George Washington, who today seems so stiff and remote, was without question the most admired man in America in the first half of the 19th century. He was venerated not only as the soldier who had overcome Britain on the battlefield, but as the statesman who had led 13 disparate Colonies into nationhood. Admiration for the “Father of His Country” transcended region and party. Abraham Lincoln, writing in 1842, called Washington “the mightiest name of earth. To add brightness to the sun or glory to the name of Washington is alike impossible.”
During the Civil War, both sides sought to claim Washington’s legacy. In the Confederacy, Gen. Robert E. Lee was seen as the reincarnation of Washington, leading the fight against Northern aggression as Washington had fought the British. In the North, secessionists were portrayed as destroying the union that Washington had made possible. “Which are indeed dutiful children,” asked Secretary of State William H. Seward, “those who are engaged in the destruction of [Washingtons] country, or those who have committed themselves to its salvation?”
If this was a view of Washington in the North, imagine his fame in his home state of Virginia. Lee, the son of one of Washington’s generals, grew up “in the shadow” of Washington, to use Richard McCaslin’s apt term. Lee attended Washington’s church in Alexandria, followed Washington into the military profession and married Mary Custis, the daughter of Martha Washington’s grandson from her first marriage. Most important of all, Lee appears to have made Washington his model in terms of personal integrity and self-control.
Few doubt that Lee, particularly as a young man, was influenced by Washington’s persona. Mr. McCaslin, however, would have one believe that Lee was dominated by the image of the first president, and his attempt to underscore that point involves a fair amount of trivia.
Lee, we are told, was preoccupied with Washington memorabilia that had come down to Mary Lee (items that, in many instances, were lost or stolen during the Civil War). In point of fact, it was Mary Lee who was most concerned with the Washington connection, and Lee’s concern was on her behalf. In 1861, Lee’s plans for a campaign in what was then western Virginia fell into enemy hands when the Federals killed one of his aides, John A. Washington. Lee had to modify his campaign, but more important in Mr. McCaslin’s eyes is the fact that John Washington was “the last of his name to live at Mount Vernon, providing Lee with a direct link to the legacy of the Revolution.”
The author’s preoccupation with Lee’s Washington connection detracts from an otherwise attractive, well-researched book. The two men reflected differences as well as similarities.
However Lee may have looked up to Washington, the two men fought their wars differently. Both fought foes with far greater resources, and both sought to erode their enemy’s will to fight. Washington, though, discovered early in the war that few of his units could stand up to British regulars. Accordingly, he chose his opportunities for battle with great care, recognizing that his greatest service was simply to keep an army in the field. Lee, in contrast, considered his soldiers a match for any in the world and sought the decisive victory that would force the North to negotiate.
Washington, the amateur soldier, immersed himself in detail and sought to maintain as firm a control of his units as the communications of that day allowed. Lee, in contrast, gave his subordinate commanders wide latitude. “I plan and work with all my might to bring the troops to the right place at the right time,” he said. “With that I have done my duty. As soon as I order the troops forward into battle, I lay the fate of my army in the hands of God.” Lee did not always adhere to his own philosophy, however, and he, like Washington, occasionally had to be restrained from leading his men into battle.
In one important respect, Washington and Lee did have similar outlooks. Both deferred to civil authority, however frustrating it was at times to do so. Washington deplored the failure of the Continental Congress to supply his army, but he respected its authority. Lee was critical of Virginia’s action in seceding from the Union in 1861, but he felt bound by it. Late in the war, when Confederate President Jefferson Davis persisted in defending Richmond in the face of its imminent fall, Lee refused to invoke his prestige and authority to sway the president.
As long as the war lasted, Lee and his cause benefited from the fact that Southerners associated him with George Washington. A Confederate officer wrote in his diary that “Lee is regarded by his army as nearer approaching the character of the great & good Washington than any man living.” A young man who saw Lee during the war wrote, “I could not help but think of Washington as I looked at that calm, sad face.”
It was after the war that the association of Lee with Washington became an article of faith in the South. According to a Georgia politician, Benjamin H. Hill, Lee was “Caesar without his ambition, Frederick without his tyranny, Napoleon without his selfishness, and Washington without his reward.”
Small wonder that the defeated South chose Lee as its hero.
John M. Taylor lives in McLean. He is the author of numerous books in history and biography, including “Duty Faithfully Performed: Robert E. Lee and His Critics.”