Dear PBS and His­tory Chan­nel

As Lee doc opens Civil War 150th, con­sider fresh ways to look back

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS&STYLE - BY HANK STUEVER

It seems we have about four years of Civil War sesqui­cen­ten­nial stuff ahead of us, which is good news­for his­tory prof­san­dreen­act­ment­d­weebs, but what­doe­sit­mean­for tele­vi­sion? Lookingacross the corpse-strewn­field of CivilWar doc­u­men­taries that have­come­be­fore, one­doesn’t yet see much hope of any­one out­do­ing Ken Burns’s epic se­ries of 1990. But there’s plenty of time and plenty of work left to be done.

“Robert E. Lee,” a sturdy new doc­u­men­tary from the folks at pub­lic tele­vi­sion’s “Amer­i­can Ex­pe­ri­ence” se­ries, airs Mon­day night, but it isn’t much of a stir­ring open­ing salvo in ret­ro­spec­tives. To its credit, it ex­hibits an art­fully taut, no-non­sense ap­proach that re­lies on doc­u­ments, draw­ings, paint­ings, pho­to­graphs, ex­perts and sim­ple nar­ra­tion, all prin­ci­pally guided by the tiny type in its sub­ti­tle: “AtWar With His Coun­try . . . and Him­self.” (I’m just re­lieved nowa­days when these docs don’t have B-list TV ac­tors re-cre­at­ing his­tor­i­cal mo­ments, and this one doesn’t.)

Ap­par­ently not much new has hap­pened­toLee’s legacy whileyou and I were busy not pay­ing at­ten­tion to Civil War schol­ar­ship, at least judg­ing from the con­tent of “Robert E. Lee.” We’remet with no bi­o­graph­i­cal bomb­shells, undis­cov­ered off­spring or re­cently un­earthed doc­u­ments. The film, by MarkZ­wonitzerandMark Samels, posit­snoground­break­ingth­e­o­ries about Lee’s psy­cho­log­i­cal state, in­te­rior life or mil­i­tary prow­ess. Lee still is what he al­ways was to most of us: a statue, an ad­dress, an icon of the old (and new) South— and, to us good ol’ boys who adored late-1970s prime-time schlock, a nick­name for the mus­cle car in the “The Dukes ofHaz­zard.”

YetLee’s story re­mains a cen­tral and fas­ci­nat­ing el­e­ment of the great Amer­i­can con­flict: Born in 1807 into the Vir­ginia elite, this son ofanArmy colonelandVir­ginia gover­nor was ed­u­cated at West Point, where the gru­el­ing aus­ter­ity and hard work in­stilled in him a life­long ado­ra­tion for dis­ci­pline, obe­di­ence­and­honor. He served in theU.S. Army, build­ing his rep­u­ta­tion in cam­paigns through the Mex­i­can in­te­rior. As a hand­some young man, he suc­cess­fully wooed and mar­ried one of the up­per­most young­womenof Ar­ling­ton so­ci­ety (Mary Custis, step-grand­daugh­ter toGe­orgeWash­ing­ton).

Then it goes a lit­tle wrong or a lot right— or a lit­tle right and a lot wrong. That one can take is­sue with how schol­ars por­tray Lee’s de­ci­sion in 1861 to re­sign hisArmy post and join the Con­fed­er­acy is merely the first sigh in a long talk about un­re­solved vibes that lurk be­neath his­tory. In­stead of an­other bi­og­ra­phy, I’d watch a thought­ful doc­u­men­tary about mod­ern­day South­ern­ers and the ways they re­vere their sainted Gen­eral Lee, and I hope such projects are in the pipe­line.

“Robert E. Lee” ex­hibits no am­biva­lence about the man or his de­ci­sion to rebel. He was the pic­ture of val­o­randyethe­waswrong. The film sum­mons forth a smat­ter­ing of en­dowed-chair aca­demics and other his­tory pro­fes­sors— Civil War ex­perts all — to ex­plain howLee backed the wrong side for the wrong rea­sons.

In short, he was a slav­ery apol­o­gist­who­let hisownOldDo­min­ion snob­bery and sense of honor lead himto a right­eous path ofwar. “He cer­tainly never ques­tioned the val­ues of his class,” his­tory pro­fes­sorMichaelFell­man ob­serves.“He would talk about ‘my peo­ple’ ... the white peo­ple of his so­cial class, born to rule. His honor is in­volved in the de­fense of his ‘peo­ple.’ ”

Com­pli­cated, ill-tem­pered, rigid, mean; en­tirely gray-haired just six months into the war; ini­tially dis­re­spected by his troops and re­viled by the Con­fed­er­ate cit­i­zenry. But then tides turn— some bat­tles are­won— and the trans­for­ma­tion be­gins, lead­ing to de­feat but also lead­ing to im­mor­tal­ity.

Yes, I’ve glossed over a lot (please don’t hit send on the irate e-mails), an­drest as­sured, “Robert E. Lee” moves at a much more rea­son­able pace. The doc is ready for Teach to pop it into the DVD player and take up two, per­haps three, days of fifth-pe­riod les­son plans. ( With sup­ple­men­tal teach­ing ma­te­rial avail­able on­line!)

But why not take a moment to think about what we want to see onTVabout the CivilWar­be­tween now and 2015? This could al­most be an open let­ter to PBS, theHis­tory Chan­nel and any­one else who feels up to the task.

As the an­niver­saries of this skir­mish and that bat­tle trun­dle through, I’m more ea­ger to know of the do­mes­tic de­tails of the 1860s, nuggets of ev­ery­day life on the pe­riph­ery of the Civil War. In the 21st cen­tury, weare­moreemo­tion­ally and aca­dem­i­cally equipped to re­visit the war era through the eyes of blacks, Na­tive Amer­i­cans and women. We are more able to have con­ver­sa­tions about cul­ture, fashion, food, song — all the things that ex­ist on the mar­gins.

To use “Robert E. Lee” for one handy ex­am­ple of what I’m look­ing for, it barely glimpses the life of Mary Custis Lee, who, for a num­ber of rea­sons, sparked my in­ter­est this time— per­haps even more than my in­ter­est in her hus­band’s role in the CivilWar.

One of the film’s more in­ter­est­ing, fleet­ing tan­gents quotes a let­ter from Lee scold­ing his daugh­ters for at­tend­ing too many so­cial events while bat­tles raged and tens of thou­sands of men died. This res­onates in to­day’s cul­ture, in­which­so­manyAmer­i­cans­gooff to fight a war on the other side of the world while the rest ofus party on. (Lee’sdaugh­tersseem­to­havea paid a price any­how, re­main­ing un­mar­ried all their lives. Why­was this? How about a doc­u­men­tary on that?)

“Robert E. Lee” should in no way have to shoul­der this wish list in its con­cise90min­utes. It’san­ice ap­pe­tizer. Lee, we can all agree, was a whole lotta man.

Yet it would be a shame to squan­der the sesqui­cen­ten­nial on too many trips to the same old bat­tle­fields to re­ex­am­ine well­doc­u­mented troop move­ments; to spend more time quot­ing the letters sent to and from Rich­mond; to enu­mer­ate body counts and re­assess failed strate­gies once more. How come the Civil War al­ways has so much guy stuff, mil­i­tary stuff, white stuff? Doesn’t it be­long to all Amer­i­cans by now?

Robert E. Lee


A LIFE AND LEG­END: Robert E. Lee’s story is fas­ci­nat­ing, though this doc­u­men­tary presents lit­tle his­tory we don’t know.

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