Born less than 10 miles apart and tied to another famous Virginian by martial, marital, and through his mother, Robert E. Lee grew up under and with the specter of George Washington.
Since Lee’s death on October 12, 1870, according to former presidential speechwriter turned author and historian Jonathan Horn, has caught Lee between two camps. Lee “is trapped in the middle” between historians and biographers who say that Washington and Lee are one in the same and others who “have set out to detach Lee’s car from Washington’s by dismissing the links between the two.” (pg. 6).
In his biography of the famous Confederate general, Horn combines the strains that continued to connect Lee with Washington, from growing up in the city George had laid out, Alexandria, to the visit of the Marquis de Lafayette in 1824. Lee wooed Mary Custis, the great-granddaughter of George and Martha Custis Washington.
The wedding ceremony even took place in Arlington’s main hall, built by George Washington Parke Custis. Their first child would also be named George Washington Custis Lee.
History leaves us with the hindsight of what Lee’s decision in the spring of 1861 was. However, even that decision was tinged with remembrance of the Founding Father’s and after the initial secession of the Deep South, Lee wrote to another son William Henry Fitzhugh “Rooney” Lee that “in 1808, secession was termed treason by Virginia statesmen. What can it be now?” (pg. 101).
Furthermore, he could “anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union” (pg. 102). Yet, in this same correspondence with “Rooney” he gave the inkling on what his decision in the impending crisis would be, “if the Union is dissolved….I shall return to my native state and share the miseries of my people” (pg. 102).
Lee would chose Virginia, Washington would have chosen the United States.
Why did he?
Well, that is the basis of Horn’s recent scholarship. Horn takes the sources available including Lee’s vast correspondence and examines that vital question. A man so entwined with the memory of Washington but made the ultimate decision to side with a state over the nation.
While having a sword that Washington had inscribed that the blade would only be drawn in defense of the country.
To Lee, “country” meant “state.”
How did that come to be?
And what “if he had followed those beliefs [like Washington], instead of his state?” (pg. 250).
The answer to that question is also in the quick-reading, primary source laden, biography of Robert E. Lee, the Custis-Washington-Lee connection, and the “man who would not be Washington.”