History is not just names and dates. It's about people as well. But often, while studying their accomplishments and failures, the humanity of historical figures is lost. Robert E. Lee was known for his military actions, but he was more than a general. He was a man, and a complex one at that.
Called the "Marble Model" at West Point, Lee is universally remembered for his quiet dignity as well as his generalship of the Confederate army. He came from fine breeding, received superb scores and no demerits at West Point, and was admired both by his troops and Americans of generations to come. As shown in the documentary, Robert E. Lee, however, that's not all there was to him. From the moment he was born, he yearned to shine. He was a family man and a romantic who had struggled to win the heart of his wife, Mary. He was ambitious and always strove to be the best. He was a workaholic and could be organized to a fault. He hated insubordination and he could be short-tempered and frightening when angered. (It was said that his neck and head twitched when he was angry.) He was complex and sometimes a paradox. Simply put, he was a human being.
This documentary was eye-opening, not only to Lee's true personality, but to his family life. Many know that his father was a Revolutionary War hero, but lesser-known is the fact that "Light-Horse Harry Lee" lost the family fortune, wrote bad checks to George Washington and his own father, and eventually wound up in debtor's prison. (Needless to say, Robert E. Lee was not his father's biggest fan.) When it came to starting his own family, Lee wasn't going to settle for any bride. He found what he was looking for in Mary Custis. She refused him at first, but eventually they married and had seven children. He was a devoted family man who lamented not being able to spend time with his wife and children, but also could be overwhelmed by the disorder of family life. This facet of the documentary painted an especially humanizing portrait of "The Marble Model."
From a historical standpoint, I found intriguing his bravery in the Mexican-American War. Though his military career spanned decades before the Civil War, Lee is best known for being the general-in-chief of the Confederate army. The documentary portrayed in detail many Civil War battles as well, through Lee's eyes, and portrayed the effects the War Between the States had on him. His sister, a Unionist, never spoke to him again. His temper became shorter as the war went on, his son was captured as a prisoner of war, and his young grandchildren passed away. He began to close himself off, and as he grieved, he grieved alone. His health declined, and he began to suffer heart disease. When the army that had become his baby was destroyed at the Battle of Gettysburg, his heart broke. Though he showed no emotion to Grant when he surrendered a choice to which he would have preferred death, but felt he had no choice he was devastated. By showing this, the documentary emphasized the horrors of war.
I was surprised to learn that Lee's army did not always idolize him. He was originally hailed by Southern press when he chose, after much agony, to leave the United States Army and fight for his home state of Virginia. But when the war began, he was criticized for being "too soft;" he learned that, behind his back, soldiers called him "Granny Lee" and "The Failure." Unfazed by their insults, Lee later restored their confidence with bold attacks. Though casualties were many, morale rose in Lee's army. After the Battle of Chancellorsville, his bond with his army was sealed. Even today, Lee is greatly admired by Northerners and Southerners alike.
This documentary shows that Robert E. Lee was nothing if not dedicated to his cause. Even after the surrender at Appomattox, he believed that it had all been worth it because he and his army gave their all; the problem simply was, he believed, that his army was out-manned and out-gunned. He could be a contradiction in terms and he did nothing in halves. Robert E. Lee was a very important figure in American history, and it is important to understand him more thoroughly. Many people find history boring because they think it's all about battles and dates and statues of "dudes on horses." If people realize that historical figures had hopes and dreams and families and personalities all their own, perhaps they can understand history better and even come to enjoy it.