It doesn’t matter how loving he was with his family or how kindly he treated his troops. It doesn’t matter whether he was a genius in battle strategy and tactics or a brilliant military engineer. And it certainly doesn’t matter whether Robert E. Lee was “a good Christian man” who had his own qualms about slavery.
No personal virtues can ever outweigh the one obstacle to viewing Lee as any kind of hero. And it applied as much during the Civil War as it does today.
Lee’s downfall was that, when the bell tolled for him, he chose the wrong side. Not because they lost. But because they never should have won.
“His personal comeliness, his aristocratic birth and his military prowess all call for the verdict of greatness and genius,” wrote W.E.B. DuBois. “But one thing — one terrible fact — militates against this and that is the inescapable truth that Robert E. Lee led a bloody war to perpetuate slavery.”
A big part of the tragedy is that it all could have gone the other way for Lee. With his family connections and record of valor in battle, Lee could have gone down in history as America’s second George Washington.
Instead, as author Jonathan Horn puts it in the title of his biography, Lee became The Man Who Would Not Be Washington (affiliate link).
While Horn’s book is a starter biography that won’t replace a full sized study of Lee’s life, The Man Who Would Not Be Washington tells the reader just enough to see why it’s a good thing that statues of Robert E. Lee are finally coming down across the South.
Horn’s account 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 wound up going down in history as “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.
He was Sculpted for Fame but He Settled for Infamy
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 on the Potomac River right across from the nation’s capital as a shrine to George Washington. Among the relics that Custis showcased at Arlington was a sword that Washington had used in the Revolution. After Virginia seceded, the Lees fled Arlington and Union forces seized the property. Later, the army used the Custis-Lee plantation as an overflow burial ground for battle dead. After the war, Lee family descendants sued to recover the property, but by then it had become Arlington National Cemetery.
For decades before the war, the Custis family enjoyed a gracious life at Arlington. There, Mary reigned over Virginia society as the unattainable princess who had spurned many an eligible suitor before she finally accepted Lee. 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 throw his lot in with rebels trying to establish a nation dedicated to preserving and even expanding slavery.
As Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens had explained in his famous “Cornerstone speech” in March 1861, by leaving the United States, the South was launching a revolution. Its main goal was to correct what Stephens saw as a fatal flaw in the Declaration of Independence and the system of government set up by the Constitution.
That mistake? Claiming that all men were created equal.
“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea,” Stephens explained. “its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”
The following month, April 1861, Lincoln offered Lee the command of all federal forces. If Lee had accepted, he too could have gone down in history as “first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
But Lee declined the appointment and resigned his army commission. 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 an ideological football.
Leading Southern whites venerated Lee as the beau ideal of the Confederate “Lost Cause” which portrayed the war as a noble but doomed crusade to preserve states’ rights to keep a traditional agrarian society. Northerners, along with other southerners both black and white, rejected Lee as a traitor who fought to preserve and extend slavery.
The Man Who Would Not Be Washington does an excellent job of connecting Lee to Washington through the Custis family as well as Lee’s interaction with Washington family members who fought on the southern side during the war.
For his family connections and his record of valor in the Mexican War, many Confederate leaders lauded Lee as the new Washington. They touted Lee as the leader of a righteous rebellion for freedom against a tyrannical power.
The truth is that Lee was really fighting on the side of the tyrants. Confederate leaders fought not only to preserve slavery in the South. They also fought to extend slavery to the Pacific coast and then to reintroduce forced-labor plantations to areas of the Caribbean and Central America where slavery had previously been abolished.
Horn shows just how Lee failed to follow Washington’s example. 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’s family and his time in the 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 followed the slaveocrats who were then running his home state into the folly of secession.
The Men Who Would Not Be Lee
Why did 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 other army officers from Virginia also remained loyal to 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 because of 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?
Whatever the reason, Lee knew what he was doing when he exchanged Union blue for Confederate grey. It was only three days after Virginia announced it was seceding from the Union because “Lincoln’s opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery” that Lee resigned his U.S. army command. And only two days after that, Lee accepted an offer to command Virginia forces as a major general.
“Either he knew what slavery meant when he helped maim and murder thousands in its defense, or he did not. If he did not, he was a fool. If he did, Robert E. Lee was a traitor and a rebel – not indeed to his country, but to humanity and humanity’s God,” wrote DuBois.
DuBois thought that, despite his physical courage, Lee lacked the moral courage to stand up to public opinion to do what was right.
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.
Lee may have shown great physical courage at such battles as Antietam and the Wilderness. But Thomas showed the same physical courage on Missionary Ridge at the Battle of Chickamauga, where he saved Union forces from a complete rout. In addition, by standing against the slavedrivers’ rebellion, Thomas showed the moral courage that Lee lacked.
As Lee followed the broad, sunny path of popular acclaim, Thomas took the road less traveled. And in the words of the poet, that made all the difference.