by Edward Cone
“I grew up with a lie, a series of lies,” writes Ty Seidule in Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause.
A retired brigadier general and former head of the history department at West Point, the author eventually stopped believing what he had been taught about the Civil War and its legacy. He wants you to stop believing it too.
Seidule writes with an expert’s assurance and a convert’s zeal.
“The names we use matter,” he says, and he is here to name names. The word “plantation,” for example, with its lingering romantic associations, he eschews in favor of the more direct “enslaved labor farms.”
There was no Union army: “I refuse to use that terminology any longer….The boys in blue fought in the US Army for the United States of America… against a rebel force that would not accept the results of a democratic election.”
And the man he grew up idolizing? “My former hero, Robert E. Lee, committed treason to preserve slavery.”
Seidule knows many people will be impervious to any facts he musters as a soldier and historian, so he weaves the details and documentation through his own personal story: a guy pushing 60 who grew up aspiring to be a Virginia Gentleman in the image of Lee before realizing well into adulthood that the stories he believed were not true.
Those stories were current not only among Southern kids who grew up knowing the name of Lee’s horse (Traveler, duh) or members of the social class that hears the word “Episcopal” and thinks first of the boarding school in Alexandria where Seidule’s father taught. The mythology that centers Lee the saint and superhero has deep roots across white America and retains the power to influence current events and attitudes toward everything from statues in the public square to voting rights and economic opportunity.
The legend of a noble and blameless Lee has been a kind of moral get-out-of-jail-free card for generations of Americans with soft spots for the Confederacy, a gateway drug in the Lost Cause spiral. That version of history was a purposeful creation.
Seidule traces the narrative to the period immediately after the Civil War, when the tenets of the Lost Cause were first elaborated in a speech by former Confederate general Jubal Early — “the Saint Peter of the Lee cult” — at Seidule’s future alma mater, Washington and Lee. Within decades these stories were implanted in the national consciousness, even infiltrating the grounds of West Point. “The South lost the war but won the battle for the narrative.”
You know the Lost Cause litany: War for states’ rights, not slavery. Inevitable victory by the populous industrial North, despite unsurpassed generalship by Lee, who was burdened by an unshakeable duty to follow Virginia’s secession despite his personal distaste for slavery.
Seidule the military historian acknowledges Lee as an excellent fighting general, but one who was outmatched by the deliberately and unfairly maligned Ulysses Grant. He argues that the north had real opportunities to lose the war. The rest of the mythos Seidule mauls with documentary evidence. Lee’s attitudes toward slavery, he shows, were standard planter-class fare. Every other US Army colonel from Virginia besides Lee (along with some of Lee’s own relatives) honored their oaths to the United States instead of joining the Confederate military.
Seidule hammers home the reality that the Confederate States of America came into existence to perpetuate slavery, using the founding documents and founders’ words with ironclad efficiency.
Readers invested in the motivations of common soldiers will be disappointed; Seidule does not address that question. His focus is on the politics of the CSA, not your Confederate ancestors or mine, and why Lee resigned his army commission to wage war on the country he swore to defend.
He does offer damning thumbnails of several ardently pro-slavery and often feckless Confederate generals for whom US Army bases are named today, and his brisk sketches of battles and commanders are among my favorite parts of the book.
I was somewhat less interested in the quick tour of myth-entrenching popular culture from Seidule’s youth, including re-releases of Song of the South and Gone With the Wind, if only because it was highly familiar to me, a North Carolinian of the same age (the author and I even attended the same summer camp in the NC mountains, a place where becoming a Southern Gentleman was as much a part of the tradition as hiking Grandfather; a fellow camper was a namesake and direct descendant of Robert E. Lee).
Seidule recounts his awakening to the brutal realities of segregation and racist violence in the towns where he grew up, still-recent history willfully overlooked by a white Southern culture fixated on an imaginary, glorious past. Repentant and angry at his chosen blindness, he cites writers including Frederick Douglass and WEB Du Bois Douglass, not just for historical perspective but as evidence that the truth was in plain sight all along.
You, though, he lets off the hook.
“It’s not as if the enduring myths of the Confederacy are perpetuated by evil people.” (Well, some evil people, he acknowledges.) But the rest of us he sees as manipulated, not malicious.
Many of the arguments presented by Seidule are familiar and even established, but he ties together the Lee and Lost Cause mythology with the flow of American history to the present day in ways that are useful and sharp.
Will this slender book — the facts Seidule marshals and the personal voice in which he deploys them — convince everyone who believes in the myths of the Lost Cause that they have been misguided? Of course not, as hostile reader reviews online make clear.
Still, Seidule is hopeful. If he got it, others can too. He describes a talk at Washington & Lee University’s Lee Chapel that earned him a standing ovation, unthinkable in the very recent past. Win enough battles, and someday you win the war.
Edward Cone, a former News & Record columnist and semi-retired blogger, lives in Greensboro.
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