Monday, December 6, 2010

PBS' "The American Experience: Robert E. Lee"

On January 3, 2011, the PBS series “The American Experience” will air an episode on Robert E. Lee and the folks at PBS kindly offered me the opportunity to view the show in advance. Going in, I knew they had quite a challenge. First, they faced the daunting prospect of telling the story of one of America’s most iconic but most misunderstood and enigmatic historical figures in a documentary only 83 minutes long. Further, there would be the matter of what approach to take. Would they simply reiterate the version of Lee and his life dictated by the 19th century leaders of the Lost Cause and Lee’s great 20th century biographer, Douglas Southall Freeman? After all, that is the one most familiar to the American public at large. Or, would they take a deeper look at the Confederate general based upon more recent scholarship and historiography? In other words, would Lee be presented in the saintly perfection from the former or as the flawed and very human, but still admirable man from the latter?

Let me say that, as to the first challenge, the producers of this documentary did a truly remarkable job of telling Lee’s complex story to a popular audience in a very short period of time. Robert E. Lee was a man with many facets, many layers, and, for this film's producers, trying to communicate the most important of those within a fixed set of minutes, and do so in an entertaining fashion, had to be difficult—but this documentary succeeds in its task. Using an impressive group of historians to provide commentary, among them Elizabeth Brown Pryor, Gary Gallagher, Emory Thomas, and Joseph Glatthaar, the documentary weaves an accurate depiction of Lee, both as a general and as a human being, and it is one that I believe most Americans will probably find fascinating. Moreover, it will be fascinating precisely because it does not portray him as the man of marble, as the cold, perfect equestrian figure that populates so many monuments across the American South.

To be sure, serious students of the Civil War and historians, like me, will note the absence of details, of key pieces to the Lee puzzle. For example, I found the lack of discussion about Lee’s childhood as an important omission. The documentary does discuss his father, “Light Horse Harry” Lee, and how the one time Revolutionary War hero lost the family fortune, including their ancestral home, Stratford Hall. In doing so, he essentially destroyed the Lee family name, removing it from among the first families of Virginia. However, at the same time, the film does not make the clear link between those tragic events and how they impacted Robert E. Lee’s childhood and, furthermore, how they created the younger Lee’s driving ambition to succeed and restore his family’s name. Nevertheless, in my opinion, the producers of the film can be forgiven such minor sins of omission because the picture of Lee they do provide is so much closer to reality than that to which most Americans have previously been exposed.

The film clearly portrays Robert E. Lee as a man of tremendous energy, ability, courage, intellect, discipline and, above all, ambition. The latter is also clearly shown to be the primary reason for his resignation from the U.S. Army and his subsequent entry into the service of Virginia and the Confederacy, as opposed to the Lost Cause legend that has him doing so purely out of “love” for his home state. The documentary also dispenses with the myth of Lee as an opponent of slavery, who ironically and tragically led the greatest army of a nation dedicated to the preservation and expansion of that institution. Instead, it relates how he had his runway slaves whipped and, in one case, told his overseer to “lay on” whipping one runaway female slave with more gusto. As such, he is accurately described as a classic Southern “slavery apologist,” who, while somewhat uncomfortable with the morality of owning human beings, believed slavery provided a better life for blacks than they would have lived in Africa and, as Lee would himself state, one that was “necessary for their instruction as a race.” Even more so, he is shown as the true Southern aristocrat that he was, as a man who believed in the Southern social system and the superiority not of the white race, but of only those whites wealthy enough to own plantations and wield power.

The film also depicts Lee as a man truly driven by his demons, almost to the point where he felt he must deny himself any personal pleasure in life. In doing so, it also demonstrates that Lee would inflict that philosophy of denial and that capacity for suffering upon those he would command in the Army of Northern Virginia. When watching the film, we see that Lee not only created the Army of Northern Virginia by force of his own personality but also led it as an extension of that same personality. This meant that he would lead it to victory via audacity and sometimes brilliant risk taking. However, it also meant that he would believe his army was capable of being driven far beyond what normal men could endure—and, as the documentary accurately states, that was a great part of that army’s eventual downfall.

Finally, this episode of “The American Experience” does the American public the great service of telling them what happened after Lee’s death in 1870, of how Jubal Early and his supporters deliberately canonized Lee as the patron saint of the Lost Cause. In doing so, they masked the true Lee from history for more than a century after his death. But this film lifts that mask and will help people understand that there was a far more interesting man, and, perhaps, even a far more admirable one, beneath all the marble on those statues.

I realize that there will be some people who will not like this film, especially those who have Freeman’s biography of Lee sitting on a special bookshelf in their home or office, right below a portrait of Robert E. Lee. Believe me when I tell you that such people do exist. They are more comfortable with Lee as a saint, as a deity, than they are with him as a mere mortal. However, as for the rest of us, let’s enjoy this wonderful documentary and the light it casts on a fascinating man and his role in a defining chapter of our history.

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