In the 130 years since his death, Lee's reputation for piety, morality, and compassion reached fantastic levels. As one historian wrote, "Robert Lee was one of the small company of great men in whom there is no inconsistency to be explained, no enigma to be solved. What he seemed, he was—a wholly human gentleman, the essential elements of whose positive character were two and only two, simplicity and spirituality."
Many of Lee's accomplishments support this assessment. He graduated from West Point with no demerits, an unheard-of feat. He prayed and read his Bible daily. He didn't like tobacco or whiskey and only drank wine (never too much) on special occasions. He led some brilliant military campaigns. Plus, he surrendered like a gentleman, saying, "I have fought against the people of the North because I believed they were seeking to wrest from the South its dearest rights. But I have never cherished toward them bitter or vindictive feelings, and I have never seen the day when I did not pray for them."
Despite these achievements, some contemporary scholars say that the "Lee myth" is based less on reality than on a romantic identification with the South's "Lost Cause." Generations of Southern historians lifted him up as the exemplar of embattled nobility—a Southerner who was so great the whole nation could admire him. These same historians, to put the best possible spin on the war, argued that the conflict was about constitutional issues rather than slavery—allowing them to overlook Lee's statement that the master-slave relationship is "the best that can exist between the black and white races." Flaws like that, as well as questions about Lee's military prowess, are now being explored in books including Lee ...