The Man Who Would Not Be Washington: Robert E. Lee’s Civil War and His Decision That Changed American History by Jonathan Horn is a timely read for an era when statues of Robert E. Lee are finally coming down across the South.
This biography of Lee focuses on his connection with the family and story of George Washington. The Lees and Washingtons were both leaders of Virginia’s planter elite, though the Lees were more elite than the Washingtons. Only when George married Martha, the rich widow of Daniel Parke Custis, did the Washingtons enter the top ranks of Virginia families. It was the Custis fortune and connections, John Adams argued, that allowed Washington to become a national leader.
Washington became a leader who was “first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” in the words of another Revolutionary War hero who gave the eulogy at Washington’s funeral.
Those words came from General “Light Horse” Harry Lee, who would later become the father of Robert E. Lee.
Decades after George married Martha, R.E. Lee married his own Custis heiress, Mary Anna, the daughter of Washington’s step grandson, George Washington Parke Custis.
Custis built Arlington House as a shrine to George Washington and a place to showcase relics including swords that Washington had used in the Revolution.
Marrying Custis’s daughter gained Lee wealth and social status, providing him with the same advantages that helped George Washington rise 80 years earlier.
Yet, as history tells us, in the battle for fame and reputation, Lee managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by his fatal decision to take leadership of Confederate troops in the Civil War.
If only Lee had accepted Winfield Scott’s invitation in 1861 to lead U.S. forces, Lee too could have gone down in history as “first in the hearts of his countrymen.” But Lee declined this federal appointment and resigned from the U.S. Army. Then, instead of just sitting out the war, Lee became a leader of the rebellion against the nation founded by Washington. As a result, after the war, Lee’s reputation became a source of division between Southern whites who venerated him as the beau ideal of the Confederate “Lost Cause,” a noble fight to preserve a traditional society, and other Americans who rejected Lee as a traitor and fighter to preserve slavery.
This book does an excellent job of connecting Lee to Washington through the Custis family as well as Lee’s interaction with relatives of Washington who fought on the southern side during the war. Many Confederate leaders lauded Lee as the new Washington.
What Horn fails to do is to answer the question of why Lee made his fateful decision to fight for secession rather than stick with the Union.
The legacy of Washington and his time in the U.S. Army helped define Lee as a supporter of the American republic. And like many elite Virginians, during the debates that led up to the state’s decision to secede in the spring of 1861, Lee expressed his support for the Union. However, once Virginia finally determined to join the Confederacy, Lee stuck by his home state.
Horn fails to explain why Lee chose state over country. After all, many Virginians in the army made the opposite choice. Horn mentions one of them, Winfield Scott, commander of Union forces at the start of the war. But Horn doesn’t even name other Virginians who stuck with the U.S., including General George Thomas, as well as some members of the Lee family itself.
Why did R.E. Lee feel that his loyalty to Virginia had to be expressed through secession rather than through trying to crush rebellion against the nation that Washington had formed and that Virginia had taken a leading role to found?
This is the #1 question that this book should have answered. But unfortunately, Horn provides little or no insight on Lee’s motivation. Was it vanity? Because he was a scion of the elite Lee clan who was related to Washington, did Lee’s high status incline him to seek the approbation of other Virginia elites who favored secession?
George Thomas, from a more modest background, endured rejection by his Virginia family at the start of the Civil War when they learned that Thomas would stay with the Union.
Yet, Thomas went one way, and Lee went the other. It would have added a lot to this book if Horn had explored the difference between these two Virginia generals.