There are memoirs where one is quickly reminded that not everyone shares the same experiences. When well told, moving through these new worlds can be enlightening, jarring, and often gripping. Then again, there is the occasional book where the reader finds a story that mirrors one’s own experience in astonishing detail.
Ty Seidule‘s fearless and direct Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause — part memoir, part history, part call-to-action — was that reflection for me. In his skillful hands, the story is also enlightening, jarring, and gripping. The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Ron Chernow may have captured it best when he wrote, “Ty Seidule scorches us with the truth and rivets us with his fierce sense of moral urgency.”
The author’s bio is important in understanding the accuracy of Chernow’s description. Seidule grew up in Alexandria, Virginia, where his father taught at Episcopal High School. Historian Charles Reagan Wilson has called Episcopal a “Lost Cause denominational secondary school.” Seidule then moved with his family to Monroe, Georgia, where he completed his high school studies, graduating from a whites-only “segregation academy” in 1980. Monroe was the site of the only mass lynching to occur in the United States after World War II, yet Seidule knew nothing of that history when he lived in the community. After high school he moved to Lexington, Virginia, where he attended and graduated from Washington and Lee University (W&L). Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tony Horowitz has called Lexington “the second city of Confederate remembrance: Medina to Richmond’s Mecca.” Seidule holds a Ph.D. in history from Ohio State University and is professor emeritus of history at West Point, where he taught for two decades. He served in the U.S. Army for thirty-six years, retiring as a brigadier general. His books include The West Point History of the Civil War.
To write such an honest and direct case against all that he had been taught, Seidule brings his professional understanding of history; a long reverence for Robert E. Lee; deep indoctrination into what was expected of a white, Southern male; and a belief that an oath to defend the United States should not be broken. Seidule calls for nothing less than a total reckoning with American history to set the record straight. And he does so by laying out the path to his own personal reckoning with riveting detail, great attention to the facts, and a blunt directness that one would expect from a brigadier general who also happens to be a historian.
Seidule walks the reader through each step of his youthful indoctrination of the myth of Robert E. Lee as the greatest man who ever lived, and who led the Confederate army in a just cause for states rights. Lee, according to the myth, only lost the Civil War due to the overwhelming resources of the North. One learns of the lessons Seidule absorbed in 1960s Alexandria during the Civil War centennial and the civil rights era. Those lessons were heavily imbued with the Lost Cause myth, with Lee’s greatness central to that story. He learned them thanks, in no small part, to the history books the state of Virginia gave him to read in school. Seidule includes deeply personal chapters about his time in Monroe, and in Lexington, and then as a rising young army officer at bases named for Confederate generals who were traitors against the United States. It is at West Point, however, where he had his “a-ha” moment, and recognized that what he learned his entire life was a lie. Throughout he uses the historian’s tools to deconstruct the myth, lie-by-lie, with facts and straight talk.
It is the directness of the language, the refusal to sugar-coat the facts or his own personal failings, that brings the reader to see the righteousness of his work. He admits an adoration for the myth of Robert E. Lee that is a religion. Seidule was in awe when he first walked into Lee Chapel at W&L.
“I saw the altar, the Holy Table. Except that on top of the table lay Robert E. Lee’s statue. My school worshipped Robert E. Lee, literally…At Lee Chapel, we had a church dedicated to the southern saint…Traveller’s bones (from Lee’s faithful horse) became another relic for pilgrims and Lee Chapel became the St. Peter’s Basilica of the Lost Cause religion.”
Seidule doesn’t mince words. Slavery was THE cause of the war as explained before in this blog. How can we be so certain? The leaders of the Confederate states told us so at the time. Use of the word “plantation” sugar coats the reality, so Seidule calls these sites that were central to the southern economy by a more accurate name — enslaved labor farms. He explains that the earliest official name for the war is the “War of the Rebellion” which suits him just fine, because that’s what it was. Civil War is okay as well. But when “War Between the States” or “The War of Northern Aggression” is used, he knows that a Lost Cause myth is behind it.
Then he moves into discussing the two armies who fought in the War of the Rebellion, and how they came to be misnamed (thanks in part to a years-long campaign by the United Daughters of the Confederacy). We usually reference the Union army…
“as though they belonged to an organization that fought only one war. An army relegated to the dustbin of history, as Karl Marx would say. No, the boys in blue fought in the U.S. Army for the United States of America. The names we use matter. By saying Union and Confederate, Blue and Gray, North and South, we lose the fundamental difference between the two sides. The United States fought against a rebel force that would not accept the results of a democratic election and chose armed rebellion.” (emphasis added)
In his final chapter entitled “My verdict: Robert E. Lee committed treason,” the myths about Lee the man are similarly laid bare for the lies they are. Southerners heard that Lee was the only student ever at West Point to go four years without receiving a demerit. In fact, five other students in his class achieved the same honor. Contrary to myth, Lee was not kind to the enslaved persons he owned, received primarily through his wife’s inheritance. He split up families through the sale and the rental of those individuals, and did all in his power to try and ignore the provision in his father-in-law’s will that all the enslaved individuals under his ownership would be emancipated five years after his death. Another part of the myth is that Lee “had” to resign from the U.S. Army because he was a Virginian, and all sons of Virginia put their state above country. In fact, Lee was one of eight U.S. Army Colonels from Virginia at the time of secession. Seven of them remained loyal to their solemn oath to the U.S. Constitution. Only Robert E. Lee resigned and broke his oath. Lee said he was fighting for Virginia, but he quickly resigned his commission leading the State of Virginia’s forces to accept a role in the Confederate States of America’s army. He did so because he profited from slavery.
Robert E. Lee was the only senior officer who was actually in charge of hundreds of enslaved workers and in the U.S. Army in 1861. His views — before, during, and after the war — were much more closely aligned with the large slaveowners of the South than with his fellow Army officers. In 256 hard-hitting pages, Seidule refutes the myth-making around Robert E. Lee point-by-point, and reminds the reader on multiple occasions that the myth was constructed to win the narrative for slave-owners who had lost the war.
Lee’s decision to fight against the United States was not just wrong; it was treasonous. Even worse, he committed treason to perpetuate slavery.
Seidule, a fellow Southerner, is seven years my junior. I was drawn in to the Civil War centennial from 1961-1965 and hiked battlefields with my father from Shiloh to Nashville. While my university years were not spent at one of those colleges that were attracting the “status-seeking white Southern high schooler” (e.g., Sewanee, Duke, Davidson, Vanderbilt, W&L), my friends were there. I lived in Americus, Georgia, during the time that Seidule was in Monroe. Americus has a very complicated history when it comes to civil rights: a few years before I moved to Americus, the deacons of the First Baptist Church stood outside the front doors to keep Blacks from attending, and lynchings were a part of the city’s history. We moved to Staunton, Virginia, in 1983 while Seidule was less than 50 miles away in Lexington. Most importantly, my beloved grandmother was a life-long member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and a proponent of the myth of the Lost Cause. I read her UDC magazines as well as the works of Douglas Southall Freeman — Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer who helped solidify the myth as much as anyone.
Seeing the myth we both were raised on as just that — a myth — has taken time. The truth continues to unfold. Ty Seidule has helped all Americans who wish to know more of that truth understand the facts, and their own personal histories, in a much deeper and richer way with this highly recommended book. As he notes at the end:
Racism is the virus in the American dirt, infecting everything and everyone. To combat racism, we must do more than acknowledge the long history of white supremacy. Policies must change. Yet, an understanding of history remains the foundation. The only way to prevent a racist future is to first understand our racist past.
More to come…