June 6, 2021

WHO WAS THE REAL ROBERT E. LEE?

This is a photo from late fall in 1962—of young Emory Thomas from Virginia. He and his wife Fran were guests at a holiday party at our Houston apartment on Austin Street. Emory and Tom—as well as most of the friends there—were graduate students at Rice University. They lived, breathed and discussed all things related to the Civil War, its generals and battles. Their beloved faculty advisor was Dr. Frank Vandiver, who’d written a definitive biography of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson.

With Emory, Robert E. Lee was always top of the list.  Those Virginians had grown up revering Lee as a great man and general. Tom’s thesis and dissertation both focused on the less glamorous Army of the Tennessee instead of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. As he continued teaching and writing over the next decade, he decided to write a book shattering some of the myths about Robert E. Lee.  By the time The Marble Man was published in 1977, we were divorced and he was remarried.  

Many scholars and amateur Civil War buffs were outraged at Tom’s portrayal of their hero.  But the book seemed to open the door to considering a more human version of Lee. Almost 20 years later (in 1995), Emory came out with his own biography of Robert E. Lee. It seemed to garner more favorable reviews, and to be more of a balanced view of Lee’s greatness. John Eisenhower reviewed the book for The New York Times. Emory and Fran also divorced—sometime before his Lee book.  Seems like an uncanny parallel.

Those graduate school years and friendships were very special.  Emory and Tom always stayed in contact and he was one of the speakers at a Columbia memorial service after Tom’s death in early 1991.  He referred to Tom’s book on Lee.  Lee remains an enigma—as does Tom.

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