I recently had the chance to read Ty Seidule’s new book Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause. As a Southerner, Seidule grew up in the shadow of Arlington Manor, immersed in a pro-South view of the world and of the war. Hero worship abounded.
Seidule carried this worldview well into adulthood, but his profession as a military historian—he’s professor emeritus of history at West Point—took him to some places that were, at first, uncomfortable. Following the facts led him to some surprising and, at times, upsetting realizations about the South’s greatest hero. Here’s his basic premise, laid out clearly on page 9 of the book:
Eleven southern states seceded to protect and expand an African American slave labor system. Unwilling to accept the results of a fair, democratic election, they illegally seized U.S. territory, violently. Together, they formed a new “Confederacy,” in contravention of the U.S. Constitution. Then West Point graduates like Robert E. Lee resigned their commissions, abrogating an oath sworn to God to defend the United States. During the bloodiest war in American history, Lee and his comrades killed more U.S. Army soldiers than any other enemy, ever. And they did it for the worst reason possible: to create a nation dedicated to exploit enslaved men, women, and children, forever.
Seidule isn’t just throwing bombs. The entire rest of the book backs up this perspective—one that he, himself, came to gradually, sometimes grudgingly, by looking at the facts and not the myths, legends, and passed-on tales. His ultimate verdict: “Robert E. Lee committed treason.”
The book has been controversial, especially among Southern partisans and neo-Confederates, but as one friend asked me after reading the book, “Tell me where he’s wrong.” I’ve chewed on that challenge for weeks, which is one of the reasons I’ve not yet written about the book. There is much to chew on if one reads Seidule’s work with the same kind of open mind that he himself had as he confronted facts and hard truths. Lost Causers will object, but Seidule’s journey from their very perspective to where he is now is remarkable.
Robert E. Lee and Me is one of the most important books to come out in years about the way we, as a society, remember the Civil War and what we do about it.