Thursday, August 12, 2021

Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner's Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause - Ty Seidule


Ty Seidule’s Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause was not an easy book for me to read and consider. My reluctance to read the book stemmed from my nervousness that a handful of my boyhood heroes were going to be exposed as frauds. But that’s not exactly what happened. Rather, I learned that those boyhood heroes of mine, while not the men I was taught they were, never pretended that they were. No, the actual frauds turned out to be the historians who for decades after the Civil War pretended that these heroes of mine were people they really never came close to resembling in real life. According to Seidule, the Lost Cause was the fraud, not the Confederate Army generals who fought so long, hard, and bravely to keep millions of black slaves in chains. The generals knew who they were and why they were fighting…and so did their contemporaries. 


Seidule is a man who literally grew up in Robert E. Lee’s shadow. He is a Virginian by birth who spent much of his boyhood in Georgia. He is a military man of decades experience, and he taught history to West Point cadets for a number of years. He is a graduate of Virginia’s Washington and Lee University. You just can’t get much more “deep South” than that. He grew up on myths about the Civil War that, especially following the 2015 violence in Charlottesville, were finally being challenged even in the South. He puts it this way:


“The problem is that the myths I learned were just flat-out, fundamentally wrong. And not just wrong in a moral sense, as if that weren’t significant enough, but wrong factually, whether through deception, denial, or willful ignorance. The myths and lies I learned promoted a form of racial hierarchy and white supremacy.”


Then, at the end of the book’s first chapter, the author begins to make his case with one particularly telling paragraph:


“The Civil War left between 650,000 and 750,000 dead because the Confederates fought to create a slave republic based on a morally bankrupt ideology of white supremacy. White southerners went to war to protect and expand chattel slavery but suffered a catastrophic defeat…Yet the former Confederates succeeded beyond their wildest dreams in changing the narrative of the Civil War. Lee’s biographer Douglas Southall Freeman wrote to the Pulitzer Prize-winning southern novelist Ellen Glasgow, ‘We Southerners had one consolation. If our fathers lost the war, you and Margaret Mitchell…have won the peace.’”


Even the titles of the book’s following six chapters are revealing:


  • Chapter 2  My Hometown: A Hidden History of Slavery, Jim Crow, and Integration
  • Chapter 3  My Adopted Hometown: A Hidden History as “Lynchtown”
  • Chapter 4  My College: The Shrine of the Lost Cause
  • Chapter 5  My Military Career: Glorifying Confederates in the U.S. Army
  • Chapter 6  My Academic Career: Glorifying Robert E. Lee at West Point
  • Chapter 7  My Verdict: Robert E. Lee Committed Treason to Preserve Slavery


Robert E. Lee and Me recounts one man’s journey, but it is a journey that more and more Southerners are embarking upon these days. Seidule’s book, including its thirty pages of footnotes, is a good place to begin that journey. It is a reminder, too, that history books are not to be taken at face value, and this includes the history books being written today as well as the ones written earlier. Readers will do well to keep this in mind because today’s historians are no more trustworthy than those of the past. History is written by the “victor,” and it always will be. 


Ty Seidule 

8 comments:

  1. If we could finally "reckon with the myth of the Lost Cause," that would certainly be a step in the right direction.

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    1. I bought the whole lost Cause thing as a kid, mostly I think, because of the big centennial celebration of the War that happened from 1961-1965. The romance of fighting for a lost cause, etc. appealed to me as a young teen. Somehow, I never associated all of that, including the centennial, with the Civil Rights movement that was going on even though I was sympathetic to that cause, too.

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  2. This sounds fascinating, Sam. As a Southerner, I never understood Confederate glorification. The number of dead on both sides was horrific, and most of Confederates who died had little to do with slavery. Another example of young men who went to their deaths for a false cause.

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    1. Jen, I think that's right. As usual, most of the soldiers on both sides of the conflict were poor men fighting aa rich man's war. The book was not so much an eye-opener for me as it was a solid explanation of what happened from approximately the 1890s through the 1950s. The Lost Cause idea was manufactured to help justify the way that blacks continued to be treated in the South during those years. As a kid, I saw it firsthand, but even though it bothered me at the time, I tended to ignore and try to stay clear of it instead of speaking out. I think I was typical.

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  3. This does sound like a fascinating read, and good that the author seems to be trying to get the facts right and set the record straight.

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    1. It is well researched and I feel that it is factually correct even though I felt a couple of times that the author was stretching a bit to reach a particular conclusion from those facts. But what he had to say, overall, struck home for me.

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  4. Wow, that is a title that caught my attention. It was very conflicting to grow up in Alabama in the 50s and 60's. My school in grades 1-4 was Robert E. Lee Elementary School in Birmingham, Alabama. My younger sister and brother went there through grade 8. My parents were in favor of integration at a time and a place when that was unpopular, but I don't know if any other families I knew at that time were. I know some who moved away from the high school I went to when it was integrated. I am sure reading this book would be illuminating for me.

    I am in the middle of reading Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution (and have been for quite a while). It is a very difficult read for me.

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    1. Tracy, I grew up in the fifties and sixties in southeast Texas and went to segregated schools until I reached college, so I understand completely that way of growing up. The biggest eye-opener for me was how purposeful all the Confederate monuments - and the whole Lost Cause story - were, and how they sprouted up during the Southern push to keep blacks as second class citizens, etc. As a boy, I had assumed that all those statues, etc. were erected within a few years of the Civil War...little did I know that they were almost all 20th century tools of intimidation and that they were built to send a clear message to blacks.

      I think you would find this one very interesting. And I can easily understand why reading Carry Me Home would be so difficult a read for you.

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