Civil War Book Review: Clouds of Glory, Michael Korda’s Biography of Robert E. Lee

10 05 2014

Thanks to Harper Collins for providing me an advanced reader copy of this book for reviews through the Edelweiss Program.  I am thrilled to get a chance to read this one.

Title:  Clouds of Glory

Author:  Michael Korda

Genre:  Historical Biography, Civil War

Available: NOW

My Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Michael Korda (who has also written a biography of U.S. Grant) tries his pen at untangling the life of Robert E. Lee, a man considered both hero and traitor by fellow countrymen.  Korda uses the framework of Lee’s legacies to define his life, showing readers how the deeds of Henry “Lighthorse” Lee (and the misdeeds) along with the connections to George Washington, built a foundation of honor that would later rule Lee’s life.  From the early days of growing up in Virginia, through his West Point years, his service in the U.S. Army and finally as leader of the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee carried himself with humility and honor unsurpassed by others of his generation.  Yet his story is also filled with details of courage, fortitude, engineering genius and military prowess.  Korda attempts to tell the entire story in this ambitious one volume book.  (Keeping in mind that Douglas Southall Freeman’s 4 volume Pulitzer Prize winner is the standard for Lee.)

Korda has his work cut out for him, for any student of the Civil War will know that even the story of the 4 years of Lee’s life in the Army of Northern Virginia could encompass an entire volume.  While Korda breathes life into the Lee we have hardly heard of – the youthful Lee, son of Ann Carter and Henry Lee, there is just not enough room in any one volume work to truly do justice in any depth to this part of his life.  Korda covers all the Battles, shares the heartache of some of the side events.  But at the end of the day, the abbreviated version may say enough about Lee in these circumstances, but sometimes does not represent the events to the full depth of understanding.  This might not be a problem for new students of the Civil War, but to those with more than rudimentary knowledge, it may be frustrating.

Korda’s style of writing is a bit different than many of the historical bios that I enjoy.  While his work is full of quotations and details, he does not footnote the work in the usual manner.  Most footnotes in the book are “add on” information – little tidbits that will enhance a reader’s understanding of the topic of discussion (can be helpful for someone who is not well versed).  Yet, the sources for the other information are provided only in a bibliography, except in the instance where Korda quotes the person by name who made comment of Lee in the text.

The book reads differently as well. Korda writes in a more conversational tone, as though he is sitting down and sharing the story personally with readers.  He often jumps ahead of himself in telling the fate of the various individuals in Lee’s life, only to cover it in detail later on in the timeline of the events.   This contributes to “storytelling” feel that is created by the language.  It does make for a very readable account.

The book is not without error.  I found several instances of sloppy fact checking (Jeb Stuart died on May 12, 1864 not May 11.  Douglas Southall Freeman’s bio of Lee is four volumes, not three.)  His perspectives on the war are decidedly not typical – he supports Longstreet at Gettysburg, and defends him vigorously throughout the book.

My overall feeling – I enjoyed the book.  I learned a ton of information on Lee that was previously unknown to me.  The style of writing made it readable.  I would recommend for new students of the Civil War and those who may not have read about Lee previously.

Note:  I was provided a copy of the book by the publisher.  All opinions expressed are my own.





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