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The Man Who Would Not Be Washington

Robert E. Lee's Civil War and His Decision That Changed American History


Jonathan D. Horn (View Bio)
Hardcover: Scribner, 2015.

The Man Who Would Not Be Washington

This is the riveting true story of Robert E. Lee, the brilliant soldier bound by marriage to George Washington’s family but turned by war against Washington’s crowning achievement, the Union.

On the eve of the Civil War, one soldier embodied the legacy of George Washington and the hopes of leaders across a divided land. Both North and South knew Robert E. Lee as the son of Washington’s most famous eulogist and the son-in-law of Washington’s adopted child. Each side sought his service for high command. Lee could choose only one.

In The Man Who Would Not Be Washington, former White House speechwriter Jonathan Horn reveals how the officer most associated with Washington went to war against the union that Washington had forged. This extensively researched and gracefully written biography follows Lee through married life, military glory, and misfortune. The story that emerges is more complicated, more tragic, and more illuminating than the familiar tale. More complicated because the unresolved question of slavery—the driver of disunion—was among the personal legacies that Lee inherited from Washington. More tragic because the Civil War destroyed the people and places connecting Lee to Washington in agonizing and astonishing ways. More illuminating because the battle for Washington’s legacy shaped the nation that America is today. As Washington was the man who would not be king, Lee was the man who would not be Washington.

A must-read for those passionate about history, The Man Who Would Not Be Washington introduces Jonathan Horn as a masterly voice in the field.

#8 on the Washington Post Hardcover Nonfiction Bestseller List
A Bookspan Bookclub Selection

"Horn has done an impressive amount of archival research, especially in the Lee Family Papers in the Library of Congress, and his writing is never less than gracious and unencumbered. If there is a consistent theme in Lee’s psyche, Horn believes it to be self-denial, the sense that Lee was never to get his ‘own way,” but must be always dependent on others who consistently let him down, from his father to his father-in-law to his wife to his ‘native state.’ As a succession of vignettes rather than a full-fledged narrative of Lee’s entire life, Horn mostly passes-by the minutiae of Lee’s military career…. But this leaves Horn free to bring us closer to the loyalties and affections which were of paramount importance to Lee in both peace and war…. For a book of only 250 pages, Horn touches on myriad details—Lee reading Winfield Scott’s autobiography on the way to Appomattox; his sole meeting with Lincoln at a White House reception in March 1861; and the destruction of the other major Lee family property, White House, in 1862…. Horn provides us with a palpable sense of having met the man who, for all his delicate charm, remained by his own admission ‘not very accessible.’ The algorithm that will explain Robert E. Lee and ‘the decision that changed American history’ has yet to be written. But Jonathan Horn’s The Man Who Would Not Be Washington comes as close as we are likely to get for some time, even if, in truth, the real subject of his book is the man who refused to be Robert E. Lee." — Allen C. Guelzo, The Civil War Monitor

"Jonathan Horn’s new volume adds to that ever-growing body of knowledge about the Confederate chieftain. Horn has provided a twist in his interpretation of Lee. He focuses on the impact and influence that the legacy of George Washington had on Lee. In doing so, he provides an outstanding book that will be enjoyed by all readers interested in Lee…. Horn’s book is a thought-provoking, illuminating look at Lee written from a fresh perspective. Readers will gain a better perspective of an aspect of Lee that has not been fully explored. Horn’s thorough research brings to light the interaction between Washington’s legacy and Lee’s decisions. It is a story that is extremely well written and recommended to all." — Jay Jorgenson, Civil War News

