Robert E. Lee and Me by Ty Seidule


Ty Seidule’s premise, that the lie of the Lost Cause perpetuated from the end of the Civil War is a reflection of White Supremacy that infects the whole country, is not a surprise or new idea. What is different is that a military historian at West Point who grew up in the South idolizing Robert E. Lee has described his beliefs and his coming to understand the facts and reject the myth. As he says,

I’m on a campaign to uncover White Supremacy and the Lost Cause in the places I’ve lived, in the institutions that educated and gave me purpose. As it turns out, the lies of the Lost Cause infused every aspect of my life. And that pisses me off.

He grew up in Alexandria, Virginia a few miles from Lee’s childhood home and that began his veneration. The first adult book he read was Gone with the Wind which he believes forms the basis for the vast majority of people’s view of the Civil War. Margaret Mitchell’s book espoused the lies of the Lost Cause that formed the ideological foundation for White Supremacy. The book posits that the war was not about slavery; the South went to war to protect the land, to support states’ rights, to defend the southern way of life from the yankee invader, the agrarian dream.

Seidule said that when he gives talks about the causes of the war, he quotes the unequivocal statements of the states and the Confederacy plainly saying that their purpose was to preserve slavery. Nevertheless people in the audience will challenge his assertion that slavery was the cause of the Civil War.

It was when he began teaching history at West Point that he began wondering why there were so many manifestations of the veneration of Lee at the college, given that there was very strong anti-Lee (the traitor) sentiments at West Point in evidence as late as the 1890s. This was his “Aha moment” and he went to the archives to learn when and why West Point began to honor Lee. He says, “That process changed me. The history changed me. The archives changed me. The facts changed me.”

He tells the interesting history of how the Civil War affected the academy. But the crux of the matter is what happened in the twentieth century that resulted in the glorification of Lee. Preceding each event was a change in the race relations; anytime there has been a loosening of the apartheid, there is a corresponding veneration of Lee. After Benjamin Davis, a Black man, graduated from West Point in the 1930s (the first since 1889), a Lee room was created in the Superintendent’s quarters.

I found the book “shouty,” but then I think his anger and outrage is appropriate. He is mad about being lied to and is mad at his previously uncritical self.

Ty Seidule, Robert E. Lee and Me, St. Martin’s Press, 2020, 291 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available in the public library.

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