Robert E. Lee and Me
In his latest book and upcoming lecture in Peekskill, retired army general and history professor Ty Seidule challenges our deeply held beliefs and assumptions about the Confederacy.
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Retired United States Army brigadier general and current Chamberlain Fellow and Visiting Professor of History at Hamilton College Ty Seidule’s latest book, Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause, is part history lecture, part meditation of the Civil War and its fallout, and part memoir.
In it, Seidule challenges the country’s deeply held legends and myths of the Confederacy — letting readers in on his own personal reckoning, too. Ahead of a virtual book talk at the Friends of the Field Library on March 3, Seidule sat down with Examiner+ to discuss his book, upbringing, and the hard truths and legacy of slavery our country still has a difficult time acknowledging.
Examiner+: Can you tell me about your upbringing in the South and the impact Robert E. Lee had on you?
Ty Seidule: I grew up in northern Virginia in the late 1960s and 70s, and in that culture, Lee was the greatest man who ever lived. On the scale of one to 10, he would have been an 11. That level of complete idolatry that people in the white South had of him was reinforced by textbooks from the state of Virginia, created to protest integration. My first chapter in the book was Meet Robert E. Lee, and he was a hero of Gone with the Wind, so everything about my life as a child made him [to be] the best.
Growing up, I wanted to be an educated Southern gentleman because that was the top of the food chain. That meant status and power. And Lee represented that.
E+: How did this understanding of Lee feed into the Lost Cause myth growing up?
Seidule: I grew up attending Episcopal High School, which is an elite boys’ boarding school in northern Virginia. There, it was the idea that the Old South was honorable, and Lee was a great example of that.
Also, if you think about family and my dad, we had pictures of the Confederate flags above the mantel, and he had Lee and Jackson in his classroom. So Lee was in every aspect of my life, at least those first years. [The myth was] that slavery was bad but Lee wasn’t really for slavery, which is just not true and completely false. These aspects of the Lost Cause just infused every aspect of my life.
E+: When did this idolatry of Lee and the Lost Cause myth — which was reinforced by the education systems, institutions, and people around you growing up — start to fall apart for you? How did you begin questioning it?
Seidule: It really changed in three ways. The first is, I went into the Army and my identity changed, starting really when I graduated from college. I went to college at Washington and Lee, and there, of course, he’s the great idol. It literally is General Lee’s college, so it certainly wasn’t there. But after that, I came into the Army and my identity changed from a southern gentleman — or somebody who tried to be that southern gentleman — to somebody who was an Army officer.
And the second thing was the person I married who is incapable of lying, so she changed me slowly and surely.
And then the third thing was history. In the 19th century, [West Point] banished Lee and the Confederates as traitors. They’re not in our cemetery, memorial, or memorial hall. That really got me [to realize] they were traitors. I looked at article three, section three of the U.S. Constitution, which says levying war against the U.S. is treason — the only crime in the Constitution. That made me go, “Wow, I see that.”
And then, I said, “Well, when did those monuments come up?” I realized that they came up in the 1930s, 1950s, and 1970s as a reaction to integration. So, a Confederate monument is always about white supremacy. That not only changed me – it really made me an activist, saying I’ve got to get this message out. And the message is that the Confederacy chose treason to preserve slavery.
E+: Do you feel like the Lost Cause myth perpetuates violence today against communities of color — whether it’s institutionally, politically, or from individual people — because so many white Southerners and Americans have not had a personal reckoning like yours?
Seidule: I call the Confederate flag the flag treason. It’s the flag that went to support slavery, and we saw it in the Capitol on January 6th. So yes, I certainly see that. I also see that flag flying here where I live in upstate New York.
This is the great lie of American history that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, that [slavery] was the best system of labor. All of these things are monstrous lies, and I think the most important thing is that they’re for a pernicious purpose, which is to ensure white political power.
Often, the symbols of power in the American South are the Confederate monuments outside courthouses. And they were put up at the same time that Southern states rewrote their constitutions to ensure that Black people could vote. They were very open about that. That same era was when the violent white terror campaign and lynchings [were happening].
So all of these things happened simultaneously to ensure that one group maintained power over another. That still has implications today in a myriad of different ways that so many scholars have looked at.
Now what I’m happy about, at least, is I think people are understanding that history is important to us, and the only way to prevent a racist future is to first understand our racist past.
E+: What do you hope readers get out of this book, particularly readers who may be at the beginning of their own journey of unlearning?
Seidule: What I want people to understand is the fact that Civil War was about slavery. I did a video (below) about that in 2015 and got huge death threats about it. So I think the first thing is to understand that history is dangerous.
Watch the video: Seidule on the Civil War and slavery
The second is that just because you’re looking at your past honestly, it doesn’t make you a bad person. I’m trying to lead by example by using my own story because I think by telling our own story, we make it easier for other people to go through that process themselves. It’s uncomfortable, but being uncomfortable causes no lasting damage.
We have a word for discomfort, and it’s education. I’m hoping that people will read it, even people of a certain age like me who grew up as a white person in the South, and acknowledge that this is the beginning of a better society for you, your children, and your grandchildren. Don’t fear it, embrace it because it’s going to lead to a better life.
The other part I hope they understand is that Lee is not a worthy subject of veneration. Commemoration is about our values. Commemoration isn’t history, it’s who you embrace and honor as a society. If that doesn’t reflect your values, then change your commemoration.
