Washington
commuters because he lived at Arlington House when he was working for the
chief of the Bureau of Engineers in Washington. And so he rode down that
hill and across not that bridge but one similarly placed and over to the War
Department Office to work and, except in very, very bad weather, he rode back
LAMB: Robert E. Lee married Mary Custis when?
Mr. THOMAS: In 1831.
LAMB: How'd they meet?
Mr. THOMAS: Well, in a way, they'd always known each other. They were
distantly related--very, very distantly--and Robert E. Lee's mother, who was
really the heroine, the--the survivor in the--in the family--she's the one who
kept that family together. Well, she insisted that her children enjoy the
genteel upbringing to which she believed them--they deserved. And so she went
on protracted visits, primarily, I guess, to keep from having to make ends
meet at home--went on protracted visits to various relatives and close family
friends, and one of these friends was Mary Fitzhugh, who'd married Custis, and
so they visited Arlington House. And the two children at the time knew each
other and they continued to know each other in a sort of circle of--of friends
in northern Virginia.
LAMB: How many children did they have?
Mr. THOMAS: Mary and--and Robert E.? They had seven, all of whom survived
infancy. The first one to die was Annie in 1862. She contracted scarlet
fever, I think, and died in Warrenton, North Carolina.
LAMB: Two things that come through--or three things: one, that both Robert
E. Lee's mother and Robert E. Lee's wife and lots of other people were always
Mr. THOMAS: You know, in many ways--well, there--there's a--supposedly a
tradition in which Southern boys are supposed to marry their mothers. I don't
believe Lee married his mother, although there were things that Mary Lee had
in common with Anne Carter Lee, Lee's mother. I think he married his mother's
aspirations for a loving family, which certainly they had, a--a stable family,
which certainly the Custises had, and for a certain amount of status and
security, which the Custises enjoyed, which Light-Horse Harry and--and his
wife, Anne, and the children did not enjoy.
LAMB: But the sickness part, the rheumatism...
Mr. THOMAS: Yeah.
LAMB: ...or the tuberculosis...
Mr. THOMAS: Anne Carter Lee, Lee's mother, was sick a lot during Robert's
youth and, indeed, he had to--to take charge and sort of be the, quote, "man
of the house," unquote, because his mother was physically incapable. And
supposedly he took her on carriage rides and chinked the cracks in the
carriage with papers which he pushed in with his penknife and all that, and
Mary Lee, his--I mean, his wife, was often sick and by 1863 was an absolute
invalid from arthritis, rheumatism, whatever.
LAMB: Robert E. Lee's wife?
Mr. THOMAS: Right. And she was ac--but she was rather sickly before that,
and some of it had to do with having seven children in roughly 14 years. On
one occa--after one childbirth, she had a terrible infection that really
wracked her and, as Robert pointed out, affected her brain. She became very
apprehensive and very concerned about--she didn't want to go anywhere or see
anybody, that kind of thing. Another--on another occasion, she got--she'd
been ill so long that her hair became so tangled that she became so frustrated
that she cut it all off. And Lee was wondering what in the world he was going
to do with this wife with a, in effect, crewcut, but I guess it grew back.
LAMB: Another thing that you--there's a thread through your book that Robert
E. Lee was always away and that part of that was related to the way he felt
about being around too many people or having his own way. Explain that.
Mr. THOMAS: Well, I--I think Lee was a shy man. He--it's ironic that he
should inspire so much admiration and, indeed, adulation, but he himself was a
very shy man who did not like being around crowds of people that he didn't
know. His idea of a good time was to be with some very good friends and for
them to be only one or two. And if--in the best of all circumstances, they
should be women, because he was far more comfortable with women. He liked
women a lot better than he liked men, although he worked with men. I mean, he
was in this manly profession. He worked with men all of his life. He related
to them--when he went to war, he--he did go to war. I mean, this--for Robert
E. Lee, the Civil War was a foreign war. He never came home un--except on
rare occasions and he stayed in that command tent most of the time. So he's
worked with men all of his life and yet he liked women.
