Ty Seidule has written a book that immediately and unequivocally transforms him into a turncoat in the eyes of many southerners. Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause (St. Martin’s Press, 2021) is not the first book to challenge Confederacy sympathizers, but it offers a unique perspective from an author who has made the journey from apologist to critic and is completely forthright about a subject that is still extremely sensitive for so many Americans.
I am about the same age as the author, and I was raised in Georgia, the state where he spent many of his formative years. I know the landscape. I understand the vocabulary. I am keenly aware of how a horrible war that the rebellious Confederacy lost over 150 years ago left wounds that in many circles have yet to heal. I have seen the battle flag of that failed insurrection flying in the bed of pickup trucks, hung in windows of trailers and houses, proudly displayed on government property, and waved through the halls of the U.S. Capitol by modern-day insurrectionists. I have seen the long, dark shadow cast by the iconic and mythical leader of those Confederate forces – a man who is still revered and memorialized all over the South with language usually reserved for Biblical characters described in Sunday School lessons and from pulpits.
It takes amazing courage for a southerner who is also a decorated officer of the U.S. Army and a retired history professor at West Point to openly and very publicly admit that Robert E. Lee committed treason and should be viewed as a traitor to his country. And that’s exactly what Ty Seidule has done. I applaud his bravery and the extensive research he has completed to make that claim. This is a damn fine book, not because it covers new ground or reveals any real hidden truths, but because someone in a position of authority and respect is making a form of confession that deserves serious consideration.
Seidule has heard every excuse in the book for why the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, for why the Confederacy didn’t really lose the war, and for why Robert E. Lee was such an honorable man. For the first twenty years of his life, he believed the excuses too. He probably doesn’t give quite enough credit to his wife for finally helping him escape the vortex of Confederate mythology. She forced him to question what it means to be a “Christian Southern Gentleman,” something he had aspired to from childhood through his graduation from Washington and Lee University, an institution that has been responsible more than any other place for perpetuating the cult of Robert E. Lee. His thoughts about what it means to be a Christian and a gentleman have drastically changed through the years, and his perception of the South is much clearer than it was when he was a young man.
This book should be required reading in just about every college and university in the South, and even in many other parts of the country where the Civil War is still romanticized beyond recognition for what it truly was: a rebellious uprising against the United States of America. Seidule spends a lot of time talking about the impact of the novel and movie “Gone with the Wind,” which is appropriate; however, I wish he had given some attention to the earlier movie, “Birth of a Nation,” especially in his discussions of the Ku Klux Klan. One of the most striking arguments he makes concerns the inaccurate terminology that has been used for generations to describe the Civil War, including the ridiculous names for the conflict itself, from “the recent unpleasantness” to “the war of northern aggression.”
Seidule also makes a convincing point about how using the term “Union” is an inappropriate way to describe the U.S. Armed Forces while they fought against the Confederacy, as if the Union were some entity separate from the United States. That distinction brings us back to the problem with Robert E. Lee, who abandoned his commission as an officer of the U.S. Army and chose to side with a rebellious confederacy of states – a domestic enemy against whom Lee had sworn to protect his country. In the end, Lee was more loyal to the State of Virginia and the other southern states than he was to the United States, and that makes him a traitor. And it’s about time southerners and the rest of the nation came to terms with that stinging but absolutely honest indictment.