03 January 2011

A Review - Robert E. Lee On American Experience

Some time ago, I was sent a review copy of a new documentary titled "Robert E. Lee", which will air in many markets on PBS tonight, and asked to review it. I must apologize for being tardy in posting my short review so close to the airing of this film, but family and business affairs took priority. In any event, and for what it’s worth, here is my brief review and thoughts about the film.

That PBS chose Robert E. Lee to kick off its take on the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War speaks to Lee’s never-ending universal appeal and our collective interest in this Southern icon. This alone is testimony to America's fascination with Lee and the bad boys of the Confederacy. No subject concerning the WBTS seems to be able to come even close to competing. (PBS will also air, next week, a documentary on Grant - interesting that Lee airs ahead of Grant.) The airing of this documentary on PBS’s popular history series, American Experience, however, reveals moderns’ revisionist portrayal of Lee. While acknowledging Lee’s manly qualities, his imposing presence, strict adherence to duty, devotion to family, and legendary military capabilities and leadership, the viewer is, nonetheless, left with the revisionist, PC fantasy impression that Lee wasted his favored position and gifts, betrayed his oath, fought for “white supremacy” and died a bitter old man; even questioning his faith in the providence of God. I sensed in the film what historian Robert Krick has referred to as an “anti-Confederate” bias, as the narrative does not stray too far from current PC orthodoxy. 

While the film features some prominent and respected historians (Gary Gallagher, Peter Carmichael, and Emory Thomas, to name just a few) and, at times, offers some interesting commentary, it is seriously lacking of anything in-depth about Lee or, anything truthfully new. Admittedly, that would be a difficult assignment for anyone--few persons in American history have received more attention than the South’s beloved General Lee. There’s simply not much left to say about this great man.

But what was most obvious to this viewer was what the film largely ignored--Lee’s Christian faith. While the film touches on this aspect of Lee's character, it is brief and shallow and not given the consideration it deserves. As many historians have previously noted, it is impossible to understand or explain Lee absent an understanding of Lee’s faith in God. As biographer and former Washington and Lee University professor, Marshall Fishwick noted in his wonderful little biography about Lee:

Lee’s genius was essentially military; but his greatness was essentially religious. He cannot be understood against a background of politics, philosophy or polemics. All efforts to find Lee’s “secret” have failed because they have followed the wrong leads.

Bottom line: This film follows the wrong leads and, in doing so, it fails. 


Douglas Hill said...

Excellent closing summation you have there, Rick.

I know "Bud" Robertson says something to the effect of that the worst thing a historian can do is judge someone by modern measurements that don't fit the subject's times; that would seem to be a practice hard to avoid in a general audience documentary. While I actually caught very little of last night's program, from past experience with PBS my observations are they are not into avoidance of, but rather embracing the practice. Their moral compass seems to be a "polar opposite" of mine (Matt. 12:30).

I have some regret in not viewing the entire program last night, but likely could tolerate their treatment of Grant better than that of Gen. Lee, worship excluded.

Gary Gallagher, isn't he a student of Eric Foner?

Scott Manning said...


I caught the film last night. The heavy focus on Lee's experience in the Mexican War was a refreshing one. They also did a good job of emphasizing Winfield Scott's influence on Lee and explaining why Scott had so much confidence in Lee as a commander. Most documentaries and books simply state that Lee proved himself in the Mexican War whereas this film actually showed why.

I disagree with some of your analysis. On the religion part, I got the impression in the film that Lee simply came to religion later in life. I do not think that is necessarily downplaying it. The film still emphasized that Lee appeared to have similar religious fervor to that of Stonewall, who also believed God was orchestrating events.

The ending was indeed rough. However, I do not see how Lee could not have been disappointed after losing the war, which he sacrificed his health along with many of his friends and soldiers to win.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Hey Doug - I don't know if Mr. Gallagher is one of Foner's students or not. I'm only casually familiar with some of his (Gallagher) work.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Hey Scott - good to hear from you. Yes, they did a good job on the Scott connection, but others have done the same thing - nothing really new there.

"I got the impression in the film that Lee simply came to religion later in life."

I suppose one needs to clarify "later." Lee certainly was a religious man from his youth. However, letters indicate his faith transformed into something much more substantial during the Mexican War. Also, his wife's letters indicate her concern over her husband's spiritual condition at an early stage in their relationship. Bottom line - the facts reveal the film got it wrong on Lee's spirituality and religion in regards to the "later in life" suggestion.

"I do not see how Lee could not have been disappointed after losing the war"

Absolutely - I agree. But I got the distinct impression that the film went beyond disappointed. I was left with the impression Lee died embittered and regretted his service in the CS Army. That's pure fiction, as indicated by numerous remarks Lee made about his decision and his duty.

The remarks quoted, standing alone, leaves one with that impression. But the historians/producers left out other remarks that would have provided balance to how Lee viewed his service/sacrifice for Virginia and the South. I'm going to post a list of lesser known biographies of Lee later this evening. Several will deal with Lee's life after the war and one or two about his Christian faith.

Most will not be "more recent scholarship" (as if that automatically means "more accurate"), but are nonetheless great resources and provide another perspective on Lee's life and attitude about his service and faith.

Scott Manning said...

Richard, interesting stuff with Lee's earlier-than-supposed spiritual transformation. On another note, is there any way to set-up a subscription for your comments?

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Yes, if you get the chance, check out some of the books I'll be recommending in that next post. Subscription . . . hmmmm...you're dealing w/someone who really is not into the Tweet and RSS thing. But I believe you can click on one of the links in the sidebar and get notices of my posts. Other than that, just visit every other day or so! ;o)

Anonymous said...

I came across this site while looking for reviews of this documentary. It seemed to go out of its way to misunderstand its subject. I look forward to seeing your Lee reading list.

The Warrior said...

Great review! I'll plug you over at my blog....

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thanks Anon and W.

msimons said...

The AE series on PBS is no where near the quality it was in the 1970's and 1980's.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

AE is a creature of PBS and must, of course, remain within the confines of PC orthodoxy. As an example of how they don't like to consider other views, I contacted our local affiliate about airing a documentary about creationism, after they had aired something on Darwinism - no go. So much for "public" television.

That said, I do think many of the AE films are quite good and I enjoy watching them. One just has to sift through the PC propaganda.

CWHarktack said...

Dear Richard,

Maybe I’m being over-sensitive but I must tell you I really disliked what PBS did with this production. Here’s my own review published previously in another forum. I caught some flak for this but its my opinion and I stand by it:

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 College 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.

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

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

CW - thanks for the observations. I've never seen the A & E doc, but will try to view it some time.

Thomas Gann said...

I saw this on PBS and I thought it was lifeless and empty.If you don't research Lee's Christian faith,you will never truly meet the man.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thomas - which is why you won't meet him on this PBS film.