Must See TV – American Experience: Robert E. Lee
PBS’ outstanding American Experience series turns its spotlight on the Civil War with a superb biography of the iconic Confederate commander, General Robert E. Lee. As we’ve come to expect from PBS, the Lee biography has been created with the same attention to detail, historical accuracy, high production values, marvelous technical expertise and riveting visual appeal that made Ken Burns’ The Civil War a triumph. Like Burns’ earlier series, American Experience: Robert E. Lee is a “must have” DVD (scheduled for release January 25, 2011) as well as “must watch” TV when PBS debuts the program Monday, January 3, 2011 at 9:00 p.m. (8:00 p.m. Central).
For this comprehensive examination of Lee’s life, director Mark Zwonitzer assembled a stellar group of renowned historians, including Joseph Glatthaar, Gary Gallagher and Emory Thomas, and their comments about Lee’s life, career and legacy are insightful and make for compelling viewing. This production reveals the “real R. E. Lee,” not the “Marble Man” of myth and legend. Lee is shown to have been a complicated, often-conflicted human being, who put the demands of his military career ahead of home and family life, and when Civil War tore the country apart, he ultimately chose allegiance to his state, Virginia, instead of to the United States – when Lee referred to “my country” he meant his home state of Virginia, not the United States.
The program concentrates more on Lee’s character than on his military actions. Although most of his important Mexican War and, of course, Civil War battles are covered, this production does not include any in-depth, “bugles and drums,” detailed analysis of the actions and maneuvers of Lee’s forces or extensive critiques of his battle command. Civil War actions are covered in a “macro,” big picture approach, meaning that it is not – nor was it intended to be – a comprehensive battle analysis of his campaigns. Yet, since Lee’s entire adult life was devoted to military service, “Lee the Soldier” is an important and integral part of the story of Lee’s life presented in this excellent production. The on-air historians certainly recognize Lee’s skills as a commander, rightly commenting on his personal impact on the war and in particular its duration. Widely acknowledged in the ante-bellum U. S. Army as its finest soldier, Lee’s battlefield skills are cited by the program’s historians as likely prolonging the Confederacy’s struggle long after victory was impossible.
One important era of Lee’s life that the production does not examine in great depth, however, is the final chapter in his life, from his 1865 surrender to Union Army commanding general, U. S. Grant to his death in 1870. For a comprehensive study of that critical era, I recommend Charles Bracelen Flood’s outstanding book, Lee: The Last Years (Mariner Books, 1998). Lee’s stature in the South at the end of the war placed him in a position to greatly influence how Southerners, devastated by the war, adjusted to the Union victory (and military occupation that lasted until 1876). Lee publicly and privately championed reconciliation, urging former Confederate soldiers and young Southerners reaching manhood in the wake of the war to become good, productive United States citizens and to help rebuild their shattered lives and society. Lee’s image as a symbol of the “Lost Cause” was undoubtedly co-opted by the Southern die-hards who opposed Reconstruction as this film claims, but their most egregious actions to restore the pre-war status quo were largely undertaken after Lee’s death.
We urge you not to miss this “Must See TV” program on January 3, and highly recommend adding the DVD as a “Must Have” addition to your video library.
Additional “Must See TV” Alert: One week following the debut of the Lee biography, on Monday, January 10 at 9pm (8pm Central), PBS will present an encore presentation of American Experience – Ulysses S. Grant, Warrior President (2002). “Paired” with the Lee biography, this program on Grant represents the second half of an outstanding and highly appropriate “two-fer” to kick off the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War.
Frequent ArmchairGeneral.com and HistoryNet.com contributor Jay Wertz compares the style of "Robert E. Lee" with previous American Experience programs, on our partner site, HistoryNet.