Toward a Complete General Lee

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The folks at PBS were kind enough to forward me a preview copy of American Experience: Robert E. Lee. I'm a long-time fan of the series. Their documentary on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln is incredible and heart-breaking--watch it now if you haven't already. I think their documentary on Lee is one of the most fair-minded takes I've seen on him in televised media.


As much as I like Ken Burns' Civil War, arguably it's greatest flaw is the patently false assertion that Lee was "against slavery." It's sad because much of that film, I think, does a service to correcting Neo-Confederate creationism, but that note about Lee is a big miss, and one I actually bought myself, until I started this quest. The American Experience doc not only makes it clear that Lee was not anti-slavery--they classify him as Jeffersonian "slavery apologist--but they actually spend some time outlining his relationship with his slaves. I'd like to have seen more, but I was glad they even discussed it. 

More importantly than Lee, personally, they make no bones about the cause of the Civil War--going so far as to read directly from articles of secession in a couple states, a step I appreciated, because it takes us away from vague interpretation into actual statements, by actual people. The documentary repeatedly notes the obvious--that Lee was fighting to raise a republic based on slavery. 

I think the American Experience series really benefited from the line-up of credible historians they assembled--Gary Gallagher, Elizabeth Brown Pryor and Ervin L. Jordan Jr. among others. And so beyond slavery, you get a group that counters Shelby Foote's canonization of Lee. You hear about his failing health, his harshness toward his generals, and his willingness to hang deserters. I'm not clear that these attributes are flaws, but they do round out the human being.

I won't say much more about it now as I look forward to talking to you guys after you've seen it. But I wanted to make sure I urged you to do just that. The doc premiers January 3.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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