VIENNA, Va. — Jan. 2, 2011 — The local PBS stations will present a 90-minute documentary on the life of Robert E. Lee tomorrow evening Jan. 3 at 9:00 p.m., the first of a series of three programs in the “American Experience” series, kicking off the Sesquicentennial observance which begins this year.
The program was duly dissected by Washington Post writer Hank Stuever, who seemed to bend over backwards in his desire to NOT like it, with grudging admissions here and there that at least there had been no “biographical bombshells, undiscovered offspring or recently unearthed documents.”
To no one’s surprised, the specter of slavery comes through his review loud and clear. And to be sure slavery was a major cause of the civil war, but it was not the only or sole cause. Yet it is dragged up at every occasion. We seem to forget – or find recontextualizing too difficult for modern day brains – the fact that it was entirely legal then, and that the majority of (white) leaders of the day were slaveholders. Even George Washington owned slaves, unless you want to think that those white wigged gents with the long stockings and silver buckles on their shoes did all the laboring and building. Ditto with Jefferson Davis and scads of others.
If you were an average landholder then, had 50 acres of cotton or tobacco, someone had to work those fields and bring out a crop. It was that simple.
Yet Mr. Stuever on the one hand acknowledges that the documentary “summons forth a smattering of endowed-chair academics and other history professors…” to advise the viewing public how “Lee backed the wrong side for the wrong reasons.” You can forget excessive tariffs and other salient causes for the actions of the South, and Lee’s resulting decisions, there was only one cause, one reason, one fairly myopic view.
He mentions Lee’s scolding of his attractive and unmarried daughters for too much socializing while battles raged and men died, so we are assured that the so-called “marble man” was a rather typical father, as well as a devoted husband.
Like Stuever, I doubt it will rise to the level of Ken Burns’ series of several years ago (has it really been that long?) but as an intro to the sesquicentennial seen in the person of one of its most outstanding military officers, it bears watching. So we’ll reserve further comment til after the broadcast and hope for the best. Surely Lee deserves that.