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Prodigal Soldier

books and culture

Prodigal Soldier

A new book explores how Robert E. Lee squandered his connection to America’s most revered figure. March 6, 2015

The Man Who Would Not Be Washington: Robert E. Lee’s Civil War and His Decision That Changed American History, by Jonathan Horn (Scribner, 384 pp., $28)

America’s Civil War presents a set of forever ponderable “what ifs.” What if a Union soldier hadn’t discovered plans for the Confederate invasion of Maryland in 1862? What if Stonewall Jackson hadn’t been hit by friendly fire after the Battle of Chancellorsville? What if George Meade had pursued the wounded Army of Northern Virginia in the wake of Gettysburg? The list goes on.

But perhaps the most vexing hypothetical has always been: What if Robert E. Lee had accepted Abraham Lincoln’s offer to command Union forces at the outset of the conflict? This would have likely robbed the Confederacy of its greatest military mind. It may have also robbed the South of its fleeting glories, dramatically shortened the war, and made Lee—not Ulysses S. Grant or even Abraham Lincoln—the savior of the Union. It could even have made Lee a second George Washington.

This decision and its ramifications are the basis of The Man Who Would Not Be Washington, Jonathan Horn’s thoughtful new life of the Confederate general. It would be wrong to call this a biography. Though Horn, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, assays Lee’s life from birth to death, the book is built around the premise that Lee was practically destined to become the second coming of Washington. Yet he declined, and the consequences of his refusal altered the course of the nation.

Lee had familial and professional connections to Washington. His father, Henry Lee III, better known as “Light-Horse” Harry Lee, was a dashing cavalry officer in the Continental Army. General Washington was impressed by Lee’s bravery and invited the young Virginian to join his personal staff. When Lee begged off, Washington asked Congress to give him an independent command. Like some other young officers, Lee found a mentor in Washington, who had no biological children of his own. He did, however, adopt and raise Martha Washington’s grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, as his own son. Custis’s daughter, Mary, wed Robert E. Lee. Their children, by birth and marriage, were direct descendants of America’s original first lady.

The Lees lived in Arlington House, a Potomac mansion overlooking Washington, built by Custis as a shrine to his adoptive father and a repository for his relics. Through marriage, Lee was heir to the tactile remains of Washington’s legacy; even the slaves he inherited from his father-in-law were descendants of those who had toiled at Mount Vernon. In his opening chapters, Horn carefully draws the connections between the two titular subjects and plots Lee’s rise to military distinction in the years leading up to the Civil War. The history is simply fascinating. Horn is a graceful writer, and when the occasion warrants, has a suitable flair for the dramatic. The pages blaze by.

As late as 1861, Lee maintained that secession was foolish. Given that his father had helped found the nation, and that he himself had carved out a career defending it, this was a natural position to hold. Like many of his countrymen, Lee pondered what Washington would have made of disunion. His conclusion: the great man’s “spirit would be grieved could he see the wreck of his mighty labors.” And yet, Lee would, perhaps more than any other rebel, do his part to bring that wreck about. Why?

The answer forms the heart of Horn’s book. First, for Lee, home trumped all else. Or, as the author explains, “‘Country’ had somehow mutated into ‘state.’” The idea of taking up arms against the Union was abhorrent. But if Virginia, Lee’s birthplace and home, was threatened, he had no choice but to defend her—even if it meant betraying everything he and his family had fought and stood for. Lee, like Washington but unlike his own father, was firmly in control of his emotions and desires. “[H]e ignored his own wishes,” writes Horn. Even if he considered the rebellion folly, and his role in suppressing it could bring him a form of immortality, he had no choice but to side with his home state and surrender himself to fate.

During the war, Lee couldn’t escape Washington’s shadow. Washington’s great-grandnephew, John Augustine Washington III, the heir to Mount Vernon, was an aide to Lee, and was killed while running reconnaissance with Lee’s son Fitzhugh during the Battle of Cheat Mountain in 1861. The White House plantation on Virginia’s Pamunkey River, which was sequestered and then burned by George McClellan’s men in 1862, was the home to another of Lee’s sons, Rooney. The property had originally belonged to the younger Lee’s maternal great-great grandmother, Martha Washington.

Lee did end up leading a rebellion, much like Washington, but his was a tragic and vain cause, one that brought material and human destruction to the Virginia both men loved. It also robbed the Lees of their remaining connections to Washington. After the war, the federal government transformed the grounds of Arlington House to a resting place for the Union dead and appropriated the Lee family’s treasured Washington relics.

Though his presence here is peripheral, it’s difficult to read The Man Who Would Not Be Washington without thinking of Lee’s father, Henry. For all his revolutionary glory, the elder Lee lived a melancholic life full of unrealized ambition for glory and riches. After wrecking his family’s finances and landing in debtor’s prison, Lee spent his last years brooding in self-imposed exile in the West Indies. Though he was not present to raise his youngest sons, he hoped that Washington’s example would serve as a surrogate father of sorts. Henry Lee had also seen the destruction and fratricide wrought by the Revolution, and had no taste for further rebellion. In the 1790s, Virginians such as Henry Lee seethed at the federal government’s economic policies. But Henry Lee knew insurrection would lead to blood. In his words, breaking from the Union was “risking too much because great evils indubitably must flow from discord & and the people must suffer greatly whatever may be the event of such an experiment.”

Decades later, fate offered Robert E. Lee a shot at the glory his father never grasped: to defend the Union he cherished and become the true heir to Washington. Instead, he joined a quixotic rebellion that tore apart the nation that his father and Washington founded, leaving over 600,000 Americans dead. “You have made the greatest mistake of your life, but I feared it would be so,” General Winfield Scott admonished Lee after he cast his lot with Virginia. Horn’s excellent book drives home the tragic magnitude of that decision.

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