While writing a book about Abraham Lincoln, I naturally thought of Robert E. Lee. Not often, for I was determined to avoid that great pitfall of Civil War historiography, battle porn. Yet there, across enemy lines, was that other famous bearded face: handsome and well-groomed, not angular and scruffy, but dyed, like the president’s, with melancholy. Well might Lee be melancholy, for though he had all the virtues, yet at the crisis of his and the nation’s life he made all the wrong choices.
Jonathan Horn’s fascinating book looks at Lee through the prism of yet another famous man, George Washington. His subtle and sympathetic examination of the Washington–Lee connection helps us understand the Lee question.
Lee’s family was famous in its own right. Two Lees signed the Declaration of Independence. Their cousin and Robert’s father, Henry Lee III (better known as Harry Lee), was a gallant cavalry officer in the Revolution. Harry was the first conduit of the Washington myth in Robert’s life, for he had been one of the many protégés that the great man had spotted and nurtured, along with Hamilton and Lafayette. When Washington died, it was Harry Lee who called him “first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
But the Lees also had a crazy streak, well represented in Harry. His post-war career was consumed with get-rich-quick schemes, which he pursued to the point of mania. As soon as one failed, he plunged into another. When Robert was only six years old, Harry left the country for the West Indies in a vain effort to recoup his failing health; the son never saw his father again. Harry not only left his family poor, he stuck Robert with the role of surrogate husband, caring for his valetudinarian mother. Harry was intermittently mindful of his personal failings; his only remedy was to hold up “the great Washington” as an example to his son.
Lee got another pipeline of Washingtoniana when, age 24, he married Mary Custis, daughter of George Washington Parke Custis. G. W. P. Custis was the grandson of Martha Washington, by her first marriage, and he had been raised at Mount Vernon. He was thus the step-grandchild, really the adopted son, of the Father of His Country, and he never let the country forget it. The Mount Vernon estate stayed in the Washington family after George died, but G. W. P. Custis took a trove of letters, paintings, and heirlooms to a new estate, just up the Potomac, called Arlington. He spent his life as a docent of his relics and a curator of his memories, recalling Washington in orations and essays. His daughter Mary was not rich in money (G. W. P. Custis was not a provident man), but as far as prestige was concerned, Robert had married a millionairess.
What of the man at the confluence of these two rivers of influence? Robert’s goal in life was to do the right thing — to live up to the best in his father, without repeating his mistakes. He was accepted at West Point and began a military career, concentrating on engineering. He was self-possessed and self-contained; the nickname “Marble Model” was bestowed on him by cadets when he briefly returned to West Point as a supervisor. He found his true talent in the Mexican War, on Winfield Scott’s brilliant, hellacious drive from Vera Cruz to Mexico City. Lee found routes around the enemy’s flanks; Scott hailed his scouting as “the greatest feat of physical and moral courage” of the campaign. G. W. P. Custis showed his pride in his son-in-law by giving him one of George Washington’s swords.
Two special tasks faced Lee in the late 1850s, both Washington-related. G. W. P. Custis died in 1857, leaving an estate entangled in a self-contradictory will. He owned almost 200 slaves, descendants of the slaves of Martha’s first husband (George Washington had freed his slaves in his will, but could not free his wife’s). Custis directed that they be freed no later than five years after his death, and he named Lee his executor. But the estate could pay off its debts and legacies only if the slaves worked hard for five years, if not longer. Lee took a leave of absence from the Army to try to untangle the Custis mess; the slaves were finally freed, by order of a Virginia court, in December 1862, three days before the Emancipation Proclamation.
Lee was summoned back to duty in 1859 to subdue John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. Brown and his abolitionists seized the federal armory and Lewis Washington, a great-grandnephew of George, who lived in the neighborhood. Lee overpowered Brown, freed his hostages, and provided security at his execution.
Rebellion crept up on Lee slowly but inexorably. He was on duty in Texas as the country began falling apart, and was irked by the swaggering of secessionist Texas Rangers. His wife sent him a biography of George Washington. “How his spirit would be grieved could he see the wreck of his mighty labours,” Lee wrote back. The Lincoln administration wanted Lee to take command of the Union Army after the fall of Fort Sumter (Winfield Scott was still the nation’s top general, but at 75 years old and over 300 pounds he was no longer fit for field command). “How can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native State?” Lee answered. Scott told him, “You have made the greatest mistake of your life.”
So why did Lee make it? Horn sees it as the culmination of a life of dutiful self-denial. “At this critical juncture,” Horn writes, “Lee surrendered to events. He could not have his own way. So he would have Virginia’s way.” Horn’s textured portrait suggests another possible motive, though Horn himself does not say so: After all Lee’s services, personal and professional, to the Army, to crazy and feckless relatives, to a crushing moral and familial inheritance, maybe he welcomed some destruction. He was certainly good at it. “It is well this is so terrible!” he remarked at the Battle of Fredericksburg, as his men repulsed six suicidal Union charges. “We should grow too fond of it.”
Lee’s fellow Confederates hailed him as a second Washington throughout the Civil War. Lee sealed the connection by agreeing, after the war’s end, to become president of Washington College, an institution in Lexington, Va., which had been the beneficiary of a bequest in George Washington’s will. Lee himself hinted at his kinship in a post-war letter to one of his former generals. “True patriotism sometimes requires of men to act exactly contrary, at one period, to that which it does at another. . . . At one time [Washington] fought against the French under Braddock, in the service of the King of Great Britain; at another, he fought with the French at Yorktown, under the order of the Continental Congress of America, against him.”
True enough, but this begs the question: Were the calls of true patriotism in Washington’s and Lee’s lives the same, or different? Americans broke up the British Empire because it was taking self-government out of their hands. Rebels broke up the American Republic because they wanted to take their slaves to Kansas and Cuba.
Lee did not see it that way, but how could he have? He was, like many a professional military man, uninterested in politics. In normal times this is a good thing, but Lee, like Washington before him, lived in abnormal times. One great difference between the two men that Horn does not touch on is Washington’s political sophistication, and Lee’s lack of it. Washington collected and read American pamphlet literature for a decade before the Revolution. He befriended his neighbor, the planter/intellectual George Mason; in 1774 he presented Mason’s Fairfax Resolves, an early statement of America’s rights and grievances, to the Virginia Convention; and he served in the first and second Continental Congresses. When he finally drew his sword, he knew what he was doing and why. Robert E. Lee owned one of Washington’s swords, but he did what he was told. In noting this omission I do not mean to take anything away from this splendid book. Horn’s story is fascinating, thought-provoking, and deeply sad.
Union troops occupied the Arlington estate in the earliest days of the Civil War, and the federal government seized it on the pretext that Lee had not paid taxes on it; when relatives of his offered to pay the arrears on his behalf, tax commissioners ruled that he would have to pay in person. (The Supreme Court later obliged the federal government to compensate Lee’s heirs.) It became a cemetery for soldiers, many of them killed by Lee’s men. The most important Custis relics ended up at Lee’s college, renamed, as soon as he died, Washington and Lee. Washington’s first portrait, by Charles Willson Peale, hangs in the college chapel, to the left of the stage. To the right hangs a portrait of Robert E. Lee.