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

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

by Ty Seidule

Robert E. Lee and MeMany books consider issues of race and America’s struggle with its legacy of slavery.  But no others possess Ty Seidule’s unique and personal perspective on this issue, one informed not simply by his expertise as a historian and teacher, but also by his upbringing in the American south followed by his 36-year service as a U.S. Army officer.  The work is an engaging and prescient combination of memoir, history, cultural analysis, and moral outrage.  That outrage stems from the revelation that his childhood hero, one-time U.S. Army officer and later Confederate general Robert E. Lee, was in fact a constructed image designed to facilitate and promote white racial dominance in the years after the Civil War.  Like thousands, even millions of other people, Seidule had practically deified Lee as a paragon of virtue and honor, a reverence that has served as a crucial component of the myth of the Lost Cause created shortly after the war’s end.  Moreover, both the myth in general and the idolization of Lee in particular also obscured and belittled the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of U.S. Army soldiers who fought and died to preserve the country from insurrection and free millions from bondage.  In this regard, the book is unapologetically a clarion call to identify and combat the insidious ways in which the Lost Cause has endured, particularly within U.S. military institutions.

As a memoir, chapters follow the phases of Seidule’s life.  These start with his young childhood, continuing with his schooling in Alexandria, Virginia and then Monroe, Georgia, college at Washington and Lee University, his army career in the operational force and then later on the faculty of West Point (where he ultimately led the Department of History), and finally culminating in a critical assessment of Lee’s career and legacy.  Seidule does not provide a comprehensive accounting of all his experiences.  Rather, he provides the personal details needed to contrast his prior reverence for Lee and idealization of the notion of a “southern gentleman” with his ignorance of southern racism and racist history when he was younger – thus offering his own attitudes and beliefs as evidence of the powerful and enduring effectiveness of the Lost Cause mythos.  Among the more powerful of these reminiscences is Seidule’s recounting of his pride and awe attending Washington & Lee University and attending events in Lee Chapel, essentially a shrine to the Confederate leader.

In his chapter on his West Point tenure, he offers details that explain how came to question the Lost Cause mythos.  The discoveries Seidule made as a result provide the history he offers in all the book’s chapters – especially histories of people and events of which had been previously unaware, ones ignored due to the widespread infatuation with the Lost Cause.  These include Black leaders who fought for African American liberties well before the Civil Rights movement, such as Virginia’s Samuel Tucker.  They also include incidents of lynching and other violence, such as those in or near Monroe, Georgia where Seidule attended high school – some of which occurred after he left for college and included among their victims Black veterans.  He also considers the historical development of the places he encountered over this life and how it intersected with efforts to sustain white supremacy. 

Seidule marries that assessment, along with a critique of his own understandings and beliefs, with cultural treatments of the media and events that perpetuated the Lost Cause and embedded it in American popular discourse.  The most obvious example here is Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (book and film), but also include his favorite childhood book Meet Robert E. Lee, the Disney movie Song of the South, as well as speeches by prominent figures like Jubal Early and Charles Francis Adams, Jr. that glorified Lee.  Especially powerful is Seidule’s analysis of how U.S. Army institutions themselves have become imbued or beholden to the Lost Cause mythos.  These include naming Army posts after Confederates, a legacy primarily of attempting to appease local white populations when the Army needed to dramatically expand its number of facilities for the World Wars; opening up Arlington National Cemetery for the internment of Confederate soldiers; and later the establishment of a monument there honoring Confederate dead, a result of mostly of efforts by the politically influential United Daughters of the Confederacy.  West Point has also been infiltrated with the Lost Cause mythos.  Lee Road and Lee Barracks are perhaps the most prominent examples here, but they also include Reconciliation Plaza.  Dedicated in 2001, it features likenesses of Grant and Lee an opposite sides and commemorates how West Point graduates who fought on both sides assisted each other after the war – without addressing issues of slavery or racism.

Robert E. Lee and Me is the latest book to explore how people use the past to promote particular points of view, generally by ignoring some historical facts to emphasize others.  In 1997, Carol Reardon’s Pickett’s Charge in History and Memory demonstrated that the name most people use for the Confederate assault on the Battle of Gettysburg’s final day stems from a narrative that emphasizes the role of Virginian troops, as opposed to those from other states.  About the same time, Tony Horowitz’s Confederates in the Attic offered a travelogue where he explored the various ways contemporary southerners derive meaning from and perpetuate many myths about the Civil War.  But Seidule’s critical analysis of his own beliefs and the factors that shaped them offer a unique insight into why the Lost Cause remains so pervasive.  Decisive military leadership, suffering and sacrifice on behalf of a cause: these are attributes societies naturally want to honor and commemorate.  But the progenitors of the Lost Cause myth employed those sentiments to mask the racist goals of the Confederacy, and thus helped perpetuate a variant of white supremacy short of outright slavery.

Seidule will have none of it.  And despite frustrations and setbacks he details in the book, his efforts along with others are fostering change.  West Point now has Davis Barracks, named after General Benjamin O. Davis Jr., who after being ostracized during his entire tenure at West Point, graduated and went on to a storied military career which included commanding the 99th Fighter Squadron, the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II.  Seidule currently serves as Vice Chair of the National Commission on Base Renaming.

Before concluding, I should note that I taught military history at West Point when Ty Seidule was deputy head, and later head of the Department of History.  I knew him as passionate, dedicated, and skilled leader and instructor, but had no knowledge at that time of his upbringing.  Reading his book today, I find it of great importance for the Pritzker Military Museum & Library.  Ours is an institution that honors the service of citizen soldiers, those who fight, and who have sacrificed, for American ideals.  Seidule’s book cannot tell us how to address the troops who served the Confederacy, and the families who want to remember them.  But it starkly reminds us that it was the soldiers and sailors of the United States who saved the country and eliminated slavery, including 180,000 Black troops.  It was they who preserved the promise of America, including the promise of equality, even as the nation has struggled to realize it since.  Given that our nation’s security depends on forces that are more diverse and inclusive today that they ever have been, we should all harken to Seidule’s call to challenge the Lost Cause mythos.

This Historian's Perspective has been submitted by Dr. Matthew S. Muehlbauer, the Chief Military Historian at the Pritzker Military Museum & Library.