E+: How did you decide that you were going to write a historical book from a personal perspective?
Seidule: I do something that vanishingly small numbers of historians do, which is to write a memoir, to use my own story to tell a larger story. This is something that Black scholars and feminists have done for generations, but not many people like me do that because you have to be vulnerable to do it.
I tried telling people the story of the Civil War and about Confederate memorialization, and I got nowhere. I wasn’t very unsuccessful in convincing people. My wife asked me when I had one of those particularly unsuccessful events, “Are you telling your own story? Are you telling them why you’re so passionate about this?” I said, “No, of course not.” And she said if you’re ever to get [through to] anybody, you have to tell your own story.
I was invited in the weeks after the Charlottesville white supremacist violence to go to my alma mater and give a speech in Lee Chapel (below), which is his shrine in the South and where he’s buried. He is literally on the altar in the chapel, and framed by that altar, I called Lee a traitor for slavery and told my school it needed to do better and no longer be a Lost Cause school. And I got a standing ovation.
Watch the video: Seidule’s speech at Lee Chapel
Even though I was giving them some hard facts, I realized that I had a way to do this, which is to tell a story about the Lost Cause through my own story. That was really the major part of it. And then I just went and researched each part of my life.
E+: Was there anything in particular you wanted to do while researching this book?
Seidule: I wanted to make sure that I looked at the heroes I should have had. My hero was Lee when I lived in Virginia. It should have been Samuel Tucker, who became a lawyer at the age of 20. No law school would take him. He was the leader of one of the first sit-ins in America in 1939 at Alexandria Public Library in my hometown. He was somebody who fought bravely in World War II as one of the few Black infantry Army officers. And then, he had over 150 civil rights cases when he went back to Virginia. So here’s this hero that should have been mine [growing up].
I tried to make sure that I saw the heroes, which I did. They were everywhere, all around me. I just couldn’t see it before because of this Lost Cause ideology. And I hope that’s something else that people do: realize that there is so much history in their hometown and their own life. And if they deal with that, particularly the difficult parts, they will get a better understanding of themselves and their community.
E+: Have you received any pushback for the work you’re doing?
Seidule: In 2015, I made a video (for PragerU, below), and it went viral. It had like three million views. Basically, what I said [in the video] was that the citizens of the Southern states were willing to fight and die to preserve the morally repugnant institution of slavery.
Watch the video:
I got death threats, and the Army investigated me for political speech. On the left, The Nation said I was a propagandist for the Army, and on the right, Stars and Stripes said that I was too close to the political organization that I published it through. It got nothing but hate.
This time, it was much more positive than I could have imagined. I published [the book] right after George Floyd’s murder. It was probably like 20 to 30 positive comments to one negative one, whereas the video on slavery was the exact opposite: 30 to 50 negative comments to one positive one.
I have been invited back to many of the places [that shaped me] like Episcopal High School, West Point, and William and Lee. I think, for the most part, most people agree. But there is a minority of people trying to debunk my argument. I get lots of one-star reviews on Amazon and lots of negative comments on Twitter and Facebook. But I take that as a source of pride. I know that if I get people angry or upset about this, I am talking clearly enough and forcefully enough to make my message heard.
I also know I’m very lucky to be able to have the background I do to make this decision. I’m a retired brigadier general of the U.S. Army, and I’m also a Ph.D. historian and a white Southern man. So I realized that is harder for some people to go against me than it might be a younger person or a person of color who is saying the same thing.
But to anyone who has those [negative] comments, I say bring them on. They’re fighting a rearguard action, and the facts are becoming more and more apparent to more Americans.
E+: You have a book talk coming up in Peekskill tomorrow (March 3). What’s your connection like to the area?
Seidule: I feel very connected to the Hudson Valley. I was on the board of the Putnam County History History Museum for a number of years. And of course, I lived at West Point for almost 20 years. My wife and I are very connected to the Hudson Valley, we love it, and our sons live in the city.
E+: What do you hope attendees take away from the event and your book?
Seidule: What I’m hoping for is that people will listen. I can’t control what other people do, but I can control what I say, which is being honest about myself as a way for hope. Maybe [attendees] will look at their own lives and see the ways they grew up that did not reflect their values today.
Or if not that, at least they can listen, hear my story, and understand some more facts about the Civil War, reconstruction, and the Lost Cause myth and how they have hurt our nation. To have hope that, if we can change this narrative, we can become more empathetic people and a better nation. If we look at the history of our country with more honest eyes, it’s going to do nothing but make us better.
To attend Seidule’s virtual book talk tomorrow, March 3, from 7-8:30 p.m., register online.
Bailey Hosfelt is a full-time reporter at Examiner Media, with a special interest in LGBTQ+ issues and the environment. Originally from Connecticut and raised in West Virginia, the maternal side of their family has roots in Rye. Prior to Examiner, Bailey contributed to City Limits, where they wrote about healthcare and climate change. Bailey graduated from Fordham University with a bachelor's in journalism and currently resides in Brooklyn with their girlfriend and two cats, Lieutenant Governor and Hilma. When they're not reporting, Bailey can be found picking up free books off the street, shooting film photography, and scouring neighborhood thrift stores for the next best find. You can follow Bailey on Twitter at @baileyhosfelt.
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