A few weeks back the folks at PBS’s American Experience sent me a copy of their new program on Robert E. Lee set to air next Monday night, January 3, at 9:00 PM ET. I finally got a chance to view it last night and was pleased with what I saw: a well-balanced and generally unvarnished look at the marble man, warts and all. Of course, such a view may displease many who subscribe to the belief that Lee was in the end a “pure Christian with a clean soul.” Here’s a promo:
The 83 minute program features an impressive list of “talking heads” – some usual suspects but encouragingly some newer faces as well. Here they are in what I think is their order of appearance:
- Lesley Gordon
- Michael Fellman
- Peter Carmichael
- Elizabeth Brown Pryor
- Gary Gallagher
- Emory Thomas
- Ervin Jordan
- Joseph Glatthaar
- Winston Groom
The program does a nice job of laying out Lee’s life in chronological order and identifying the influences that helped form his character: the role his father played in the early days of the Republic and his subsequent disgrace; Lee’s single-minded purpose firmed up at West Point, where he developed his sense of duty, self-discipline, denial, and achievement, and also his burning ambition. Both his courtship of Mary Custis and his experience in Mexico under Winfield Scott were lessons in the value of audacity. Lee never really felt at home at Arlington and preferred the order of military life, but in 1857 after the death of his father-in-law he returned to Arlington, where he was not a good manager of the farm and was less than kind to “insubordinate” slaves – this segment may cause some discomfort to some viewers. Lee is described as aligned with “slavery apologists” who felt slavery was far from ideal and would eventually die off but who also believed that negroes were better off as slaves and that the institution should be defended to the last. Also interestingly the commentators note that Lee did not become particularly religious until after the Mexican War, when he was having trouble adapting to the peacetime army and Mary became ill.
A better job of exploring Lee’s decision to resign from the army could have been done. Although a good amount of time was spent showing how hard the decision was, the producers could have more closely examined why, and really if, Lee and his fellows actually felt that their state was their country. Why not their section of the state? Why not their county? Why not their town? How do we explain the decision of many to side with the Confederacy despite the decisions of their states to not do so? Were these decisions based more on philosophy or, more likely, finances than on loyalty? I tried to discuss this here a while back, with disappointing results.
A little more precision could have been used in describing just what Francis Blair offered Lee – command of an army, not the army.
Lee’s role early in the war, his failures, disappointments, and physical aging are adequately discussed. Then comes his rise, reorganization of the army, and strategic vision. In the winter of 1862-63 he was plagued by bad temper, paperwork, the deaths of a daughter and two grandchildren, and possibly a heart attack. He reached his zenith at Chancellorsville, the moment “that the bond between Lee and his men was sealed.” In the wake of the wreck of his army at Gettysburg, Lee became more insistent that his men – the Confederate people, in fact – become more committed to the cause, that they could persevere because God was on their side, but that they must be brave, strong, and disciplined. He demanded that they live up to the standards to which he held himself. While desertions spiked in 1864, so too did executions [in this Lee was not unlike his father, who was admonished by Washington for his harsh treatment of deserters].
Through the Overland Campaign, Lee broke down further, until finally at North Anna he couldn’t rise from his cot to take advantage of a tactical opportunity. When his army was backed into a siege, he probably knew the gig was up but persisted as he believed it his duty as a soldier.
Post war, Lee was never able to reconcile to the defeat. He believed that his cause was just, that God was on his side, and that his men had been brave. Defeat made no sense to the engineer given the knowns of the equation – until the day he died he believed the wrong side had won the war. He never accepted reconstruction (though he publicly encouraged his countrymen to do so) and was bewildered by emancipation. In the end, he believed his life a failure, and that the great mistake of it was taking a military education in the first place.
[Perhaps the most tantalizing quote ever attributed to Lee comes at the end of Freeman’s opus, when near the end of his life he advised a southern mother to teach her infant son that he “must deny himself.” If God was on the side of the south, if the cause was just, if the soldiers were brave, then were they and their people not disciplined enough to achieve victory? What did folks like Jefferson and de Tocqueville think along these lines even before the war? Was this what Lee meant by his advice?]
Don’t get me wrong – the program is no hit piece, and the above paragraph presents thoughts that ran through my head as I watched. Your mileage may vary. Give it a whirl Monday at 9:00 PM ET.