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Television Review

A sharp look at a legend

Documentary examines the life of Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee, son of a Revolutionary War hero, was lionized by the South during the Civil War and deified after it. Robert E. Lee, son of a Revolutionary War hero, was lionized by the South during the Civil War and deified after it. (Library of Congress)
By Sam Allis
Globe Staff / January 3, 2011

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No one knows quite what to do with Robert E. Lee.

James McPherson, the distinguished Civil War historian, writes, “Here was the irony of Robert E. Lee: His success produced the destruction of everything he fought for.’’

In “Robert E. Lee,’’ the “American Experience’’ documentary that airs tonight on Channel 2, we get as good a look at him as we’re likely to get. While fresh insights into his inner self are few, we gain a broader understanding of the man, buttressed by a strong roster of Lee specialists who appear on camera.

The program is also a splendid kickoff of the 150th anniversary year of the beginning of the Civil War. (Next Monday, at the same time, “American Experience’’ will re-air an earlier documentary on Lee’s nemesis, Union commander Ulysses S. Grant.)

Lee grew to believe his own myth of invincibility. He was sure that his soldiers — ragged, exhausted, and starving by the end of the war — could do anything he asked of them. They couldn’t, as he learned at Gettysburg.

He was a brilliant commander but also the bloodiest general in US history in percentage of casualties among his soldiers, according to University of Virginia Civil War history professor Gary Gallagher, who speaks on camera in the documentary. He was bewildered when the Confederacy lost the war because he held with a moral certainty that the Southern cause was the righteous one.

The program tells his story through paintings and photographs during and after the war to decent effect. Lee is almost unrecognizable in portraits as a younger man, with a shock of black hair. Early in the war, his hair turned the white we recognize. Director-writer-producer Mark Zwonitzer takes us into the battles he fought, and provides a good grasp of what happened and why in victory and defeat, including the Second Bull Run, Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and beyond.

Lee was opaque, which is what makes him so fascinating. Because of that, we see in him what we want to see. While he was the epitome of a leader to his troops, he was a distant figure to everyone.

He wrote no memoir and died five years after the war in a rented house in Lexington, taking his secrets with him. (He had been president of tiny Washington College in Virginia after the war.)

Lee was lionized by the Confederacy during the Civil War and deified after it. Countless statues appeared across the South of him atop a horse, presumably Traveller, his favorite in real life. These memorials anchored “The Lost Cause’’ thesis that dominated Confederate thinking throughout the Jim Crow South and up to the present in some quarters.

The Lost Cause holds that the brave men who fell for the Confederacy did so for states’ rights, not slavery. This was the explanation given for the Secession Ball held in Charleston, S.C., just last month. (McPherson, among other historians, demolishes this argument.)

Robert Edward Lee was born into Virginia aristocracy. His father, “Light-horse Harry Lee,’’ was a hero in the Revolutionary War. But if his father was a fiery character, Lee was a cool one, shaped by correctness and self-discipline.

He attended West Point, ending up first in his class and free of a single demerit. He was called “the marble model’’ by some of his fellow students for his relentless pursuit of perfection. This was not a compliment.

Lee distinguished himself as an officer in the Mexican War and returned to his wife, Mary. If he was an aristocrat, she was Virginia royalty, Mary Custis, a step-great-granddaughter of Martha Washington, who came with almost 200 slaves and Arlington, the grand mansion they lived in that is now part of a national cemetery in Virginia by the same name.

He enjoyed the life of a Southern gentleman, which included his wife’s slaves. His moral compass never collided with his love of the antebellum South. When Abraham Lincoln offered him the command of the Union troops, he declined.

Lee was lauded after his death by the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, fellow aristocrats who neglected to mention slavery in their encomiums. Roosevelt went so far as to call him, “the very greatest of all the great captains that the English-speaking peoples have brought forth.’’

“Robert E. Lee’’ does Lee a service by liberating him from such hyperbole. The man does fine on his own. The program also helps us grasp that while the marble man lives on, cracks in him are there for those who choose to look.

Sam Allis can be reached at allis@globe.com.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the place where Robert E. Lee died. Lee died in Lexington, Va.

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: ROBERT E. LEE

On: Channel 2

Time: Tonight, 9-10:30