Book Review: North or South? How Robert E. Lee made his choice

Book Review: North or South? How Robert E. Lee made his choice

With the United States experiencing racial turmoil, unrest and racially motivated attacks such as the attack in Charleston, S.C., one looks for answers to this nation’s most pernicious and perpetual problem. Seeing the Confederate flag lowered on the grounds of the South Carolina state capitol, while a symbolic and important change, is an indicator of how little has been done to tackle issues of bigotry.

Full disclosure: I know Jonathan Horn, having been one of his teachers and the rabbi for his wedding.

In January, when his book was released, I attended his book signing to hear him speak about his work on Gen. Robert E. Lee’s decision to side with the Confederacy.

I was stunned to see a standing-room-only crowd fill the room for the former White House presidential speechwriter, possibly the youngest writer ever to write for a president.

A book about the Civil War was as immediate to this diverse audience as if the war had happened yesterday. The presence of so many people demonstrated how passionately people think and feel about American history, and it shows their identification with this history along with its unresolved issues.

Jewish people played a role in the Civil War. According to one estimate, roughly 10,000 Jews fought in the Civil War, with 7,000 fighting for the Union and 3,000 fighting for the Confederacy. A number of Jews were officers of high rank, and a number of them left letters and memoirs of their war experience.

Horn said his motivation for writing this book was sharing a river. He lived on the eastern side of the Potomac River while knowing that the historic figures of Lee and George Washington had lived on the western side.

Horn takes on the difficult question of Lee’s decision to turn down being a commanding officer for the Union, while accepting the military leadership of the Confederate states. How did it come about that Lee — married to a direct descendant of Washington’s adopted son, and a descendant of Henry Lee III, who fought in the American Revolution — took up arms against the United States?

In this well-researched work, with 100 pages of footnotes, Horn has written an excellent background connecting Lee’s genealogy from the American Revolution up to the Civil War. This is the very foundation of Lee’s appeal (in his time), along with his military ability proven in the Mexican War and at Harper’s Ferry.

This is an irony not lost on us. Lee extinguished the revolt led by John Brown, making Lee a choice candidate for leader in the War to preserve the Union by both Gen. Winfield Scott, commanding general of the Army, and President Abraham Lincoln, who had hoped that Lee would accept command of the Army. But ironically, the Army’s most promising and loyal officer became the first choice for the position of commanding general for the Confederacy, which he accepted.

Horn’s book connects this with the pivotal choice Lee described as the most difficult in his life: to side with Virginia, overriding the fact that he objected to secession.

That a work of history is so readable and fluid is a tribute to the author. This work follows a focused subject: Lee’s life and decision and its consequences. It has just enough battle information not to overwhelm us, but to re-create the drama of the key battles, their terrible cost in lives and the toll on all involved.

Horn makes it clear that the place of honor in all this is reserved for two presidents, Washington and Lincoln. Nevertheless, Lee’s lineage sets the stage for the complex history he embodies. The brilliance of the American Revolution stands in stark contrast to the brutal institution of slavery, which affected millions over the course of hundreds of years. While the founders, in the words of historian Joseph Ellis, “spoke Northern and acted Southern” is an insightful comment, we should be reminded that slavery was not exclusively Southern. Slave markets existed in the North, and their buildings are preserved as museums to man’s cruelty.

Those looking for a detailed record of the brutality of slavery will not find it in this narrative. What they will encounter is an excellent, well-reasoned journey, recounting Lee’s decision to join the Confederacy and its tragic consequences.

By surrendering to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Lee agreed to end a bloody and hopeless conflict without allowing it to become an endless guerrilla war. In doing that, he deserves to be remembered for ending the war that would have taken many more thousands of both Northern and Southern lives. Lee never wanted to see the Confederate flag again. Through his formal surrender, he returned to the Union with the recognition that both sides of the Potomac would be connected again by this difficult history.

Rabbi Arnold Saltzman is a composer and the rabbi of three Maryland congregations.