Stars, Bars, and Memoirs

December 18, 2020   •   By Charles Dunst

Robert E. Lee and Me

Ty Seidule

MORE THAN A FEW monuments to the Confederate States of America fell in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police on May 25. From Richmond, Virginia, to Birmingham, Alabama, protestors vandalized, toppled, and otherwise destroyed the obelisks and metal soldiers commemorating a traitorous army whose attempted secession from the United States caused massive bloodletting.


Yet since Floyd’s death, officials from the Deep South to even Delaware and Arizona have voted or decided to protect 28 Confederate monuments. “We just want to preserve history is all we want to do,” said Bill Elliott of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. “The Confederacy doesn’t mean that slaves were part of it. That’s just a period of time is all it is.”


Therein lies a main myth of the “Lost Cause” — that the Confederacy wasn’t really about slavery — that Ty Seidule brilliantly and brutally deconstructs in his eminently readable Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause. Seidule, who spent over 30 years in the US Army and taught for many years at West Point (and is now at Hamilton College, my alma mater), is not only an excellent historian, but a native Southerner and former believer of these myths. The book benefits from both his professional and personal experiences, as he offers not only a history of Lee but an autobiography of sorts, weaving together these narratives to offer a powerful, necessary and timely rebuke of the Confederacy and those who still venerate it.


Seidule tells his story chronologically, charting all the places in which he imbibed pro-Confederate myths: his hometown of Alexandria, Virginia; his adopted hometown of Monroe, Georgia; his alma mater of Washington and Lee; his military home of Fort Bragg; and his employer, West Point. Throughout it all, though, Seidule injects vital history — Lee’s own writings and anecdotes of 20th-century racism, for example — to make his book more than just a personal autobiography, but one of the United States written by someone deeply committed to the country and its ideals.


Seidule walks readers through the “Lost Cause” myth of Confederate heroism and righteousness, dismantling it in the process.


First, the myth argues that the men of the South fought not to secure their right to practice slavery but for various other reasons including “states rights, freedom, the agrarian dream, defense, and on and on.” Seidule refutes this claim by turning the Confederates’ words against them. He quotes, for instance, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens arguing that the Confederacy’s “foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.” Subtle they were not.


Second, Seidule shows that the myth hinges on the obviously false portrayal of the “obedient servant” or “happy slave.” It is telling, he notes, somewhat angrily, that literally zero enslaved Blacks fought as Confederate soldiers.


The next tenet of the “Lost Cause” argues that the Confederacy was doomed from the start because the Northerners simply had more materiel — that the Yankees’ might had triumphed over the Southerners’ right. This is not true, as Seidule points out in prosaic terms: both armies saw desertion rates of over 10 percent. The South was not physically outmatched; they were just beaten.


The final “Lost Cause” claim is that Reconstruction, the post–Civil War period in which Blacks rose from bondage to power, was a failure, a “worse scourge than death itself.” In fact, Seidule notes, Blacks “served with distinction in high office.”


Throughout these and other historical passages, Seidule’s prose is unsparing. One wonders what he makes of Donald Trump’s current Lost Cause–type mythmaking — arguing that he did not lose the election, and that his righteous and triumphant followers “lost,” of course, only because of unfair factors beyond their control. Yet Seidule is arguably at his best and most forceful when writing autobiographically.


“The underlying belief system in Meet Robert E. Lee, Gone With the Wind, and Song of the South is the ideology of White supremacy,” he concludes the opening chapter on his childhood. “As it turns out, the lies of the Lost Cause infused every aspect of my life — and that pisses me off.” This pugnacious attitude shines throughout the book, and he is especially aggrieved that white supremacy cast a pall on the institutions — namely the Army and his undergraduate college — about which he cares so much.


He deplores the hypocrisy of the Army for naming forts after white supremacists; of Washington and Lee for worshipping Lee as one might worship Jesus (“Lee is the altar, get me out of here,” his wife gasps upon seeing the recumbent Lee statue at the university’s eponymous Lee Chapel); and of West Point for repeatedly honoring Lee, a cadet who committed treason against the country he promised to serve.


Perhaps Seidule’s most important point is that Confederate monuments did not arise across the United States immediately after the Civil War, but often decades after the fact and in direct response to anti-racist efforts. Nearly every Confederate statue was created not to remember the white Southern dead but to justify the righteousness of their fight to create a slave republic and strike fear in all those — Black Americans — who would have been subjugated within it. “Confederate monuments had the same purpose as lynching: enforce white supremacy,” he writes. “It is not coincidence that most Confederate monuments went up between 1890 and 1920, the same period that lynching peaked in the South.”


Others went up later. In 1950, West Point added a portrait of Confederate uniform-clad Lee at the behest of a racist superintendent who opposed the army’s Korean War–era integration. The same institution’s 1970 creation of “Lee Barracks” was, Seidule suggests, a similar response to its 1969 admission of 44 Black cadets.


Readers are certain to be surprised at Seidule’s relentlessness, which is perhaps most clear in his penultimate chapter: “My Verdict: Robert E. Lee Committed Treason to Preserve Slavery.” He writes: “Lee’s decision to fight against the United States was not just wrong; it was treasonous.” Did a career Army man and born-and-bred Southerner really write that? we ask, eyebrows raised at his criticism of the institutions to which he devoted many years. Yet the courage Seidule demonstrates, by admitting his own past racism and railing against the systems and people that fostered it within him, remains lacking in far too many.


Indeed, he notes that the Army has long tip-toed around the issue of bases named after Confederates, considering history “too dangerous.” The Pentagon’s generals decided that West Point could make no changes in the run-up to the 2016 election; after Trump’s election, the Pentagon’s “civilian masters” barred West Point from changing any names. Washington and Lee, for its part, disregarded recommendations that Lee Chapel no longer host university events. Meanwhile, Tennessee in 2013 enacted — and in 2016 and 2018 amended — the Heritage Protect Act, which prevents cities that remove Confederate monuments from receiving state grants for five years. American courage indeed remains lacking, with politicians preferring to demagogue and repeat “Lost Cause” myths rather than address racism, “the virus in the American dirt,” as Seidule puts it.


Seidule, in contrast, has done Americans a service by leveraging his impeccable military credentials and Southern background to do his part in sewing up our country’s oldest wounds. He has written an extraordinary book that, by chronicling our darkest American moments, offers hope that we might one day see greater light.


“To create a more just society, we must start by studying our past,” he argues. “If we want to know where to go, we must know where we’ve been.”


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Charles Dunst is a Visiting Scholar at the East-West Center in Washington and an associate at LSE IDEAS, the London School of Economics’s foreign policy think tank.