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Lee's letters shed light
Trove of historical documents paints a more complete portrait of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee

 Thousands of papers collected by Robert E. Lee's family were found inside two trunks in an Alexandria bank vault.
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Date published: 5/27/2007


The Civil War's "Marble Man" just got a lot less rigid, and a lot more interesting.

Southern idol Robert E. Lee has been revealed by newly discovered family papers to be a more passionate, complex and flawed man than has been portrayed.

So says Elizabeth Brown Pryor, the first historian to study some of the thousands of documents that lay for decades, forgotten, inside two steamer trunks in an Alexandria bank vault.

"I think historians have oversimplified him as modest Christian gentleman," Pryor said in an interview Thursday after lecturing on the famed general at the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond.

"He was vulnerable, sometimes baffled, not the simple, decisive, heroic stone icon we've come to think of."

She's the author of "Reading the Man," a new biography of the commander of the Confederacy's Army of Northern Virginia.

The Lee that Pryor discovered in the papers and other research is more multi-faceted, "more fun, more witty" than earlier scholars have shown, she said.

He wrote romantic letters--"crackling with sexuality"--to his fiancee as a young officer fresh out of West Point. Other papers show that he worried that his children were growing too wild, supported slavery, regretted ever entering military service and felt bitter about the war's outcome, Pryor said. He was also a model officer and a daring leader whom fellow soldiers came to revere.

"It's more inspiring when you come to realize that these fine qualities are embodied in a human being struggling with life, as we all are," Pryor said.

Other scholars have depicted Lee's 1861 decision to resigning his commission in the Union army as "very simple for him, a 'no-brainer,' as one historian called it," she said; rather, it was "a wrenching moment" that his wife, Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee, called "the severest struggle of his life."

Lee spent two days pacing the floors at Arlington, praying and consulting the Bible before he resolved to defend Virginia, she said. He had hoped Virginia would stay in the Union, so he could stay loyal to his family and his home state.

But the day after Virginia seceded, Lee rejected Union general-in-chief Winfield Scott's request that he lead Union forces, resigning his command of the U.S. 1st Cavalry.

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