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Exploring Robert E. Lee’s connections to George Washington

February 16, 2015 at 6:25 PM EDT
Robert E. Lee was the son of a Revolutionary War hero who was a trusted aide to George Washington. In 1861, after 25 years in the U.S. Army, Lee turned down an offer to command Union forces in the Civil War. That decision is the subject of a new book, “The Man Who Would Not Be Washington.” Judy Woodruff talks to author Jonathan Horn about choices that change history.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, a new take on Robert E. Lee, the famous Confederate general, with President George Washington as the touchstone.

I recently talked with the author of this look at two men who helped shape American history.

The civil war split families, states and the nation; 74 years after the signing of the Constitution, the United States was torn in two. One of the more conflicted participants in the war was none other than Robert E. Lee, a son of a Revolutionary War hero who was a trusted aide to General George Washington. He married the daughter of Washington’s adopted son.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Lee had served 25 years with the U.S. Army, but in April 1861, he turned down an offer to command the Union Army, resigned his commission, and accepted the command of the military and naval forces of Virginia.

All this and more can be found in the new book, “The Man Who Would Not Be Washington: Robert E. Lee’s Civil War and His Decision That Changed American History” by Jonathan Horn, who served as a speechwriter and special assistant to former President George W. Bush.

Jonathan Horn, welcome to the NewsHour.

JONATHAN HORN, Author, “The Man Who Would Not Be Washington”: Thanks for having me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you grew up in the area around Washington. Is that where this interest in Robert E. Lee came from?

JONATHAN HORN: That’s exactly where this interest came up.

If you glow up on the Potomac River, you have so much of Robert E. Lee’s and George Washington’s history all around you. Robert E. Lee was born in Westmoreland County downriver from Washington, and so was Washington. Robert E. Lee grew up in Alexandria, Virginia, right near George Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation, and Robert E. Lee married his wife at Arlington House, which is that great pillared mansion that’s now a similar tear, but back then it was actually a memorial to George Washington.

It was filled with relics of George Washington, because, as you mentioned, Robert E. Lee had married the daughter of George Washington’s adopted son.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, describe the decision he made that you argue changed American history.

JONATHAN HORN: Robert E. Lee actually opposed secession. I think that’s a surprise to most people today.

But he was actually reading a biography of George Washington as the Union comes apart. And as he’s reading this biography, he concludes that the founding fathers themselves would have opposed secession. But then he gets this offer. He gets called to Washington by an emissary for Abraham Lincoln, who says the country looks to you as the representative of the Washington family to save the Union.

And Lee turns downs this command because, as much as he loves the Union, he can’t imagine going to war against his native state of Virginia.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, the premise then is that here’s this great man who was considered a great hero for the Confederacy in the Civil War. When the moment came for a decision that would matter, he made the wrong one.

JONATHAN HORN: That’s very much what happened. He forever cast his fate against George Washington’s greatest legacy, the Union, and that’s ultimately what made me want to write the story, is that tragic tension in Lee’s life, how a soldier so associated with George Washington goes to war against George Washington’s greatest legacy, the Union.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And he continued to be conflicted about it. You write about what he went through in the period after that.

JONATHAN HORN: Right.

And what’s amazing is after the war, he actually revises his views and he starts saying, maybe the founding fathers hadn’t been opposed to secession. And he does try revisit what happened. He really is tortured. There are lots of descriptions of him with very sad looks on his face riding his horse after the war and people wondering, what is he thinking?

JUDY WOODRUFF: You also write, Jonathan Horn, about what he thought about slavery. He wasn’t comfortable with it, but he did in the end defended it. He kept slaves. You even tell a really remarkable story.

You quote someone as describing a scene where he himself whipped a female slave who had tried to escape, when one of his employees said he couldn’t do it.

JONATHAN HORN: Right. And that’s one of the most controversial moments in Robert E. Lee’s life.

We don’t know exactly what happened there. He denied that story. But what is so interesting is, what most entangled Robert E. Lee in the institution of slavery — because he really didn’t want to be involved with it. He wanted to stay away from it.

But we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking he was an abolitionist. He certainly wasn’t. But what happened is, his father-in-law, who was George Washington’s adopted son, dies and leaves a will naming Robert E. Lee as executor of estates. And those estates actually include slaves who have descended from Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home.

So on the eve of the Civil War, Robert E. Lee is managing slaves who have direct connections to the father of our country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You write not only about the decision that he made to join the Confederacy, but about decisions he made as a general. He has a reputation as a brilliant general. It’s the reason that both the North and the South went after him.

But, in the end, when you look at the decisions he made as a general, was he a great general?

JONATHAN HORN: He was a brilliant military mind.

And what’s so interesting about Lee is, we have this impression of him always taking the initiative in battle, even though his forces were outmanned and outgunned. But he never saw it that way. He always thought he had no choice. He had to take incredible risks because the odds against him were so stacked.

And so the way we view Lee today isn’t necessarily the way he viewed himself.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Was there a chance that with Lee in charge in the South, the South could have prevailed?

JONATHAN HORN: Absolutely.

I don’t think we can say anything is inevitable. If those Union soldiers hadn’t held Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg, who knows what would have happened. I think one of the lessons I took away from this book is that nothing is inevitable in history. History turns on the decisions of single individuals all the time. And we shouldn’t ever make the mistake of thinking that history is inevitable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it is a fascinating book, whether you are into Civil War history or not.

It’s “The Man Who Would Not Be Washington: Robert E. Lee’s Civil War and His Decision That Changed American History”

Jonathan Horn, thank you very much.

JONATHAN HORN: Thanks so much.

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