On Monday, January 3, 2011, PBS will be premiering the latest installment in its American Experience series, which will focus on the life of Robert E. Lee, and I was given the opportunity--pleasure, really--to get an advanced screening of this program.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Robert E. Lee holds a central place in the history of the American Civil War; indeed, there are few other individuals so closely associated with this four-year conflict and few so well known. There are also few today who would deny that Lee ranked among the best officers of the war, despite his ultimate defeat and surrender.
I have long been interested in Robert E. Lee, and everyday at the battlefield I try to make sense of his motivations during the Maryland Campaign of September 1862 and his actions while on campaign and on the field of battle. And despite all my best efforts at maintaining objectivity, I have had complaints, especially from those who revere Lee, but also from those who do not. For example, once when I stated simply that "on the night of September 18, Lee led his defeated army in retreat across the Potomac," a gentleman interrupted, stating that Lee did not retreat from Maryland but rather "strategically withdrew" and thus emerged the victor since he escaped to fight another day. On the other hand, a young visitor--she must have been but nine or ten years old--asked me after one of my programs, "Why do people like Lee so much? Wasn't he like the biggest traitor in American history?"
The Robert E. Lee I am most interested in is the real Robert E. Lee and not this mythical construct that has come to dominate most traditional interpretations, a Lee constructed by the Lost Cause school of Civil War historiography, which depicts him as something of a caricature, a "marble man" who could do no wrong. We are made to believe that, although Lee cast his lot with the Confederacy after the secession of Virginia, that he opposed secession; we are made to believe that Lee was not a supporter of slavery (simply incorrect), even though he led an army fighting for the establishment of a slaveholding nation; we are made to believe that the odds stacked against him were too insurmountable, yet Lee himself would never have viewed the war as a lost cause for the Confederacy.
Lee was a soldier, and a good one, a very good one. He was a brilliant engineer and a gifted military man, who, on some occasions did seemingly defy the odds. But, most of all, Lee was a human being who did make mistakes and who did meet with battlefield defeat through his own doings and actions. He did not receive a single demerit at West Point, true, but he shared that distinction with no less than five of his classmates in the graduating class of 1829. He took an oath to protect and defend the United States of America and turned in a number of creditable performances during the Mexican-American War, causing Winfield Scott to declare him the "best soldier" in the American army. Yet he betrayed that oath when he chose to raise his sword against his nation, though not against his state. We are made to believe that this was a difficult choice for Lee, which it no doubt was. Yet that same choice was presented to such figures as George Thomas, David Farragut, and even Winfield Scott who, like Lee, were Southern-born, and they opted to honor that oath. But as opposed to Lee, I have seen no romanticized paintings of these officers pacing their front parlors, wringing their hands, considering what path to follow; I have heard no such fables of this dilemma as it pertained to these men, only to Lee, who seems to have been the only one faced with this choice. Lee was a devoted husband and very affectionate father; yet he sometimes had trouble adjusting to life outside of the army, as when he tried to manage the Arlington estate following the death of his father-in-law. And he had a bad temper; at times a terrible temper. He was a strict slaveowner, at times paying for the services of slave-catchers to return his runaways; one of his slaves called him the "worst man" he ever knew. While beloved by most of his troops, Lee was also a strict disciplinarian who at many points throughout the war simply expected too much of his men, having, perhaps, unrealistic expectations of their endurance and abilities.
Produced by the award-winning Mark Zwonitzer, American Experience: Robert E. Lee does a superb job at deconstructing the myths and presenting Lee as he really was. . .a human being. In this excellent program we learn of Lee's triumphs and his defeats; we learn of his adherence to duty and devotion to family; we learn of those traits that made Lee great, and those that did not. Laden with expert commentary from the likes of Gary Gallagher, Elizabeth Brown Pryor, Peter Carmichael, Leslie Gordon, Emory Thomas and many others, Robert E. Lee provides us with a balanced and in my mind accurate assessment of the Lee the man and Lee the soldier. After viewing this program, you will walk away with a better understanding of a complex individual, one who continues to hold such a central place in American Civil War history. It is a fine work, one highly recommended.
So, set your calendars for January 3, and at 9:00 p.m., turn on PBS.