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The Collegian

The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

Speaker discusses Lee, Washington connection

By Jonathan Wahl/reporter

In 1910, the U.S. Capitol requested each state send two statues of its most beloved people to stand in the National Statuary Hall. 

Despite being the leader of the Confederate Army, Virginia sent Robert E. Lee along with George Washington as its two representatives, NE students learned April 7.

Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee  Library of Congress/MCT
Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee
Library of Congress/MCT

“Maybe they knew something that we don’t,” said University of North Texas history chair Richard B. McCaslin. “Maybe there is something that has been forgotten.”

McCaslin, who holds a doctorate from the University of Texas, presented a different take on Lee and the factors in his life that steered him into the Civil War during his presentation Lee in the Shadow of Washington.

Lee’s father, Col. Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, was a close friend of Washington and fought with him in the Revolutionary War. In addition, Washington was highly regarded and revered in the Lee home as Robert was growing up, McCaslin said.

“Lee lived in a world saturated with Washington and as a little kid decided he would grow up to be the next Washington,” he said.

Lee grew up and eventually married Washington’s great-granddaughter Mary Custis, McCaslin said.

“When he proposed to her, Lee thought he was standing in the same place that George Washington himself proposed to Martha Custis (Washington),” he said.

Many scholars believe Lee was acting as a Virginian with Virginia’s interests at heart, but McCaslin said his research leads him to believe something deeper was going on.

“So the big moment comes,” he said. “Lee is brought into the Succession Convention in Virginia … and Lee knows what he has been brought there to do.”

As the debate over whether to secede raged on in Virginia in 1861, Lee was actually against secession, McCaslin said. Lee believed that if he were to lead the army, it would need to be a new revolution.

When Lee was called into the convention, he knew they wanted him to command the army, and McCaslin said multiple witnesses describe him turning to a statue of George Washington saying, “I hope this is the last we hear of this word secession.”

Standing at the precipice of the Civil War, Lee addressed the convention.

“Sir, I have sheathed my sword, and only in defense of my country would I draw it again, but I pledge to do that to you now,” he said.

McCaslin said that line was taken from George Washington’s will.

“Why is Lee quoting Washington here?” he asked. “Because he is wearing a sword owned by Washington himself.”

George Washington Photo courtesy Yale University Library
George Washington
Photo courtesy Yale University Library

Lee left the building, put on a colonel’s uniform and climbed on the back of a horse named Traveller, McCaslin said.

“Traveller just so happened to be the name of one of George Washington’s horses,” he said.

For all the ties that bound the Lee and Washington families, McCaslin said it was inevitable Lee would try to emulate and rise to Washington’s level.

“To Lee, he believed he was doing the right thing,” he said. “He thought he was fighting a revolutionary war, the second revolutionary war.”

Though McCaslin said many different people had many motivations to fight in the Civil War, his work has led to him believe Lee thought he was following in Washington’s footsteps.

After the defeat of the Confederate Army in the Civil War, Lee became president at a college that bore Washington’s name and dedicated his time to preserving Washington’s relics and legacy.

As he was called before Congress to testify after the Civil War, Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick, watched him testify and wrote a poem about it. In the poem, Melville wrote, “He who watches Lee in front of our Congress is reminded of Washington, and that is a disturbing connection.”

For more information on Lee, see McCaslin’s biography, Lee in the Shadow of Washington.

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