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

by Jonathan Horn

Pub Date: Jan. 6th, 2015
ISBN: 978-1476748566
Publisher: Scribner

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.