But a very shy man who did--also did not like confrontation. I mean, here's a
man who's a warrior, who's a soldier, whose living is fighting and killing,
who doesn't like confrontation, doesn't like conflict, and there are numerous
instances in his life in which he shrinks from conflict. He once said, when
he went back off to Texas in 1860, that since his tastes--Lee's tastes and the
family's were so different, that he hoped that the family was much happier now
that he was gone.
LAMB: Wh--what did he think of religion and God?
Mr. THOMAS: He was in favor of them. He--he grew up an Episcopalian; that
is, his mother supposedly taught him his catechism at her knee. On his
deathbed, one Episcopal bishop of Virginia said that he had to call him Robert
and not General, and this is in 1862. He had to call him Robert and not
General because he'd heard his catechism too often. He had been--this bishop
had been the rector of Christ Church in Alexandria. So Lee was--almost
inherited the Episcopal Church, but he never joined that church until the
1850s and then he joined it almost as a matter of convenience because two of
his daughters were going to be confirmed. And it was almost as though, `Well,
yeah, why not? I'll--I'll come along, too,' or `I will come with you.'
I think Lee's religious life is probably best summed up in a--in a line that
he wrote in a letter and also in an essay that he wrote in the back of a diary
that he was keeping in the 1850s, when he said about the moral development of
children that `the great duty of life'--and when somebody says the great duty
of life, you--you sort of perk up and pay attention--`the great duty of life
is to see to the--the happiness and welfare of our fellow man.' He believed
in a selfless--selflessness was the--the greatest good. And, conversely, the
greatest evil, the source of any sin in the world, was selfishness. And I
think he lived that out, and I think that's a big part of his moral and
LAMB: You have a--a minister in your family?
Mr. THOMAS: Yes, I do. I have a--a second son, who is the Reverend John T.
Thomas, who currently is serving in Christ Church, Pensacola, Florida.
Incidentally, deep in the--in a footnote that most people are never going to
read is an excuse for a limerick that I wrote about Lee that says something
about, `Though--though seemingly idyllic, pious in Virginia philic, not God,
he was Lee; no Puritan he. The Paul he resembled was Tillich,' in which I
try to make--point out that Lee was what we would call a very liberal
Christian. He's often seen as this pious, hidebound, rigid, authoritarian
moralist. But I don't think so. And I think many of the things that he did
in his life as well as that--those lines about happiness and welfare of our
fellow man, reveal him as this very, very open, warm, humanist Christian.
LAMB: Explain this. This is one little tiny point here and I--I di--I--it's
not easy for me to understand. You say, `My first wife, Frances Telaferro
Thomas.' I gather that was a--there is no second wife?
Mr. THOMAS: That--no. No, my first wife is my current wife. And that was my
sort of pitiful attempt to say something smart-ass, actually. And I've--I've
suffered for it. I've had people call me with--and--and--and come up to me at
professional meetings with sort of shifty eyes and strange--strange looks on
their face and say, `Tell me about Fran.' You know, with a leading question,
like, `Has she died?' or `Have you run off with some steel-bellied airhead?'
or whatever. No. No, no. Fran is constant.
LAMB: Well, a--yeah, because you refer to something that was written in 1992
that she did which--you'd have to be moving pretty fast here if there was a
Mr. THOMAS: Precisely. Well...
LAMB: What about your life now? Where do you live now?
Mr. THOMAS: Well, I live in Athens, Georgia, and I've actually lived there
since 1967--for 28 years. I went there as an assistant professor, intending
to stay three to five years, which was then the--the--the norm in the
profession. The profession then shut down and for a while there I thi--I felt
I was trapped in Athens, Georgia, but then, when I've had a chance,
subsequently, to move, I've always looked at--at another prospect and said,
`Gosh, I'm having too much fun here. And I want to do this and I want to do
that and I don't want to leave.' And I've been able to do a lot of things
within one job--that is, in one place. I've focused on different research
projects and done a lot of different--different kinds of things right there in
Athens and also been able to get away from Athens for periods of time and
that's--enables me to go back and really appreciate the place.
