Friday, April 15, 2011

Robert E. Lee - A Tragic Figure in the American Experience

Watch the full episode. See more American Experience.

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

I have finally sat down to watch The American Experience: Robert E. Lee. Being the avid fan of well-done documentaries, I must say that I was not disappointed - at least not for the most part. We are treated to a mighty fine cast of historians providing the analytical commentary including Peter S. Carmichael, Joseph Glathaar, Gary W. Gallagher, Emory M. Thomas and a number of other first-rate scholars. PBS provides the narration and additional analysis - and as it turns out, a link to a streaming version! So watch and enjoy right here on Cosmic America! Oh, and by the way - you might want to watch the video (if you haven't already) before you continue reading. I wouldn't want to blow the ending.

The emphasis of Robert E. Lee is a move away from the deity in bronze or marble man image that the mighty general has ascended to since his death in 1870. The program paints the Virginia aristocrat as an altogether human figure. A human with an almost obsessive devotion to duty above all else, even family. The film walks us through the life of Lee as a young cadet at West Point, as Winfield Scott's trusted staffer in the War With Mexico, through a religious conversion experience, and as an ardent Confederate nationalist. He is irritable during the 1862-63 winter, at one point humiliating a subordinate in front of others. He experiences a bout of melancholy when he learns of family tragedy, and he suffers from an incapacitating heart condition. In other words - a man with emotions, faults, flaws, idiosyncrasies, and illness...just what we might expect of any other man.

Except that this is Robert E. Lee - and the film is very conscious of letting us know that many - both in the North and South - saw Lee as infallible...a virtuous, honorable soldier in a noble cause.

But Lee is a man who failed. He failed on an epic scale and saw everything that he stood for crumble. No one knew this better than Lee himself. So ultimately, Lee is a tragic figure. A man who on one hand was as virtuous as one can be, but who on the other saw no real problem with slavery and led an army to preserve it. In 1865, his country is defeated, his fortune is gone, his beloved Virginia is in ruins, and his family is only a shadow of what it once was. He spends the few remaining of his life in bitter private reflection.

And thus my critique of Robert E. Lee. The general narration of the film has a somewhat apologetic, even sorrowful tone - it seems to empathize with a man who has lost everything because of a devotion to duty. Do we then walk away from this film feeling as though Lee deserved better than what he got? Even Lee himself once stated that he wished he had not chosen the life of a soldier. Should we wish the same?

Lee is among the most compelling figures in American history. His brilliance and military acumen deserve accolades. But many have a difficult time reconciling this with the fact that a man of such great virtues committed treason against the nation he swore to protect - as does Robert E. Lee.

The film seems to poke a little at this nagging problem. The opening segments - "Lee" reading his pledge of allegiance to the United States as a young army officer bookended by a closing segment of a much older "Lee" reading his oath of loyalty to those same United States suggest that we should think more about his commitment to the national state.

In the end this is the real tragedy - that Lee, with all the promise of a brilliant career, cast his lot with what U. S. Grant would call "the worst cause for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse." One could argue that he stood up to be counted in utter disregard of his devotion to duty - and thus turned his back on his nation and indeed - himself. In this the film only makes slight inroads - ones that perhaps are left for a future documentary.



1 comment:

  1. Robert E Lee was virtually nothing like we have been told. In his own handwriting, for example, we now know that he was obsessed with his mulatto slave girls who escaped, with their newborn infants. Lee keep extensive and repeated notes in his own account books, regarding their capture.

    He offered - and paid -- six times his normal bounty for the return of one specific mulatto girl. Lee's bounty hunters tracked her for about six months, finally catching her.

    Lee had the girl brought to him, and immediately had her tied up and tortured. He screamed at her during her torture. He then apparently sold her child.

    According to the book by Lee admirer Elizabeth Pryor, this is all true. She claims the torture of his slaves was "due to his poor cross cultural communication skills" and that Lee "didn't appreciate his slave's desire to be free".

    YOu have to give Pryor credit for validating the torture itself, via his own hand written notes. But her excuses for Lee don't hold up. Of course Lee knew about his slaves desire to be free -- they kept running away, as Pryor points out herself. She says Lee had "an epidemic" of run aways.

    Furthermore, Lee was not against slavery whatsoever,as is oft reported. Those who claim he was against slavery, point out a letter to his wife, that says slavery is obviously a "political evil". But the letter goes on. HE also writes that God intended slavery to be painful, and that pain "is necessary for their instruction".

    He writes that slavery is a "spiritual liberty" for the owner, and that God intended it be. Man can not end slavery, Lee wrote, only God can. And God might free the slaves -- in 2000 years.

    Given that Lee was literally torturing his slaves, and selling their children, his letter takes on a far different tone, than his admirers have been able to admit.

    Lee's own handwritten papers -- specifically his account books -- still exist. Pryor had access to them. What she found may be the tip of the iceberg. She gave us a peek, but we don't know if there is much more. For example, do his papers show he sold the white looking baby sold to his mulatto girl? Where did that white looking baby go?

    Hold on to your hat, folks. The more that comes out, about the real Lee, the harder it will be to pretend he was some lofty "nearly perfect" man.