He is celebrated by handsome equestrian statues in countless cities and towns across the American South, and two 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. This two-hour film from AMERICAN EXPERIENCE examines the life and reputation of the Confederacy's pre-eminent general, whose military successes made him the scourge of the Union and the hero of the Confederacy during the Civil War, and who was elevated to almost god-like status by his admirers after his death.

Born in 1807 to one of Virginia's most distinguished families, Lee's relatives on his mother's side included signers of the Declaration of Independence. Lee's father, Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee, had earned a Medal of Honor from the Continental Congress during the American Revolution and served as Virginia's governor after the war. "Light Horse Harry" was also a compulsive land speculator, pursued by creditors and twice imprisoned for his debts. When Lee's father abandoned the family and fled to the West Indies, Lee's mother turned to relatives for help in supporting the six children he left behind. It fell to young Robert to care for his invalid mother and manage the household. The burden of this responsibility combined with the disgrace his father brought the family name, instilled in Lee a profound sense of duty and self-control.

In 1825, Robert E. Lee decided to pursue a military education at West Point -- a decision that he would describe more than 40 years later as the greatest mistake of his life. Lee went through the Academy with sober and single-minded purpose. Every day, for four years, he dedicated himself to his work. Lee's academic record and at West Point was so superb and free of demerits, that his classmates nicknamed him the "marble model" and he graduated second in his class.

After graduation, Lee applied the same single-minded dedication to his courtship of Mary Custis, Martha Washington's great-granddaughter. Custis' inheritance included thousands of acres of prime Virginia land, nearly 200 slaves, and a plantation high on a hill near Washington City called Arlington. Their marriage in 1831 brought Lee wealth and status; it also restored his family name by linking him to the nation's founding father and one of the most revered families in Virginia. Lee and Custis would be married 39 years and have seven children together, but their relationship was tested by the long separations required for Lee's work, Mary's chronic illnesses, and family tragedy.

As a member of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Lee spent 15 years traveling across the country. When the Mexican-American War broke out in 1846, the West Point graduate was thrilled to finally have an opportunity to fight. He joined Commanding General Winfield Scott's army and distinguished himself with exemplary service and a willingness to take on risky assignments. On the night preceding the battle of Contreras, he volunteered to go across the perilous, ice-covered lava fields of Pedregal three separate times -- once alone, in the dark, in a driving rain, within range of enemy fire. His greatest achievement in the war was Cerro Gordo, where he found a path for Scott's army to run a flanking column. Lee's heroism would later single him out as an early pick to lead the Confederate forces.

When the Mexican-American War was over, Lee had difficulty readjusting to the positions to which he was assigned over the next 10 years. In 1857, at the age of 50, he took leave from his post commanding troops in Texas in order to look after the Custis family estate -- only to discover the plantations willed to his sons were barely functioning and heavily mortgaged. Lee was determined to bring order to the finances, but found that the 196 slaves who worked the farms had been promised their freedom and were no longer willing to work off the family debt. 

On April 16, 1861, less than a week after a Confederate battery fired on Fort Sumter, Lee was summoned to Washington for a meeting with a close associate of Abraham Lincoln. The President wanted to offer Lee command of the Union Army. Although in many ways it was everything he had been working for his entire career, Lee declined the offer immediately. "He cannot lead an army that would invade the South," says historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor in the film. On April 20, Lee resigned from the United States Army, where he had served for more than 30 years, to accept command of the military and naval forces of Virginia.

Though initially hailed as the "savior of the Confederacy," Lee's early battles proved disappointing. It was not until the Seven Days' Battles, in 1862, that Lee was able to gain the trust of his men and the anxiously watching South, adjusting the defensive "dig in" strategy that had earned him the nickname "Granny Lee" in favor a more aggressive approach. Lee's victory at Chancellorsville, despite the loss of 8,000 soldiers, cemented the Confederate troops' faith in their leader. In the coming months, however, Lee's depleted army proved to be no match for Grant's Army of the Potomac. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Grant at the Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.

After the War, Lee served as president of Washington College. From his post in Lexington, he refused to comment publicly on the politics of the War but privately he lamented the passing of the Southern way of life he had known and had fought to defend. In October of 1870, Lee died after suffering a massive stroke. In death, as in life, Robert E. Lee divided the nation. Southern partisans transformed Lee into the central icon of a grand and noble Lost Cause, celebrating him as not just a great general, but a great Christian. The former slave Frederick Douglass spoke for those who were offended by the "nauseating flatteries of Robert E. Lee... It would seem that the soldier who kills the most men in battle, even in a bad cause, is the greatest Christian, and entitled to the highest place in heaven."

My American Experience

My American Experience photos

Share Your Story

Do you admire Robert E. Lee? Or perhaps Ulysses S. Grant? Tell us who is your favorite and why.

  • Additional funding for this program was provided by

  • Arthur Vining Davis Foundations
  • NEH