LAMB: What is your job now down there?
Mr. THOMAS: Well, I have a--I'm a profe--professor of history, titled Regents
professor of history. And Fran and I--my first wife and I live in an old
house, a 100-year-old house in a wonderful old neighborhood of Cobbham. It's
a very eclectic neighborhood. I have--next door to me used to live, until
about a year ago, Bill Berry, who was the drummer with R.E.M., the music
group. You may remember him from--he--he's the one that had the embolism this
summer that canceled their European tour for the time being. He's fully
recovered now. Catty-corner from me on the--on the opposite side of the
street in an apartment lived, until about--I don't know--a year and a half
ago, lived Dean Rusk, former secretary of state. And behind the apartment
that Dean Rusk lived in--and his wife still lives there, Mrs. Rusk--lives
Bill McFeely, who's of some consequence as the biographer of Ulysses S.
Grant. So I think...
LAMB: Won a Pulitzer with that.
Mr. THOMAS: Exactly. So we--we pretty well have--have the American Civil War
nailed down on--at the confluence of--of Hill and Franklin streets in Athens,
LAMB: Now how important of all the books you've written--is this the--you
said seven books; is this the eighth or is this the seventh book?
Mr. THOMAS: This is the seventh.
LAMB: How important is this biography to you?
Mr. THOMAS: I think I--it may have to do something with the aging process,
but I think I spent a lot of myself on this book and gave it a lot of energy
and a lot--an awful lot of concentrated and intense work. I--well, there's
some books that people can kid you about and you--and I knew this from my own
mentor, Frank Vandiver. You could kid Frank about a l--a lot of things that
he'd written, but you didn't say anything unpleasant about "Mighty Stonewall,"
which was his biography of Jackson. This may be the--the book that I'll
probably smile if somebody says something nasty about it, but I
will--it--it'll hurt, because I--I poured a lot of myself into it. This and I
guess "The Confederate Nation." I don't know. I don't think people do
throw-away books. That's too hard work.
LAMB: How long did this take?
Mr. THOMAS: It took--I guess I started working on it full-time when I
finished this--the biography of J.E.B. Stuart. I guess '87, maybe, I started
working on it, and then here it is '95, so that's eight--seven, eight years.
LAMB: Talk about secondary resources, secondary new material. Where did you
Mr. THOMAS: Actually the--some of the exciting stuff that I found
about--about Lee came out of mat--material that has been around for a long
time. It's been in print. It's primary material. That is, it's stuff that
he wrote himself. There's a--there's a ferment about Lee alive in the nation
that not many people know about. I mean, you have to be a specialist to know
about it, but there's a--a revisionism in the secondary literature that began
with the--really began in earnest, let's say, with my old friend, Tom
Connelly--Thomas L. Connelly, in a book called "The Marble Man," which was a
study of the Lee image in American society. He takes it all--he took it all
the way down to--to 1960. But if you want to talk about image--that is,
perception of Lee, you need to deal with reality at some point. And so when
it came to reality, Connelly had some pretty disturbing things to say about
Lee. He thought he was a bundle of complexes, who was a--at one point he said
he was a--that Lee was--perceived himself a failure as a parent, a career
officer and moral individual, which is a pretty--pretty stern condemnation.
Connelly's work, I guess, in--and I spent an awful lot of my professional life
arguing with Tom Connelly.
LAMB: Where was he?
Mr. THOMAS: He was a good friend and I first met him at Rice. He and I were
graduate students at the same time.
