Robert E. Lee and Us

If there is one book to recommend as an introduction to the ongoing debate about Civil War memory and Confederate monuments it has to be Ty Seidule’s Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning With the Myth of the Lost Cause.

The book is part memoir, part historical analysis. “For decades,” Seidule writes, “I believed the Confederates and Lee were romantic warriors for a doomed but noble cause.” Seidule explores his relationship with the Lost Cause and deification of Lee and other Confederate leaders from a young southern boy in Virginia and Georgia to his education at Washington & Lee University and a military career that included a position in the history department at West Point.

Glowing reviews of the book have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and countless other newspapers and magazines. The book’s high ranking at Amazon suggests that it has done extremely well since its publication in January. Seidule was recently appointed to the commission that will examine military bases named after Confederate military commanders.

We first met Seidule back in 2015 in a short video about the cause of the Civil War that was produced by Prager University. In it he clearly lays explains how slavery led to secession and war in 1861.

Nothing in the video is particularly controversial, but it quickly went viral, generating millions of views and heated debate. Here was a man in military uniform not only laying out what every reputable historian recognizes as the standard history, but at the end offered the following: “As a soldier I am proud that the United States army, my army, defeated the Confederates. In its finest hour, soldiers, wearing this blue uniform, almost two hundred thousand of them, former slaves themselves, destroyed chattel slavery, freed 4 million men, women, and children from human bondage and saved the United States of America.”

I’ve read numerous comments on social media over the past few weeks that speak to this book’s importance. Many people identify with aspects of Seidule’s personal story, especially the influence of the Lost Cause at an early age. We not only see the difficulty in placing that narrative in check, but along the way are exposed to the history of lynching and segregation—a history that was intentionally distorted and/or ignored altogether for the purposes of white solidarity around the Lost Cause myth.

The most painful part of this journey for Seidule seems to have been the realization that the history he continued to embrace through part of his adulthood helped to prop up and justify a culture of white supremacy, even at his beloved West Point.

What I like most of all about this book is that it gives people—who are likely to resist—permission to step back and question what they were taught about the Civil War at an early age. Once again, having a former military officer leading this charge moves this discussion beyond Left v. Right. I don’t know anything about Seidule’s political convictions, but he doesn’t strike me as part of some Radical Left conspiracy that some people believe is committed to erasing the past.

The personal journey that Seidule shares in these pages will benefit communities across the country that are struggling with their own questions about the future of Confederate monuments. This is a book that can make a difference.

13 comments… add one
  • georgelamplugh Mar 18, 2021 @ 5:14

    Thanks for this post, Kevin. Seidule’s book had heretofore escaped my notice, but, reading your thoughts and those of previous commenters, it seems to me a must-read. I’ve just ordered it!

    • Kevin Levin Mar 18, 2021 @ 5:42

      I am sure you will enjoy it.

  • Mike Furlan Mar 8, 2021 @ 16:26

    “The book is part memoir, part historical analysis. “For decades,” Seidule writes, “I believed the Confederates and Lee were romantic warriors for a doomed but noble cause.””

    The reason that Seidule changed his mind is because of scholars like Kevin who have over more than 100 years been contributing, year by year, book by book to a body of knowledge that has completely discredited the “Lost Cause” mythology.

    As Wikipedia says about U.B. Phillips: [He]” systematically hunted down and revealed plantation records and unused manuscript sources. An example of pioneering comparative work was “A Jamaica Slave Plantation” (1914). His methods and use of sources shaped the research agenda of most succeeding scholars”

    Systematically hunted down. An understatement of all the work involved. And finally it has paid off.

  • Msb Mar 8, 2021 @ 5:34

    Indeed an excellent book. Powerful story of awakening to the racism in which one was raised. Seidule is an excellent choice for the Commission.

  • Ray Allen Mar 7, 2021 @ 18:18

    And this is why I subscribe. Thank you for this post and video link.

  • Walter D Kamphoefner Mar 7, 2021 @ 12:05

    This also brings to mind the work of one of my former profs, Charles Dew. He lays out his youthful indoctrination at the beginning of his Apostles of Disunion, and goes in greater detail in his The Making of a Racist: A Southerner Reflects on Family, History, and the Slave Trade (2016), and in brief form in a back-page essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Unmaking of a Racist,” and without a paywall in the Williams College magazine:

    • Kevin Levin Mar 7, 2021 @ 12:12

      That’s exactly right. The introduction to Apostles is very powerful. Unfortunately, I have yet to read his memoir.

      • Mark Dunkelman Mar 11, 2021 @ 13:33

        Dew’s The Making of a Racist is a moving and important book. It inspired me to write to the author–something I rarely do–to thank him for his work. Add it to your reading list for sure.

        • Kevin Levin Mar 11, 2021 @ 13:38

          Hi Mark,

          Great to hear from you. Will put it on my reading list. Thanks.

      • Matt McKeon Mar 13, 2021 @ 4:21

        I read Dew’s memoir several years ago. Why did he have racist beliefs? “Because the people I loved and respected, and who loved me, taught them to me.” It’s a good book.

        • Kevin Levin Mar 13, 2021 @ 6:55

          I will eventually get around to reading it. Thanks.

  • David T. Dixon Mar 7, 2021 @ 8:58

    Nice post Kevin. You might reconsider your statement, “the Radical Left, whose sole goal is the erasing of the past.” Certainly that is not their sole or even primary goal; rather social justice, true equality and, for some, a radical restructuring of our government and our economic system. Perhaps you meant that some people view the Radical Left that way, but to state it the way you did suggests that is your view. Please clarify.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 7, 2021 @ 9:07

      That was sloppy on my part. Thanks for pointing it out.

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