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Robert E. Lee -- American Experience

Updated on July 31, 2011

The leader of the Confederacy

One of West Point's best.

From the press release: "One of a handful of Civil War generals with the imagination to conceive a grand military strategy, he had the focus to plan a large campaign to the smallest detail and the energy to drive it. Yet he was the bloodiest general in United States history (even more casualties than Patton). He inspired the unquestioned loyalty of the men who fought beneath him, but drove his soldiers beyond the logistical capacity they could muster. It was this fervent belief in the abilities of his men to fight and win against all odds that wore down his army."

From Stone Mountain to the campus of Washington and Lee University, his admirers have erected statues by the score to honor their fallen commander.  The glory he desired in life finally attached itself to him in death.

World Premiere on PBS

PBS will air the premiere of American Experience's Robert E. Lee on January 3, 2011 at 9:00 PM EST.

The press release touts American Experience as "television's most-watched history series" and it has been been called "peerless" by the Wall Street Journal .

"the most consistently enriching program on television" -- Chicago Tribune

"a beacon of intelligence and purpose" -- Houston Chronicle

How ironic!

Elizabeth Brown Pryor, diplomat and historian wrote a book about Lee that won a distinguished prize.  The book, Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee through his Private Letters , won the Lincoln Prize which is  awarded annually for the finest scholarly work in English on Abraham Lincoln, or the American Civil War soldier by the Gettysburg College.

Pryor was one of more than a half dozen scholarly participants in this production offering their knowledge and expertise.  She comments on the aging effects of war as illustrated in the two images below.

Aging effects of war.

Hard to believe that only six months elapsed between the photos shown here.
Hard to believe that only six months elapsed between the photos shown here.

If you miss it on TV, Buy it now on Amazon.

American Experience: Robert E Lee
American Experience: Robert E Lee

90 min DVD of the American Experience broadcast on PBS.



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    • Les Trois Chenes profile image

      Les Trois Chenes 7 years ago from Videix, Limousin, South West France

      I'd heard of Robert E Lee, but didn't know who he was or what he did. I know a bit more now. Thanks

    • TinaTango profile image

      TinaTango 7 years ago

      I could watch "Glory" over and over again, definitely a great movie! Thank you for the interesting article, I will be looking out for more of yours in the future!

    • FCEtier profile image

      Chip 7 years ago from Cold Mountain

      Thank you all for stopping by and commenting.

    • profile image

      JR Torres 7 years ago

      If there was someone he rightly whipped was the US ARMY. Battle after battle. Maybe they were just embarrass to show that.

    • profile image

      JR Torres 7 years ago

      Also the nonsense about stress aging is nothing but a myth. Look at the uniform of the earlier picture is from the Mexican-American War! This was so mediocre, I could barely watch. They mentioned about Lee whipping his inherited slaves but nothing about his obligation and attempt to make sure they were literate before emancipating them. Which his father in-law did not do.

    • profile image

      JR Torres 7 years ago

      The picture of the younger Lee is abviously much older. Look at it, it is the type that has to be retouched by an artist. This AE documentary was very poor in content. It was done from the point of view that "the South was wrong, but we are going to try to be fair." Typical liberal high school history.

    • FCEtier profile image

      Chip 7 years ago from Cold Mountain

      Thanks again to every who commented.

      @Rog, Dean & Clark -- It is rare that I accept "anonymous" comments. It's more acceptable to me that commentors leave a trail, such as a link. Anonymity in many cases emboldens people who leave comments to say things they may not say if their identity was more public.

      You're comments would be more credible if you step out of the shadows.

    • profile image

      Clark  7 years ago

      I would like to share what I just sent to PBS about their "American Experience" production on Robert E Lee:

      I am one of American Experience most ardent enthusiasts, but am compelled to provide you my reaction to the recent episode on Gen. Robert E. Lee.

      The show was the most negatively biased, distorted, and shabbily written episodes of American Experience that I have ever seen. The episode shamelessly delivered a revisionist version of Robert E. Lee's life, intensely focusing on his failures and disappointments. The script seemed particularly keen on bashing Lee for having the perspective of "white Virginia gentry", or words and images to that effect. The show completely glossed over his spectacular civil engineering achievements in the U.S. Army, trivializing his work outside the Mexican American War and Civil War. Later, the episode barely acknowledged Lee's brilliance on both a tactical and strategic level during the Civil War, portraying it as a kind of occasional skill. Another huge deficiency of the episode was its complete dismissal of Lee's rich life after 1865. The episode ridiculously dismissed Lee's hugely important tenure at Washington College, never bothering to ask why he chose to become its leader (among limitless other opportunities). Nor did the show deem it worthwhile to examine what General Lee acomplished at one of the country's oldest higher education institutions. Instead, the narrator simply referred to Lee "hiding himself in the presidency of a small college in southwestern Virginia".

      I was embarrassed to have asked several friends to watch this episode, and hope that in the future your producers will demand more rigor in the quality of productions about major heroes of American history. Very poor work indeed...