Mr. THOMAS: In Houston, Texas. And even--he was--he spent most of his
professional life at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, South
Carolina. And periodically we would get together at professional meetings or,
in--on some occasions, he--I would go to Columbia. Connelly never went
anywhere. He--he was not an i--an average person. But we argued about Lee an
awful lot and, at first, it was just pure fun and--and then I began to really
wonder if I could do this biography. About the time I began to wonder that,
Connelly--Tom Connelly had signed a contract to do it. However, he found that
he was so immersed in the image of Lee that he couldn't get beyond that. And
so he really wanted to do something else, at which point I felt that Lee
was--was up for grabs--that is, the project was--was available and so, with--I
don't know--not a--not a great deal of--of reverence I jumped in and began the
Mr. THOMAS: Yeah. Well, the re--research job--you s--you sort of go where
the materials are and they jump around some. The Virginia Historical Society
and other repositories in Richmond have an awful lot of Lee material. I guess
the Virginia Historical Society has the most. But you al--I also went to West
Point, New York; went to St. Louis; found Lee materials in lots of different
places. There's a cache of Lee materials at the Huntington Library in San
Marino, California. There--there's a rich resource in the National Archives
here in Washington, but one that I'm afraid I didn't tap. Well, yes, I
tapped, but not as thoroughly as I would like. Michael Music, who is a
wonderful man in the military records division, could probably occupy me for
the rest of several lifetimes, looking for Lee materials there. And at some
point I had to say, `Well, I'm just not going to live long enough to spend
those lifetimes in the National Archives.'
LAMB: You say that he never made very many speeches.
Mr. THOMAS: He really never made an--well, OK, he made two or three, but they
were never longer than a paragraph. And I think this had to do with his
shyness. He was not a--a--he did not perceive himself as a--as a public
person, although he certainly was for most of his life. He served the public.
LAMB: Did he ever get together with Abraham Lincoln?
Mr. THOMAS: Not that I know of.
LAMB: They didn't know each other?
Mr. THOMAS: They didn't know each other, no. He knew Grant, of course, and
even visited Grant in the White House when Grant was president. But that
relationship was kind of testy, I think. And I'm not--no one really knows
what went on when the two former enemies went into the White House and closed
the door and spoke privately, but I'm not sure that was a very jolly meeting.
Mr. THOMAS: Well, Lee met Grant, I think, in Mexico when they both served
there. Grant was a--a young lieutenant, Lee was a--a captain. That meeting
couldn't have been very consequential and I think only Lee remembered it. I'm
not even sure Grant did. Certainly the two knew each other from 1864 in
northern Virginia and all the way to Appomattox.
But--well, second Cold Harbor, June 3rd, 1864, was a terrible mistake on
Grant's part. It was essentially a series of frontal attacks against an
entrenched army of northern Virginia and it was slaughter. It was really over
in one morning and an awful lot of people were dead, wounded and dying out
there on the battlefield. In the wake of other battles, generally the--the
general who'd had it worst--who'd, in effect, lost--if the armies remained in
place, would ask for a truce to retrieve the wounded and bury the dead. In
this case, Grant didn't want to admit that he'd lost and so he offered Lee--or
sent a message through by a white flag of some circumlocution of this official
request and Lee was as good as--was just as stubborn and made Grant ask in the
And that went on--that sparring went on for five days, during which time the
poor guys are out there--the one--the ones who are wounded are screaming and
crying and calling for water and calling for help and asking to die and we're
talking about the pride of a couple of generals here. Well, maybe the
pride--the corporate pride of their armies is at stake, too. But I don't
think either one of them covered themselves with a great deal of glory in this
instance. By the time they went out there to retrieve the wounded--now a lot
of wounded had slipped back to their own lines at night or been--been hauled
away during the dark. But by the time they went out there, by the time Grant
finally said, `OK. OK,' and asked for the truce in the accepted way, there
were only two people alive. Everybody else was dead.
LAMB: A--you know, you go down--Appomattox down here in Virginia is...
Mr. THOMAS: Right.
