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Posted on Dec 27, 2010 in Stuff We Like

Must See TV – American Experience: Robert E. Lee

By Jerry D. Morelock

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 and contributor Jay Wertz compares the style of "Robert E. Lee" with previous American Experience programs, on our partner site, HistoryNet.


  1. As an amateur historian of the Civil War (I’ve been studying it since the age of 8, I am now 48), I was deeply disturbed with the ‘American Experience’ ‘portrayal’ of Robert E. Lee. It left out SO MANY facts and information, and it seemed to be ‘trying’ to put Robert E. Lee in the MOST negative light possible; it was borderline ‘Slander’ and ‘Contemptible’. Obviously there was an invisible ‘Liberal’ hand at the controls of this production of manipulation of history. It must be a profitable way to make a living. If I lacked the character of moral fortitude and respect for the truth, I could make a living at it too.

  2. I too believe that the revisionist history portraying Lee as a maniacal, ambition-driven racist is completely unfair. Two good specific and glaring examples of the lack of objectivity by the “historians” who participated in this documentary: 1) the mischaracterization of general order 9 as a bitter and angry rant and refusal to surrender when the order was simply a letter of love from a general to his troops, and 2) the actual statement (i rewound this 3 times thanks to my cable box because i could not believe a credible historian could make such a ridiculous unfounded asssertion) that Lee “hid” in the last years of his life at Washington College as a bitter, unrepentant, and angry man- the anti-Chrisitian aspect of the contributors was also readily apparent and evident- no mention of Lee’s reconciliation efforts to educate young men in the way of peace, no mention of the St. Paul’s communion with the freed slave after the war, no mention of Lee’s beautiful effort to build the Chapel at W &L – just a running slander of Lee’s belief in the almighty- please judge a man by his fruits not his mistakes- a very sad one-sided affair- the best history on PBS is of course on Antique Roadshow, but if you want political commentary in the guise of history, watch this episode of the American Experience…in the best tradtion of PBS it has all of the political innuedo of the recent Jaun Williamsesque affair, with none of the objectivity and fairness of real American history but the biggest sin of the show is the twisting of history to diminsh .Lee’s firm conviction and faith in the Everlasting Man- was Lee’s cause wrong? Absolutely. In the final analysis, Christianity prevailed in South, North, East and West, and Lee knew his Redeemer- just examine the fruits of his life in the end.

  3. When historical fact is disregarded to satisfy a particular audience we
    can’t call it a documentary. Lee begged Grant for rations? A lie according to every account of those present including Grant. This rewrite of history can’t tarnish Lee’s legendary life, so thouroughly examined in the century and a half since his death. The world mourned then for one of the greatest men of all time. To attempt to
    Discredit him is scandelous at best.

  4. The following is taken from my Amazon review of this show:

    I totally agree with those reviewers who insist this documentary is pointedly biased against Robert E. Lee. It’s as if the writers and producers of the show had as their aim to find and emphasize every negative personal trait they could discover about the man without any attempt to balance this against his numerous (and they are numerous) more positive qualities. This disappoints but doesn’t surprise me, for we now live in an era when one cannot say anything much positive about Lee and others like him who fought on the side of the Confederacy. To do so is to risk being branded a racist and bigot. Lee committed the unpardonable sin of fighting against the Union, and presumably the abolition of slavery, and thus deserves to be soundly trashed at every turn.

    As to the claim that he lived out his last years as “a bitter and despondent man,” I would only add that, while this may or may not be true, it is equally accurate to say he also spent those years vigorously engaged in planting the fertile seeds of what would eventually become Washington and Lee University. It’s a well established part of the record that Lee was offered numerous lucrative business propositions after the war, affording him the opportunity, had he chosen to take it, to make a lot of money. He chose to reject all of these offers in favor of working on behalf of Washington University because he felt very strongly he had a moral and ethical duty to help prepare the next generation of Southern men to participate fully and loyally in this new United States of America. Nary a word of any of this is spoken of in the PBS documentary. (One wonders, after watching it, how even Traveller could have put up with him!)

    For a more balanced view of this remarkable if flawed man, I would recommend the A&E Biography segment on Lee.

  5. As a postscript I have contacted the makers of this program . I offerered ten thousand dollars to WGBH (the Boston public television station where it originated) if they can prove that Lee begged Grant for rations.

    • I do remember from more serious history of the period that supplies for Lee’s army had been sent by train to meet the army west of Richmond, but that these supplies were intercepted by the federals- aided a union sympathizer in the provisioning department and it was these very foodstuffs captured by Grant which were offered by Grant to Lee’s starving troops. The PBS fails to mention the fact that Lee freed the slaves inherited from Custis at the end of the 5 year period at the end of 1862 and before Lincoln’s Emancipation of Slaves “in the areas in rebellion”- and listen to how the narrator’s voice drops when he speaks those words- hoping, no doubt, to help us forget that had Lee not freed the slaves of Arlington, as Arlington was under Federal control, they would not have been freed by Lincoln’s emancipation. Also telling is the passing in silence of Lee’s urging the Confederate government to allow slaves to be enrolled in the Confederate army and thus earn freedom for themselves and their families “as part as a general emancipation”. The PBS doc was a hatchet job on one truly honorable American.

  6. With all these silly westbies, such a great page keeps my internet hope alive.


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