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Lee In the Shadow of Washington

by Richard B. McCaslin

Conflicting Worlds: New Dimensions of the American Civil War

272 pages / 6.00 x 9.00 inches / 15 halftones

Civil War

  Paperback / 9780807129593 / May 2004

While most scholars agree that Robert E. Lee’s loyalty to Virginia was the key factor in his decision to join the Confederate cause, Richard McCaslin goes further to demonstrate that Lee’s true call to action was the legacy of the American Revolution viewed through his reverence for George Washington. Like Washington, Lee wore a colonel’s uniform. He rode a horse named for one of his idol’s mounts, Traveller, and carried one of Washington’s swords. On January 19, 1861, his fifty-fourth birthday, Lee sat alone in his room at Fort Mason and faced the prospect of war by reading the latest book about his hero.

In his thematic biography of the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, McCaslin locates the sources of Lee’s devotion to Washington and shows how this bond affected his performance as a general in battle. He argues that Lee used the strategy of attrition to attempt to persuade the North to quit just as Washington had wearied the British. But reliance on Washington as a role model led to tragic irony: in 1864 it was Lee’s Confederates who became trapped like the British in the Yorktown campaign. After his surrender Lee could no longer emulate Washington the revolutionary, and he became the president of a small college that bore Washington’s name, surrounding himself with mementos of his hero.

Challenging conventional interpretations, McCaslin’s absorbing book lays to rest the argument that a posthumous “Lee cult” superimposed Washington symbolism onto Lee’s life to link it with the Revolution. Rather, Lee himself created the association, which yielded an enduring paradox: Washington earned his reputation as a statesman, whereas Lee never escaped his self-imposed image as a revolutionary in Washington’s shadow.

 

Richard B. McCaslin is a professor and chair of the Department of History at the University of North Texas.  He has published two books with LSU Press: Tainted Breeze, which won the Tullis Award and a commendation from the AASLH, and In the Shadow of Washington, which won the Slatten Award and Laney Prize, and was nominated for a Pulitzer in Biography. 

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