Richard Nisley

Monuments and Robert E. Lee
History - American Released - Oct 29, 2017
Below is my review of “The Man Who Would Not Be Washington” -- a book which was published in 2015, before the controversy over Civil War monuments.


Imagine: in place of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., a memorial dedicated to Robert E. Lee. It might have happened, had Lee accepted command of the Union Army in 1861. In such a case, it’s likely the outcome of the Civil War would have been decided much sooner, due to the brilliant generalship of Robert E. Lee. A grateful nation would have insisted on a monument to Lee, rather than Abraham Lincoln. Far fetched? Perhaps, to our minds conditioned by the actual outcome of events. Jonathan Horn, an exceptional writer and the author of “The Man Who Would Not Be Washington,” makes a compelling argument for just such a possibility—had Lee sided with the North.

Horn’s fascinating book is as much about the geography of Lee’s world as it is about the man himself—about locations that figured prominently in Lee’s life, many along the Potomac—Stratford Hall (his birthplace), Mount Vernon, Arlington House, which overlooked the capital, Harpers Ferry, Sharpsburg—and locations elsewhere—White House plantation (Martha Washington’s birthplace), West Point, battlefields north and south of the Potomac, and Washington College (later renamed Washington and Lee University), where Lee spent his last years, as president of the college. Lee was a master at reading geography and used it to good advantage in the war with Mexico, and on many Civil War battlefields where, with lesser forces, he utilized the terrain to his advantage to outwit a host of Union commanders—McClellan, Pope, Burnside, and Hooker.

Robert E. Lee was born into a military family. He was the son of Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, a general who served under George Washington in the Revolutionary War. Robert E. Lee attended West Point, and after graduating second in his class joined the Army Corp of Engineers. As fate would have it, he married Mary Anna Randolph Custis, the daughter George Washington’s adopted son, Martha Washington’s grandson from a previous marriage. The marriage made Lee heir to the Washington legacy, and heir to Arlington House, which housed what remained of Washington’s estate. It was here that Robert and his wife lived when the Civil War broke out.

Lee’s decision to side with the South put him at odds with Washington’s legacy as father of the Union. It wasn’t an easy decision for Lee. He thought secession was illegal, he thought George Washington would agree, and he opposed it. In April 1861, Lee was called to the city of Washington by an emissary for Abraham Lincoln who tried to get Lee to squash the secession. “The country looks to you as the representative of the Washington family,” Lee recalled the emissary telling him. Lee returned to Arlington to think about it for two days before declining the command. He said he couldn’t go to war against the state he called home, Virginia.

Lee famously said slavery was an evil institution, but in the same letter, he wrote that it was necessary for the time being. Indeed, Lee needed slaves for the upkeep of Arlington. Of course, after Lee departed for Richmond, the slaves were freed, and all of the Washington artifacts housed at Arlington House were removed or lost. Shortly after that, Arlington became Arlington National Cemetery.

The war over, Lee spent his last days in the upper reaches of the Shenandoah Valley, in Lynchburg, Virginia as president of Washington College. But the story does not end there. The Marble Man, as he was called at West Point, did not lend his support to building monuments. According to the author, Lee probably didn’t even support preserving battlefields because countries that hide reminders of civil wars move on quicker. Says Horn: “(Lee) was worried that preserving the reminders of the past might preserve the passions that had divided the country.”

A marble monument was built on the western end of Washington Mall, not to the memory of Robert E. Lee, but to the memory of Lee’s moral and political antagonist, Abraham Lincoln. Still, there were those who favored some form of monument to Robert E. Lee in Washington, D.C. The idea was floated of erecting a statue of Lee on the southern end of the Arlington Memorial Bridge, the bridge that connects Virginia with the nation’s capital, and of Ulysses S. Grant on the northern end. But the support was not there and the idea was dropped. Concludes the author: “. . . Lee waged against a union he cherished and, until revising his views after the fact, considered inviolable and indivisible.” The Lincoln Memorial is a reminder of that inviolable and indivisible union Lee retired to.

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