Robert E. Lee at Cumberland Island and on the Analyst's Couch

By Gallagher, Gary W. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, January 1995 | Go to article overview

Robert E. Lee at Cumberland Island and on the Analyst's Couch


Gallagher, Gary W., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


THE dispute between John Morgan Dederer and his critics, J. Anderson Thomson, Jr., and Carlos Michael Santos, should stir lively debate. Their common point of departure is whether Robert E. Lee visited his father's grave on Cumberland Island, Georgia, before the Civil War in addition to journeying there on a pair of well-documented occasions during 1862 and 1870. Dederer believes he did make a prewar trip and goes on to argue that the visits to "Light-Horse Harry" Lee's burial site suggest that the son viewed his father more positively than commonly supposed. Anyone interested in the roots of R. E. Lee's bold military leadership, states Dederer, might look to the example of Henry Lee's dashing Revolutionary War career. Thomson and Santos doubt the earlier visit occurred and maintain that Henry Lee suffered from narcissistic personality disorder, brutalized his second wife, and left young Robert with psychological scars that profoundly affected his later life. Unable as a youth to prevent his father's shaming of Ann Carter Lee, Robert E. Lee "would grow up, not to repeat the act of shaming, but to take the only other alternative-never to shame anyone at almost any cost. This psychological trait affected the very way he commanded his army."(1)

What should readers make of these articles? The evidence about an early visit to Henry Lee's grave seems inconclusive. Both essays offer plausible interpretations of the few pertinent documents. In the absence of new letters or other testimony, the dispute likely will remain unresolved. Beyond this narrow issue, however, Dederer's conclusion that Henry Lee's "direct and indirect influence [on Robert E. Lee] had both negative and positive aspects" strikes me as far more persuasive than Thomson and Santos's depiction of a tyrannical father who remained in his son's mind a totally negative figure.(2)

Problems concerning use of evidence compromise Thomson and Santos's arguments about Henry Lee's influence on his son Robert. The most obvious flaw is psychological postulating that soars beyond historical sources. Thomson and Santos list nine diagnostic criteria for narcissistic personality disorder and state that "'Light-Horse Harry' Lee displayed all these characteristics." But did Henry Lee believe his problems were unique and could be understood only by other special people? Was he preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love? Perhaps, but the authors supply no compelling evidence.(3)

The psychological profile of R. E. Lee rests on a cascade of speculation that Thomson and Santos often transform into assertion within

few paragraphs or even sentences. Building on their supposition that Henry Lee suffered from "malignant narcissism," the authors add that he "likely drank excessively. Shortly thereafter, the "likely" drinker engages in "alcohol-fueled rages" that Robert "could have watched ... when he was a very young child." Within another few lines, Henry Lee's problem with alcohol escalates to "drunken furies." How do readers know the old hero engaged in such liquor-induced fits of anger? Partly because Robert E. Lee later displayed "wariness of alcohol and disgust with drunkenness" and struggled to suppress "any show of even reasonable anger." The authors also speculate that "there were probably violent scenes" in the Lee household before Henry Lee left for the Caribbean in 1813. Three sentences later, the scenes are a reality, as "domestic turmoil, which certainly included verbal and possibly physical abuse of Ann Lee, probably left young Robert feeling especially powerless as he watched his father shame his mother without being able to stop it." In the very next paragraph, Thomson and Santos admit their "allegations of abuse are speculative" yet allude to "the inevitable eruption of abuse" in situations such as that in the Lee home. Notably absent in most of these passages are references to concrete historical evidence. …

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