Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Man Who Would Not Be Washington by Jonathan Horn - Book Review

General Robert E. Lee has always stood as something of an enigma to me. I've read a lot of books about the Civil War tending to those more sympathetic to the Union, but not exclusively so. In his new biography of Lee, Jonathan Horn (The Man Who Would Not Be Washington: Robert E. Lee's Civil War and the Decision that Changed American History (Scribner, 2015, 384 pages, $28.00/12.74) presents a comprehensive, intriguing, sympathetic, and convincing picture of this most enigmatic and conflicted of Confederate generals. Forever connected to George Washington, by proximity and marriage, yet burdened by the obligations, moral and legal, thus placed on him, Lee is a fascinating and conflicted man. Horn, a third of whose book consists of extensive footnotes and an exhaustive bibliograpy, has thoroughly done his work to present a full biographical picture successfully capturing Lee's huge strengths, which, as with many great men, become his greatest liabilities. This book is highly readable and useful for anyone interested in Civil War history.

Robert E. Lee on Traveller

R.E. Lee was the son of Revolutionary War general Light Horse Harry Lee, one of George Washington's most trusted aides and a general of slashing creativity. Because The Father of His Country had no natural children, Harry Lee became almost like a son to Washington. After the war, however, the Lee family fell into disrepute, never living up to its promise and amassing significant debts. Lee's life was further complicated, by his marriage to Mary Custis, Martha Washington's great grand-daughter. Both the Custis and Lee branches of the family led lives more dedicated to exploiting their relationships to Washington than to become productive in their own rite, thus leading to extensive problems for Robert E. Lee throughout his life and, perhaps, influencing many of his later choices. The web of responsibilities for the Custis slaves, inherited from Martha Washington, placed financial and moral burdens on Lee to support causes (slavery and secession) which he did not personally wish to do. His sense of honor directed him to make the choices he made.
Lee graduated second in the class of 1829 from West Point, entering the Army at a time when promotions were slow while he was trying to manage balancing a career requiring him to be at lonely, distant frontier posts and a new marriage to a woman completely unsuited to such a life, having grown up in the cosseted world of southern gentility. Lee was assigned to a variety of posts, but advanced slowly until he demonstrated courage and leadership in the Mexican War, an event that provided important military experience to the leadership on both sides during the Civil War. Lee was clear in his devotion to the Union and his personal opposition to slavery, even though he was entrusted with supporting the Custis estates and descendants while manumitting their slaves, two seemingly irreconcilable goals.

As the war approached, Lee, watching from his family's home at Arlington, was convinced of the inevitability of secession. When he was offered command of both the Union Army and the Army of Virginia, he cast his lot with the South and resigned his Army command, casting his lot with his State, though not necessarily with the entire Confederacy until somewhat later. Lee, an engineer by training and disposition, was a brilliant tactician who excelled at maneuvering his forces along internal lines, while often surrounded and commanding inferior numbers. He marshalled his troops with keen strategy while presenting a model of dignified yet humble leadership, earning their love and respect while knowing he was engaged in a lost cause with no long-term hope of victory. After the surrender at Appomatox, Lee retired from active military life and assumed the presidency of Washington (now Washington & Lee) college, which he built into a respectable, and by the standards of the day, innovative educational institution emphasizing practicle rather than traditional academic skills.

Jonathan Horn

Jonathan Horn is a former White House presidential speechwriter for George W. Bush and the author of The Man Who Would Not Be Washington. He has appeared as a commentator on MSNBC and BBC radio, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times Disunion series, The Weekly Standard, and other outlets. A graduate of Yale University, he lives in Bethesda, Maryland, with his wife, Caroline.

Jonathan Horn's The Man Who Would Not Be Washington: Robert E.Lee's Civil War and the Decision that Changed American History (Scribner, 2015, 384 pages, $28.00/12.74) presents an intriguing and non-partisan picture of a man of honor and dignity caught in an intractable conflict between warring loyalties and responsibilities. Never a fire breathing secessionist, nor a commited protector of slavery, Robert E. Lee was, nevertheless, strongly influenced by his loyalty to his native state and at least portions of George Washington's legacy. The writing is clear and straightforward. Horn's descriptions of strategic troop movements, particularly during the wilderness campaign and at the battle of Antietam are detailed enough to provide a quality picture while spare enough to make the overall strategy clear and understandable to a battle map-phobic reader. The book is carefully annotated and contains a huge bibliography for those wishing further reading. I received the book from the publisher as an electronic galley through Edelweiss and read it on my Kindle app.