Robert E. Lee
American Experience DVD
The conflict that began in 1861 never quite ended. Look at Robert E. Lee, often mythologized as a man of marble who personifies the chivalric South. Instead of a civil war triggered by slavery, a moral dilemma that was a political and economic time bomb, Confederate apologists see their knight leading a second American revolution to preserve states’ rights, until crushed beneath massed blue hordes and materiel. There is, of course, some truth to this. But slavery’s enshrined centrality in the Confederate constitution, for one, suggests its limits.
Featuring leading scholars like Gary Gallagher, voiced-over correspondence and stunning visuals, this evenhanded American Experience episode seeks to retrieve and explore the historical rather than legendary Lee—not to denigrate, but to understand him as an extraordinary leader living in a confusing, volatile time. What results is thoughtful and far from radical. But it is unvarnished, and will likely make Lee idolaters unhappy.
With a father who was both glorious Revolutionary War hero and infamous debtor-scam artist, young Robert E. Lee had much to live up to and a lot to live down. He early developed fierce self-discipline, which he expected those around him to share: Fellow West Point cadets were the first to recognize him as a marble man, which for them wasn’t great praise. But Lee, at the top of his class, was on the road to greatness— even more clearly when he wed Mary Ann Randolph Custis, George Washington’s great-granddaughter and scion of Virginia’s noblest families, with thousands of acres and hundreds of slaves. They remained deeply committed through long separations, and Lee did his utmost by letter to be a loving absentee parent.
For nearly 20 years, Lee admirably discharged the peacetime army’s engineering duties, erecting fortifications, improving ports and so on. The Mexican War gave the 40-year-old his golden opportunity to shine in combat. Thanks to his reconnaissance skills and bravery, General Winfield Scott’s daring stab at Mexico City worked. Peace fell heavily on Lee; as manager of his wife’s estates, he was very severe with slaves. When the country lurched toward war, Virginia initially refused to secede, and he waited. Fort Sumter decided them both. Offered command of the Union Army by his mentor Scott, Lee resigned to lead his beloved state’s troops.
His overcautious generalship got him despised as “Granny” Lee; he was shelved as a field commander until Joseph Johnston was wounded in mid- 1862. Now aggressive, strategically and tactically wily, a bigger thinker than most friends or foes, Lee forged the Army of Northern Virginia into a risk-taking force able to punch well above its weight. His troops adored him, but it cost them dearly: In this brutal war of attrition, Lee became the bloodiest general in U.S. history.
As Lee’s fortunes twist and turn toward Appomattox and after, we come to see him as a tragic, almost Shakespearean figure: a great man with limits he can’t always recognize making difficult choices, sometimes inspired, sometimes with horrific results for his country, his state, his family and himself. Sadly, this may upset those who prefer marble saints to real heroes.
Originally published in the April 2011 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.