Robert E. Lee at War: Hope Arises from Despair

Robert E. Lee at War:
Hope Arises from Despair
Robert E. Lee at War Series
by Scott Bowden
Genre: History, Civil War
Legion of Honor Publishing
Published: 2017Hardback
320 + xi pages, 29 color maps plus a large fold out map, five appendices, annotated endnotes, index
 Reviewed by Dana Lombardy

ISBN 978-0-692-86742-6 $200.00

Full disclosure: This reviewer has known Scott Bowden since the 1970s and helped edit two of his Napoleonic books published in 2006 and 2009 by Military History Press.

Robert E. Lee at War: Hope Arises From Despair is a beautifully produced, full color, large format 9-by-12-inch art book. It has gold leaf leather binding, bound-in bookmark ribbon, and the page edges in gold foil. The collector’s edition of Lee also includes a gold leaf slipcase. It is the first volume produced by Legion of Honor Publishing.

This is an amazing book. Not only in the excellence of the binding and printing, but also in the well-researched and thoughtfully presented story of Robert E. Lee’s ascension to command in June of 1862 of what would arguably become the most important of the Confederate armies: the Army of Northern Virginia. Bowden used unpublished manuscripts, papers, and special collections as well as official records and memoirs.


Bowden acknowledges in his preface that the study of the American Civil War, and particularly Confederate leaders, is contentious today. However, these works provide important historical information vital to understanding why “The War” lasted so long. Bowden explains that “the careful study and analysis of the facts connected to Robert E. Lee’s military leadership—his mind and method—is the purpose of the Robert E. Lee at War series.”

During the Mexican War 1846-48 Lee’s abilities impressed  Winfield Scott while Lee served under him. In 1861 Scott tried to get Lee to accept field command of the U.S. Army. Lee instead chose to serve his native state of Virginia. If Scott regarded him so highly, why was Lee so under employed for the first 13 months of the war? Although he was officially President Jefferson Davis’s advisor beginning in the spring of 1862, Lee only received a field command when Joseph E. Johnston became wounded during the fighting outside Richmond. The prologue by Bowden is a fascinating explanation that many readers may find surprising.

Part I includes the first nine chapters of the book and cover the Seven Days campaign which saved Richmond from capture by the Federal Army of the Potomac. It was an unprecedented turn around that Bowden’s exceptional storytelling describes using eyewitness quotes. Combined with the in-depth original analysis, this book is not your typical military history.

Portrait of Lee

When Lee took command on June the 1st  he inherited an army that was no better than an “armed mob” seriously lacking in discipline and cohesion. He met with his senior generals on June the 2nd, drastically improving the supplies and morale of the troops with personal inspections. He made repeated personal reconnaissances (as he did in Mexico), devised a counter offensive, and then executed it starting on June the 26th, not even a month after meeting with his division commanders.

Lee then fought five major battles in seven days, seizing the initiative in the campaign and driving the Federals from Richmond. It was a most remarkable accomplishment. Bowden shows how Lee’s methods and maxims were influenced by his study of Napoleon and other great commanders of history. Each of these battles employs multiple color maps and interesting sidebars such as the composition of the opposing artillery forces.

Part II includes the final three chapters of the book. This section is titled “Lee’s Art of War” and is the first to explain the underpinnings of Lee’s military philosophy. It also explains how he executed it in the areas of operational warfare and grand tactics and on the battlefield.

The next volume in the series deals with Lee’s campaign and victory at the Battle of Second Manassas (Bull Run) in late August. This occurred just two months after the end of the Seven Days.

When President Lincoln asked Winfield Scott why 100,000 men could not take Richmond, Scott explained “The men who took us into the City of Mexico are the same men who are keeping us out of Richmond.”

Highly recommended.
Dana Lombardy

The Great War Revealed in San Francisco

In February I was asked to help create 100th anniversary exhibits that explain America’s role in World War One.

In late May 2018, they installed eight 8-foot square banners in the lobby outside the Herbst Theatre and American Legion Veterans Hall. This is in the War Memorial Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue. It’s across the street from San Francisco City Hall. The display is free to the public. You can view it at

The Banners Have a Story to Tell

The banners tell the story of America’s initial desire to stay out of a foreign war in 1914. Then the growing sympathy for victims and refugees, horror at the unprecedented numbers of casualties. Then finally the United States joining as a co-belligerent in that war.

It was the first war that saw the widespread use of mechanization. Submarines, airships and airplanes, artillery cannon, machine-guns, tanks, and poison gas were all used. The lethality of these weapons drove armies underground. Soldiers lived for years in dugouts and trenches, separated by a devastated “No Man’s Land” of shell holes and barbed wire.

Millions of American women volunteered to work on farms, in factories, and in many other traditional male jobs. These women replaced nearly five million American men who entered  into the U.S. Army and Navy. Women’s service in the war provided key political leverage to get the right to vote. Congress passed the 19th Amendment in 1919, with states’ ratification in 1920.

The banner display will have videos and additional exhibits of artifacts and photographs added in the Veterans Gallery. There will also be a series of seminars. This will run through the end of 2019 to include the centennial of the Versailles Treaty (June) and founding of the American Legion.

Who Did This?

The United States World War I Centennial Commission chose San Francisco’s War Memorial Veterans Building as one of its 100 Cities / 100 Memorials matching grant. This award is to preserve monuments with the designation as a World War I Centennial Memorial.

The Performing Arts Center Foundation authorized the World War One Armistice Centennial Committee that created The Great War display. The Foundation administers the War Memorial Veterans Building complex that houses the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, Herbst Theatre, Opera House, and San Francisco Ballet. The Committee chairman is Major General J. Michael Myatt, USMC (Ret.), with co-chair Judge Quentin L. Kopp (Ret.), President of the Korean War Memorial Foundation.

I will update on additional exhibits and displays upon installation. I may conduct tours once the Veterans Gallery is finished. Please sign up for email updates.