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PBS’ ‘Robert E. Lee’ documentary draws a portrait of a complex man

From horseback, he gazes out across parks and boulevards all over the American South. He lends his name to high schools, colleges and the iconic Dodge Charger in “The Dukes of Hazzard.” To some followers he’s “the marble man,” born to be made into statuary.

So it’s tempting for people today who don’t see Gen. Robert E. Lee as unambiguously heroic to try to push him right out of his saddle. But a debunking approach didn’t seem right to Mark Zwonitzer, whose new American Experience documentary on the Civil War figure broadcasts on PBS on Monday. (2011 marks the start of the war’s 150th anniversary.)

“I think the myth of Robert E. Lee — the marble man — has kind of aged out,” says Zwonitzer, a Connecticut-based documentary producer and author on American history. “I thought that by this point you could take a look at how he really was, without setting up the myth and knocking it down. We’re at a stage now where you can play it straight.”

Playing it straight still offers plenty of surprises, and Lee emerges as a complex, even, at times, tormented figure. “Robert E. Lee” shows the proud Virginian’s fierce ambition and discipline as a young man. He emerged from battlefield success in the Mexican War as one the United States Army’s rising stars.

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The film also describes the general’s anguish over the declaration of Southern secession and the ensuing conflict: Lee originally wanted to sit out the war rather than fight against the U.S. forces he had served for decades.

Lee’s life, Zwonitzer says, had been dedicated to ideas of honor and loyalty instilled during his gentrified Virginia upbringing and his education at West Point.

“But when it came time to decide which side he was going to fight for,” the filmmaker says, “those things weren’t enough. They didn’t point him in one obvious direction. It was a very difficult decision. But once he made it, my God, he didn’t look back.”

Within months of committing to the Confederate cause and leading the Army of Northern Virginia against the Union, Lee’s dark hair turned starkly white. His family back home wondered if the published pictures were really him.

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The documentary looks at Lee’s ups and downs on the battlefield and in his life during the war years. The general, who was in his late 50s during most of the war, often slept at camp, in an uncomfortable cot, some nights resting no more than two hours.

Joseph Glatthaar, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of “General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Defeat,” says military historians today, regardless of their politics, regard Lee very highly.

“Lee was unbelievably smart,” says Glatthaar, who appears in the film several times. “He was able to grasp very complex military operations — his own army, the enemy, the terrain. He was a very careful planner and very good at reading his opponent’s minds. He could sit down and look at a map and contemplate how a campaign would unfold.”

Because the Union had greater numbers, Lee knew he had to work fast and fight as close to the border as possible in order to shock the North into losing its will. “He slammed into the Union Army and took very heavy casualties,” Glatthaar says. But while Lee lost a lot of men — roughly 20,000 in one especially bloody week — he also punched well above his weight: His army, about a quarter of Confederate forces, caused about half of Union casualties.

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As the film shows, Lee was a morally complex figure. While he’s embraced by hero-worshipers as an exemplary Christian, he ignored or resisted religion until late in life. He had the misgivings about slavery typical of his class, but was hardly ahead of his time on the issue.

Lee could also be severe: He ordered public executions of deserting soldiers, thinking decisive action necessary for discipline, and would march soldiers past the corpses.

Lee, says Zwonitzer, could be relentless with an unyielding “willingness to sacrifice his life and body and family for this cause — and expecting everyone else to.”

After Lee surrendered to the Union General Ulysses S. Grant in 1865, he withdrew to life in a rented home in Richmond, Va., and then assumed the presidency of what’s now Washington and Lee University. He was by most reports tormented by the South’s loss, but did not publicly undercut U.S. policies and Reconstruction.

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Five years after the war’s conclusion, he died after a massive stroke, and a transformation began. The “lost cause” movement turned the very human Lee into a symbol — a dignified, chivalric deity.

These Confederate apologists, says Joan Waugh, a professor at UCLA and author of the award-winning “U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth,” recast the general “into someone who was almost godlike in his perfection. Who in contrast to Grant or [General William T.] Sherman, was a gentleman, someone who believed in the old-fashioned kind of war. Which is ridiculous given his casualties.”

The neo-Confederates, Waugh says, also deceived themselves in Lee’s relationship to slavery and over the peculiar institution’s role in the war. “The idea that he detested slavery and never saw himself as defending a slave republic… this is preposterous.”

But the hero worship of nostalgic Southerners, Waugh argues, dovetailed with a larger postwar effort to reconcile North and South. “We wanted to win the war to keep the country whole,” she says. “And when the country engaged in reconciliation, we acknowledged how brave and courageous the soldiers on both sides were. It seemed natural to be generous to Lee, as embodying honor and civility.” So Lee became widely — if not unanimously — admired both inside and outside the South.

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The film largely reflects this point of view. Still, Zwonitzer knows that hard-core neo-Confederates may not like his film. “I’m aware that there are people who are really loud. A lot of people are invested in this war not being caused by slavery. But we gave him his size, and his place. I hope I’ve been able to render him as a human being with big capabilities and big ambitions.

“I find Lee the guy a really fascinating, important figure, and one worth knowing,” Zwonitzer says. “And I don’t think the myth of Lee — which was used to whitewash the reason for this war — is half as interesting.”

calendar@latimes.com


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