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The Man Who Would Not Be Washington: Robert E. Lee’s Civil War

 Jonathan Horn Scribner, $28

In The Man Who Would Not Be Washington, Jonathan Horn tries to answer an often-asked question: What prompted the pre-eminent soldier of mid-19th-century America to reject his country and his sworn duty to defend it, following instead the state of his birth into secession and rebellion? Why did Lee, linked by history and blood to George Washington, offer his military skills to tear apart the creation of his grandfather-in-law’s generation, a democratic, if imperfect, union of states bound together by the consent of a majority of its citizens?

Horn does a masterful job of showing the many historical, geographic and genealogical strands that linked the Washington and Lee families together from Colonial times. He carefully explicates the complicated relationship with the first president’s legacy that enveloped Lee from the time he married Mary, the daughter of Washington’s adopted son, George Washington Parke Custis, in 1831. But dissecting Lee’s decision-making process and the reasons behind it falls short of proving it to be a choice “that changed American history.” Horn’s nimble writing and tentative forays into psycho-history never quite arrive at an answer beyond the old shibboleth that Lee could not renounce the pro-slavery choice of his native state to save his native country.

On duty in Texas when his father-in-law died in 1857, Lee resigned his commission and returned to Virginia to settle family debts and put unprofitable properties, including Arlington, back on firm financial footing. Robert was unwilling to repeat the sins of his father—and George Washington’s comrade—“Light Horse” Harry Lee. Horn maintains that for Lee, the “responsibility for closing an estate as large and messy as Custis’ would be all consuming.” In choosing between the Army and Arlington, Horn concludes Lee set aside his own desires and opted for answering the needs of family. He cites character traits long linked to Lee: abhorring secession and believing that slavery was a political and moral millstone, sinking the nation’s economic and social progress. Still, maintaining slavery on his plantations was crucial to the immediate financial well-being of his family.

Lee was back with his regiment in Texas when an urgent message from General in Chief Winfield Scott called him to Washington in February 1861. He arrived at Arlington in time to greet a new grandson and a new president, as well as witness a nation on the brink of dissolution. Lauded as the living repository of Washington’s legacy by Northerners and Southerners alike, Lee agonized over the decision of whether to accept command of all the nation’s armies. The framers of the Constitution, Lee wrote in a letter to his son, Rooney, “intended for perpetual union, so expressed in the preamble….In 1808, secession was termed treason by Virginia statesmen. What can it be now.” But while Washington, in his Farewell Address, admonished his countrymen never to raise their swords except in defense of their country, Lee concluded his letter differently. “If the union is dissolved and the government disrupted,” he wrote, “I shall return to my native state and share the miseries of my people and save in her defense will draw my sword no more.”

When Virginia voted to secede, Horn concludes, “Saving the Union might require conquering Virginia. That he [Lee] could not do.” After Lee informed Scott of his decision, the old general told him, “You have made the greatest mistake of your life….”

Lee struggled throughout his life to reconcile his thoughts and actions with those of his famous relative by marriage. Horn tries to decode Lee’s often contradictory views, but in the end we are left with Lee as a tragic, often conflicted figure—much like the state and country he tried, but ultimately failed, to serve with equal commitment.


Originally published in the June 2015 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.