In City Journal, Ryan L. Cole reviews a recent book on one of America’s most famous generals:
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.