Harper Collins Books, 2014, 788 pp., $40.00
During the time of the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War, there have been many biographies of commanders and participants of the conflict and it was only a matter of time when the people would gain a work about Robert E. Lee. However, there are many large shadows any biography of Lee would stand in this time of scholarship. Ranging from the monumental four volume work by Douglas Southall Freeman to the one volume biography by Clifford Dowdey, there seems to be little which could be added into the pantheon of the works on Lee. Here, Michael Korda attempts to bring new scholarship to the study of Lee in his Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee and some may say that he comes up short.
Michael Korda is a recognized biographer who has written works on Ulysses S. Grant, Dwight G. Eisenhower, T. E. Lawrence and many others. He was educated at Le Rosey in Switzerland and graduated from Magdalen College in Oxford. He also served in the Royal Air Force and took part in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. On the fiftieth anniversary of the event, he was awarded the Order of Merit of the People’s Republic of Hungary.
There is a certain art which goes into the writing of a biography and from the distinguished career of Korda, the life of Lee should have been no problem. What Clouds of Glory offers the reader is a comprehensive one volume biography on Lee which seems promising. While the purpose of a biography is to chronicle the life of a person and those around them, many authors tend to have a point which they want to make throughout the text. This is usually stated in the introduction or the preface of the work, but in this tome it is not present. The preface of the work is an biographical work on the raid on Harper’s Ferry, not a statement on the premise of the book. I had a lot of hope for this book since it was a modern one volume work on the life of Lee, but within the first hundred pages, there was just a feeling of a historical narrative instead of something which is redundant on the field of Civil War academia. While Korda deals with the life of Lee up until the war with an interesting narrative, once the Civil War begins, the narrative takes a dive and is quite dry for the reader. Even if you are interested in the life of Lee and know nothing about the war, you will leave the work more confused instead of enlightened since Korda fails to understand and write about the events of the war in a comprehensive nature. One of the major problems I found in the work was in the bibliography. The citations of a work in French were mentioned and then the same works were mentioned in English causing the same source to be cited twice. This was greatly disappointing since I was hoping to see the new sources and evidence which he was to bring to the realm of Lee.
I was surprised to see the lack of interesting narrative when it came to Lee on the battlefields of the Civil War. He had handled the Mexican American War in the beginning of the book with great vigor but when it came to the Civil War, the work fell flat. There was nothing new about Lee which was presented in this work which was already said in other works. The hope which I had for this book had fallen within the first two hundred pages in the redundant nature of the work compared to other biographies of Lee. While Korda may have written other great biographies, this one about Robert E. Lee was not what I expected to be and was a lost premise in a standard narrative.