    • profile image

      Dean Smallwood 7 years ago

      The comment that the two pictures represent a time period of 6 months is inaccurate . The painting on the left was of Lee about the time he was Commandant of West point ( roughly 1855 ) . The one on the left was taken by Valentine in Richmond about 1864 .

    • profile image

      Rog 7 years ago

      As an amateur historian of the Civil War (I've been studying it since the age of 8, I am now 48), I was deeply disturbed with the 'American Experience' 'portrayal' of Robert E. Lee. It left out SO MANY facts and information, and it seemed to be 'trying' to put Robert E. Lee in the MOST negative light possible; it was borderline 'Slander' and 'Contemptible'. Obviously there was an invisible 'Liberal' hand at the controls of this production of manipulation of history. It must be a profitable way to make a living. If I lacked the character of moral fortitude and respect for the truth, I could make a living at it too.

    • Rod Marsden profile image

      Rod Marsden 7 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

      Interesting, FCEtier.

      The American Civil War should have ended six months after it had begun. The north had superiority when it comes to resources to fight a war and also man power. It wasn't, however, until Grant stepped into the top shoes that the end of hostilities was in sight. Grant understood the bloody arithmetic by that stage required for total victory over the south. Before Grant took on the top job, Lee had made an almost fatal mistake. He made it at Gettysburg. Pickett's charge should never have been ordered. The northern general at the time could have followed up his victory and put an end to Lee's ability to fight on. He did not and so the war continued.

      The length of the war is all about bad generalship on the part of the north and also lost opportunities the north could have exploited to victory.

      Lee is said to be the best of the old time generals and grant is said to be the best of the new emerging breed. I think there is some truth in that. Lee often took long chances fighting the north but he had to. At best the odds were 4 to 1 against him in terms of men and supplies.

      Sorry I can't really take the photos seriously. When Lee became a Reb his men referred to him as granny Lee. I assume this was because of his stern ways and also the whiteness of his hair. Of course when Lee's victories over the north became legend no one ever called him granny Lee ever again.

    • FCEtier profile image

      Chip 7 years ago from Cold Mountain


      I'm married to a Jersey Gull who says there will be no diatribes against Ole Abe! LOL She also says I'm still mad because we lost.

    • profile image

      Alan Kurtz 7 years ago

      dahoglund, you're right about Lee being highly respected. But he was more than just "technically an enemy." I lay out my case here

      that Lee was America's greatest traitor.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Lee seems to be highly respected although technically an "enemy".

    • profile image

      Alan Kurtz 7 years ago

      Your confidence in Elizabeth Brown Pryor is misplaced. She evidently based her opinion on a doctored image, to wit A.H. Ritchie's 1861 engraving that juxtaposed the headshot of Matthew Brady's photograph of Lee taken 10 years earlier, with a painted-on uniform purporting to portray Lee as a Major General of Virginia militia.

      Another well received book presents an eyewitness account that refutes Ms. Pryor's conclusion. Calling its author Emory M. Thomas "a distinguished historian of the Civil War," Publishers Weekly extolled Robert E. Lee: A Biography (1997) as "a major analytical biography. Highly recommended."

      Here's the relevant passage from page 192: "Walter H. Taylor, who served on Lee's staff, recalled meeting Lee early in May 1861." Taylor wrote of Lee's "strikingly handsome features," which included "iron-gray hair closely cut."

      The Civil War began on April 12, 1861. Lee resigned from the Union Army on April 20 and took up command of the Virginia state forces on April 23. So you're asking us to believe that between mid-April and early May, an interval of three weeks at most, Lee's hair turned from dark to "iron-gray." Sorry, I don't buy it.

    • FCEtier profile image

      Chip 7 years ago from Cold Mountain

      Anonymous commentor, "Al", suggests the younger picture may be older than originally thought.

      I got my info from a screener copy from the publicist for PBS. These two images were presented in the film in close proximity -- with no others in between.

      Here's a site with more info and some dates:

      Regardless of the accuracy of dating of the images, I'll stick with the opinion of biographer, Pryor. According to her research, Gen. Lee did have dark hair at the beginning of the war and six months later, it was gray/white. Perhaps in the program, they presented these two images as examples of the stark contrast.

      Thanks for all your comments and I hope you enjoy the show on Monday night.

    • alekhouse profile image

      Nancy Hinchliff 7 years ago from Essex Junction, Vermont

      Interesting hub. The two pictures comparing his looks was somewhat unexpected.

    • profile image

      Al 7 years ago

      The younger picture of Lee was actually taken sometime in the 1840's when we was a captain in the engineering corps years before the Civil War. The older Lee shot was when he was a general between 1861 and 1864

    • profile image

      Jalus 7 years ago

      I really can't believe how much his appearance changed in six months. Very interesting, thanks.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 7 years ago from south Florida

      Those two remarkable photos within only a six month time period say it all, FCE. Thanks for the heads up on the PBS TV program.


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