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Sunday, April 3 at 10 p.m. – Robert E. Lee: American Experience

(Rochester, NY) – He is celebrated by handsome equestrian statues in countless cities and towns across the American South, and by no less than five postage stamps issued by the government he fought against during the four bloodiest years in American history. Nearly a century and a half after his death, Robert E. Lee, the leading Confederate general of the American Civil War, remains a source of fascination and, for some, veneration.Robert E. Lee: American Experiene, airing Sunday, April 3 at 10 p.m. on WXXI-TV/HD (DT 21.1/cable 1011 and 11), examines the life and reputation of the general whose military successes made him the scourge of the Union and the hero of the Confederacy, and who was elevated to almost god-like status by admirers after his death. 

From the time he was a young man, Robert Edward Lee carried himself as if the command of men was his destiny. Born into Virginia aristocracy, his extended clan included a president, a chief justice, and signers of the Declaration of Independence. His father was a celebrated Revolutionary War hero who won a medal of honor from the Continental Congress.  R.E. Lee graduated from West Point at the top of his class — with near-perfect scores in artillery, infantry and cavalry and without a single demerit.  While many found much to admire, others called him the “marble man,” a studied perfectionist who strove to be a paragon and prided himself on duty, self-denial and discipline.

Trained for the art of war, Lee didn’t go to battle until he was 40 years old.  Once in the field in the Mexican War, he rose to prominence through his courage and acts of bravery under Commanding General Winfield Scott, who called Lee the best soldier in the American army, proclaiming that in the event of a war the first thing the U.S. government should do is take out a life insurance policy on Robert E. Lee.

But when the opportunity of a lifetime arrived in 1861 — the President of the United States wanted him to lead an army in the service of his country — he declined.  For to command the Union Army would mean taking up arms against his beloved Virginia, a state he idealized but where he actually spent little of his adult life.   And to whom did he have to confess his divided loyalties?  None other than the man he most revered, his former commanding officer, General Winfield Scott.

Embraced by fervent Southern partisans as the savior of the South, Lee had no actual experience commanding large bodies of troops.  In the beginning of the war he floundered, was removed from active duty, then re-

appointed as the head of the Army of Northern Virginia out of desperation when another general was shot from his horse.

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, with 20,000 casualties in the battle of Seven Days.  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. Eventually the better-equipped and larger Union Army defeated them.

Following the war, Lee faced the hard and un-idealized truth: his soaring ambition, his superhuman physical stamina and his unbending resolve had been devastating to those closest to him.  Virginia had been driven to its knees, his family estate lost and his sons financially beleaguered.  His daughters, homebound and unhappy, never married, partly because a generation of Southern males had died in their father’s army.

In October of 1870, just five and a half years after his surrender, Lee suffered a massive stroke and died a few days later, at home in Virginia, surrounded by his family.

Southern partisans deified their now-fallen commander, placing his memory at the head of a grand and noble Lost Cause. For the next quarter century, admirers of the Confederate cause funded and erected monuments to Robert E. Lee by the scores. And for a full century after his death, the memory of General Lee was rigorously burnished. The glory that eluded Lee in life attached itself to him in death, turning him, quite literally, into a marble man.

Pictured: Robert E. Lee
Credit: Courtesy of Matthew Brady/NARA

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