"Today, Arlington House stands as a monument to one of America's greatest generals. But walking through the tattered home and around the shabby grounds, visitors cannot help but get the feeling that the ushers and guides who work there for the National Park Service are a little embarrassed to be heralding Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. All of this sadness and loss and strife ping from the darkness of our minds every time we catch a glimpse of the great columned portico atop the distant hill while crossing a busy city street or zipping past the house on a modern highway. Those pings ring loudest when you get a surprising glimpse from a different vantage point. Jonathan Horn, a speechwriter for President George W. Bush, takes those pings from the past and marshals them into a splendid symphony of local Potomac history in his book The Man Who Would Not Be Washington: Robert E. Lee's Civil War and His Decision That Changed American History, published this month by Scribner. The book takes a subject that most students of American history already know, gracefully winds it together with meticulous research and produces a vivid story of heartache, stoicism, loneliness, anger and loss…. The story Mr. Horn tells about the descendants of Mount Vernon dances along like a novel. Both men—first Washington and then Lee—resigned their military commands at epic turning points in American history. One did so to create the Union. The other to dissolve it. One succeeded. The other failed. Because of his copious research and detailed reporting, Mr. Horn successfully avoids the usual anti-South propaganda we always get from the North or the blindly loyal hagiography we sometimes hear from the South…. Left undisputable by Mr. Horn's book is that no memorial in the constellation of federal parks bears more painful scars than Arlington House. That is little surprise, considering the vindictiveness and trenchant hatred that inspired government officials to begin burying the federal dead in the front yard of General Lee's beloved home." — Charles Hurt, The Washington Times

"While writing a book about Abraham Lincoln, I naturally thought of Robert E. Lee. Not often, for I was determined to avoid that great pitfall of Civil War historiography, battle porn. Yet there, across enemy lines, was that other famous bearded face: handsome and well-groomed, not angular and scruffy, but dyed, like the president’s, with melancholy. Well might Lee be melancholy, for though he had all the virtues, yet at the crisis of his and the nation’s life he made all the wrong choices. Jonathan Horn’s fascinating book looks at Lee through the prism of yet another famous man, George Washington. His subtle and sympathetic examination of the Washington–Lee connection helps us understand the Lee question…. Horn’s story is fascinating, thought-provoking, and deeply sad." — Richard Brookhiser, National Review

"In The Man Who Would Not Be Washington, Jonathan Horn traces the many connections between the man of Mount Vernon and the 'marble model'—the nickname given to Lee by his West Point classmates for graduating without a single demerit…. Horn makes a compelling case that the Washington myth weighed heavily on Lee throughout his life, from the time he grew up reading cherry-tree fables to his surrender at Appomattox Court House. The family connections are numerous. Lee's father, 'Light Horse' Harry Lee, was a Revolutionary War hero perhaps best known for delivering the eulogy at Washington's funeral: 'First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.' Lee married Mary Custis, the daughter of Washington’s adopted son. Through his wife, Lee inherited Washington's property: his estates, his ceremonial swords, and Martha Washington's slaves — possessions that tied him down to Virginia and the southern cause. Washington's kin pop up throughout the book so often that the author has helpfully included a Lee-Custis family tree in the appendix. Horn weaves all these connections and coincidences into a coherent story—never overselling the point—and offers a modern and readable perspective on Lee's enigmatic character." — Gregory Korte, USA Today

"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. 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.... 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." — Henry L. Carrigan, Jr., BookPage

"Horn's thematic biography captures the many facets of Robert E. Lee's crowded life…. Embedded throughout this fine work are adroit comparisons between George Washington and Lee. The author's superb epilog traces the subsequent unsuccessful attempts to tie Lee to the Washington legacy and memorialize his life in stone, concluding: 'Because Lee was the man who would not be Washington ... every child born as lowly as Lincoln can dream of being a Washington. Because Lee could not have his own way, we might all have ours.' VERDICT: A seminal contribution of significant historiographical value. Recommended for Old South and Civil War scholars, Lee biography enthusiasts, a lay audience, and all libraries." — John Carver Edwards, Library Journal (starred review)

"An arresting fact is the crux of this work by former White House presidential speechwriter Horn: Robert E. Lee was the son of George Washington’s most famous eulogist and the son-in-law of Washington’s adopted child. This biography emphasizes the personal drama as well as the consequences inherent in Lee’s decision not to embrace Washington’s hard-forged Union and how Washington himself left the country with the legacy of slavery that finally led to war." — Library Journal