LAMB: ...easy to get to and you can visit it. There's a home over here in
Alexandria. We have a Leesburg Pike that comes into our community around here
and then we talked about the Arlington House. And you got me thinking,
because I live near Jefferson Davis Highway...
Mr. THOMAS: Yeah.
LAMB: ...which is Route 1. But I guess--why is it--and maybe I'm wrong about
this, why did Robert E. Lee end up being the one that everybody admires
instead of Jefferson Davis?
Mr. THOMAS: Well, I think Lee could--you could associate with victory,
because he did win some astounding victories.
LAMB: How many did he win and how many did he lose?
Mr. THOMAS: Well, I don't know if we can quantify that.
LAMB: I mean, did he win 10 times and lose twice or did--and what was his
Mr. THOMAS: Well, his biggest loss was obviously Gettysburg. He may
have--have suffered more than--well, perhaps Malvern Hill was a--was another
terrible day in--in his army. But generally he won at the Seven Days. The
enemy was at the--in the suburbs of Richmond when the campaign started and
when it was over they were cowering beneath their gunboats 23 miles away,
Harrison's Landing there on the James. He won at Second Manassas, Second Bull
Run, in which he defeated John Pope and is--and roughly an army--Union army
his--his size. He certainly won at Chancellorsville. He certainly won at
Fredricksburg, which was another slaughter not unlike Cold Harbor, in which
Burnside directed 12, I think...
LAMB: Did he always have fewer troops...
Mr. THOMAS: ...frontal attacks.
LAMB: ...than the other side?
Mr. THOMAS: Sometime--on occasion he had parity; rarely he--he had more
people at--at the point of attack, at the decisive place. He often had more
because that's what he was trying to achieve. But generally speaking, from
1863 on, he had fewer and fewer. The campaigns against Grant, he usually had
about roughly half the size of his enemies.
LAMB: We don't have much time.
Mr. THOMAS: Yeah.
LAMB: He--he--he died in 1870 and five years at Washington and then what was
called Washington and Lee University today.
Mr. THOMAS: Right.
LAMB: What were his last five years like?
Mr. THOMAS: Well, in many ways they were frustrating. Clearly, he had lost a
very large war. He wrote to a friend, `I am perceived--I'm seen as such a
monster now'--that is, he was a rebel. He was the enemy. But he was a very
innovative educator. He took this struggling little liberal arts college, he
transformed the curriculum, introduced elective courses, brought in the
sciences, brought in applied science--we would call engineering--abolished
compulsory chapel for the students.
LAMB: But went himself.
Mr. THOMAS: But went every day himself and set the example that way and,
thus, attracted the students to come.
LAMB: What'd he die of?
Mr. THOMAS: Died of a stroke. He came home--his last real act as a--on the
public stage was in a vestry meeting in which they were trying to balance the
budget and the thing had gone on for three hours. And finally, in order to
end it, in order to resolve the controversy, Lee said, `I will make up that
sum.' He would give the $50 or so necessary to balance the budget and to pay
the rector. Naturally, the rector's salary was the last thing they
He came home. He--his wife chided him for being late, which was moderately
funny because it was she that was always late. He went to the head of the
table and attempted to say the blessing over the supper and couldn't do it.
His mouth opened but no words would come. He was--he sat down. He was
flushed and--I think what had happened he had--he--he had a stroke, a rare
stroke that did not provoke parva--paralysis. He lingered for a couple of
weeks and died on October 12th, 1870, having been silent all those days. And
the people who watched by his bed really couldn't get over that silence, but
really, what is more appropriate than for Lee to die silently, because this
was a man who was act. He wasn't a man of words; he was a man of deeds. And
so what--what more appropriate way for him to get free.
LAMB: This is the cover of the book and it's a biography about Robert E. Lee
by Emory Thomas. And we thank you for joining us.
Mr. THOMAS: Thank you very much. I've loved it.
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