When “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, Robert E. Lee’s father, eulogized George Washington, he memorialized the late president’s effort to forge a unified nation that would bring happiness forever to the people of America. On the eve of the Civil War, Robert E. Lee, married to the daughter of Washington’s adopted son, appeared poised to preserve the Union that Washington had fought so hard to establish.
Yet, as journalist and presidential speechwriter Jonathan Horn points out in his stirring and elegant The Man Who Would Not Be Washington, Lee chose to lead rebel forces against the Union, leaving division and discord in his wake. Although Lee’s proponents argue that he is the “second coming” of Washington and point to similarities between the two men, others note that Lee’s legacy lies in his painful decision to preserve the values of his beloved state of Virginia above all else.
While Horn does not draw on any new archival materials, he chronicles Lee’s life with a vitality that captivates our imagination and keeps us glued to Lee’s story. With graceful vigor, he traces Lee from his childhood to his days at West Point, his command in Mexico, his leadership at Harper’s Ferry and ultimately to his decision to resign his commission in the U.S. Army. Lee’s decision to turn his back on the Union—and his canny leadership in battle—meant that he would be forever estranged from the nation he cherished.
Horn’s illuminating study offers a fascinating comparison between two figures who shaped American history.