"Jonathan Horn’s thoughtful new life of the Confederate general…is built around the premise that Lee was practically destined to become the second coming of Washington. Yet he declined, and the consequences of his refusal altered the course of the nation…. Horn’s excellent book drives home the tragic magnitude of that decision." — Ryan L. Cole, City Journal

"Mr. Horn hears an echo of Washington’s advice to ‘his heirs never to raise their swords, save in “defense of their country,”' in Lee’s pledge never to draw his sword except to defend Virginia. But in Lee’s mind, '“Country”’ had somehow mutated into “state,”' he writes.That decision ultimately makes Lee the smaller man. It also makes the title of Mr. Horn’s biography of Lee, The Man Who Would Not Be Washington, seem very apt.... The resulting work is well-written, fair-minded and short." — Len Barcousky, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

"Robert E. Lee was frequently compared to George Washington, not only because of his personality and 'military genius' but also because he married Washington's granddaughter, and his father had a close relationship with the Founding Father. But at the start of the Civil War, … Lee rejected the Union and loyally followed Virginia into the Confederacy, despite his personal opposition to secession. Horn, a former White House speechwriter, puts a captivating spin on Lee's story by comparing and contrasting the two great men. Detailed yet accessible descriptions of battles are coupled with stories of Lee's personal life, revealing a man as complex as the war he reluctantly joined. Horn also points out the reverence for Washington during this time, and the way each side claimed him as their own…. Horn takes a fair and equitable approach to Lee, his life, and his struggle over participation in a war that tore apart the nation." — Publishers Weekly

"Horn writes well and makes responsible, often vivid, use of his sources." — Edwin M. Yoder, Jr., The Weekly Standard

"It is an excellent addition to the library of Civil War books. Horn presents not only the historical record, but also the pathos, irony and tension involved in Lee’s decision and how it reflected issues in his personal life. The author's work reads very much like a novel and is suitable for both serious historians and lovers of engaging stories. The maps and family tree add interest and clarity to this poignant account." — Bill Schwab, The Missourian

"A romantic, rueful portrait of the Confederate general and the fatal decision that shut him out of history. Former White House speechwriter Horn finds Robert E. Lee (1807-1870) a deeply sympathetic American hero whom fortune seemed to have favored as heir to George Washington, if only Lee had thrown his lot with the Union rather than the South. That is certainly a steep qualifier, yet the author tracks Lee’s rigorous antebellum loyalty to the Union, beginning with his father Harry’s intrepid Revolutionary derring-do as captain of the light dragoons, gaining the nickname 'Light-Horse' Lee and the admiration of fellow Virginian Gen. Washington, whose land speculations around the Potomac River spurred Harry to buy 500 acres. Although Harry ended up in debtors prison later in life and abandoned his surviving children from his second marriage in Alexandria, Harry 'remained an apostle for Washington’s glory' and coined the memorable phrase at the great man’s funeral: 'first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.' Hence, it was surely fate that brought West Point graduate Robert and his rich cousin Mary Custis together: She was the daughter of Washington’s adopted son who had built the showy Arlington mansion atop Alexandria’s hills overlooking the capital city. Subsequently, Arlington would be the only home in Virginia the peripatetic soldier Robert would know until the Civil War, and with the death of his in-laws and the growing debility of his spoiled wife, he was entrusted with its care. In somewhat melodramatic fashion, Horn builds Lee’s great tragedy around this idyllic Arlington inheritance, peopled by slaves he couldn’t quite free, according to his father-in-law’s dying wishes. Lee’s tortured decision to resign from the Union Army rather than fight against his home state resulted in the loss of his homestead; ironically, it would become a national cemetery for the young men he sent to their deaths. Compelling research within an overwrought presentation." — Kirkus Reviews

"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.... It is a fascinating book, whether you are into Civil War history or not." — Judy Woodruff, PBS Newshour

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