“First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
- Henry ‘Light Horse Harry’ Lee
Many people think of George Washington as a man larger than life. They know he was the first president of the United States under the present Constitution and that his white hair on the dollar bill can be turned into a mushroom when folded the right way. But few people really know the man.
When Colonel Washington stood before the Continental Congress in 1775, he was forty-three, and in a day when the average man was five feet, seven inches, George Washington towered above them at six foot, three. He had flaming red hair and a temper to match and he wore the uniform of the Virginia militia, red with blue facings. But the Continental Congress was interested in his military record, not his appearance. They knew that he had been in the French and Indian War and had been the only officer to survive the Battle of the Monongahela under General Braddock unscathed. Nominated by John Adams, Colonel Washington became a general, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army.
Robert E. Lee is another man few people know about. On the eve of the Civil War, Colonel Lee quelled John Brown and his hooligans at Harper’s Ferry in what is now West Virginia. A little over a year later, he was offered command of the Army of the Potomac by Abraham Lincoln’s administration to quell yet another rebellion. Colonel Lee refused; no power would compel him to invade his own state. On June 1, 1862, Robert E. Lee assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia and proceeded to repel everything the North could throw at him.
Robert E. Lee was born in Stratford Hall, to one of the first families of Virginia. His father, ‘Light Horse Harry’ Lee had grown up near George Washington’s plantation, Mount Vernon, looking on Washington almost as a father. He had served in Washington’s cavalry, becoming a general as he fought brilliantly alongside the Swamp Fox in the South. But in the years after the Revolution, he became restless and proceeded to gain and lose large fortunes. In poverty Robert E. Lee’s family left Stratford Hall, when he was only four. Like his father, Robert pursued a military career, graduating second in his class at West Point. He was known as the “marble man” for his perfection and never once received a demerit. But Lee, too, had a temper he tried to curb all his life.
Lee grew up surrounded by Washington, not the man – he died eight years before Lee was born – but by his image. The country loved Washington; he was the hero who led them through the American War for Independence, presided over the committee that drafted the Constitution and finally served two terms as President of the United States, guiding the fledgling country through her first tumultuous years. It is not a stretch of the imagination to think that Lee tried to model himself after Washington.
Arlington, the Custis mansion, overlooked the Potomac, not far from where Lee lived. It was built by George Washington Parke Custis, George Washington’s step grandson and it was filled with Washington, too – his furniture, his paintings and the very bed he died in. In 1831 Robert E. Lee married George Washington Parke Custis’ only child, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, and in a way, became George Washington’s great-grandson.
In many ways, George Washington and Robert E. Lee were alike. They both were tall, well-made men, expert horsemen and had a way with people. They fought in a similar way as well. Their armies were often half the size of their opponents’, but what they were lacking in size, they made up for in speed and tenacity. They both specialized in orderly retreats and lighting strikes, completely taking the enemy by surprise. In 1776 Washington crossed a freezing river and attacked Trenton in Delaware only a few days before his men’s enlistments expired. The smashing victory raised the moral of his army so much that many men stayed in the army. Striking around the left flank of the enemy at Chancellorsville, Lee earned the reputation of invincibly with his men. Each commander had an almost godlike status in his armies.
Aid came to the Americans in the form of the French in the Revolution, but the Confederates had no such help. The North had more than twice the land, more than twice the people and far more money than the South. Lee fought until he could fight no more. His men were living off dried corn when he surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox Court House in 1865.
Though Washington never surrendered, he, like Lee, was in his fifties at the end of his war and like Lee, his hair had gone completely white. Washington went on to become the president of a country, while Lee became the president of an obscure little college in the Shenandoah Valley, Washington University (now Washington and Lee University).
Lee’s father, Light Horse Harry, penned those famous lines about George Washington when the latter died in 1799, “First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Washington is the most beloved president of the United States, but Robert E. Lee, too, lived up to his father’s lines. He was the first in war, first to surrender when he saw the cause was hopeless, and was more beloved in the South than the confederate president, Jefferson Davis.
Whatever the cause they fought for, George Washington and Robert E. Lee are honored and respected by friends and enemies alike. They had an aura of greatness, integrity and honor that cannot be veiled by prejudice.
Stephen Vincent Benet wrote some lines to Lee in his poem, John Brown’s Body; somehow, they seem to describe both Washington and Lee equally well.
“For he will smile
And give you, with unflinching courtesy,
Prayers, trappings, letters, uniforms and orders,
Photographs, kindness, valor and advice,
And do it with such grace and gentleness
That you will know you have the whole of him
Pinned down, mapped out, easy to understand-
And so you have.
All things except the heart
The heart he kept himself, that answers all.
For here was someone who lived all his life
In the most fierce and open light of the sun,
Wrote letters freely, did not guard his speech,
Listened and talked with every sort of man,
And kept his heart a secret to the end
From all the picklocks of biographers.”