For most historians most of the time, reach exceeds grasp—necessarily so, for reasons intrinsic to the craft. Save for its occasional grandmaster, a Gibbon or a Namier, past mysteries lie too deeply embedded to be definitively solved in a later age. The Man Who Would Not Be Washington provides a fascinating instance of the difficulty. It is Jonathan Horn’s thesis that a great turning point in Robert E. Lee’s life—his decision to reject command of the Union forces, resign his U.S. Army commission, and side with Virginia—stands in sharp contrast to George Washington’s example as pater patriae, father of the country.
Just when in those tense early months of 1861 Lee made his final decision to cast his lot with Virginia is unclear. But the decision was certainly sealed by mid-1861, when his state, after long hesitation, voted to secede. Until that moment, Lee had clung to his federal allegiance and his desperate hope that the Upper South would stay with the Union. He considered secession “revolution” and had no love of slavery. “I am,” he told a friend, “one of those dull creatures that cannot see the good of secession.”
But Virginia’s decision was a response to Lincoln’s call for volunteers to suppress what he termed “rebellion.” For Lee, that made it likely that the Southern states would be coerced into renewed loyalty. His mentor, the astute Gen. Winfield Scott, chief of the Union forces, told him in their last anguished meeting, “You have made the greatest mistake of your life.” Perhaps Scott was right. Certainly it brought on Lee’s head outcries of “treason” that continue even today.
What Lee said, in explanation of his reluctant decision, was that he could not draw his sword against state and kin—a simpler choice in the mid-19th century than it would be in the atomized American republic of today, where regional and local identities are frayed by mobility and money-grubbing. Lee’s biographer Douglas Southall Freeman comments: “This was not a sectionalist bias—[Lee] looked on Virginia as he did his family [and] did not, then or thereafter, stop to reason out the nature of this instinctive feeling.” Lee felt that honor, as well as heritage, obliged him to choose as he did.
Indeed, the Virginia heritage, as that of the Upper South generally, had long featured a civil coexistence of regional and national loyalties. Thomas Jefferson, as both president and ideologue, had set the typical example in which states-rights rhetoric often collided with nationalist action—as in the Louisiana Purchase and the later Embargo.
In the face of this history, the author of this interesting study condemns Lee’s famous defection in the light of Washington’s counterexample: Lee becomes “the man who would not be Washington.” The argument could obviously be reversed 180 degrees. While the issues and circumstances differed, Washington’s decision in 1775-76 to abandon his loyalty to the king and his former status as an officer in the crown’s militia seems precisely to parallel Lee’s. (Thus, many British observers of our Civil War were baffled by the Unionist anxiety to distinguish between 1776 and 1861, and between the sentiments of the Declaration of Independence and the rhetoric of secession.) But that parallel being stipulated, how does Jonathan Horn construct his counterargument?
To begin with, Horn places great weight on personal and family connections and affinities. Many ties indeed linked the Washington, Custis, and Lee families. George Washington, who had no natural children, married the wealthy widow Martha Custis; that legacy ultimately brought to Robert E. Lee and his wife, Mary Custis Lee, Washington’s step-great-granddaughter, not only the magnificent house, gardens, and grounds at Arlington but a problematic set of bondsmen designated as the “Custis slaves,” who, within five years, were to be freed under the will of their late master, G. W. Parke Custis. Moreover, grandfather Custis had bequeathed $10,000 each to the four Lee daughters. It was a tall challenge for Robert E. Lee, as the executor of his late father-in-law’s confusing and ambiguous will. He could not see how the the emancipation deadline could be met or funded—Custis was some $10,000 in debt at his death in 1857, and it was estimated that the repair of the run-down Arlington estate could not be managed short of another $10,000. Lee sought a judicial interpretation of the confusing passage in the Custis will, but it seems to have been of little help. And the issue was apparently preempted by the outbreak of the Civil War and Emancipation.