I had no intention of getting Ty Seidule’s Robert E. Lee and Me when I walked into the library earlier this summer, and indeed, I picked it up mainly due to a) curiosity and b) I thought it provided some interesting research for another writing project. But once I started reading it, I immediately realized the book’s timeliness — and I couldn’t put it down, even when I wanted to.
The United States is currently embroiled in various controversies concerning how our nation’s history, and in particular, its history of slavery and racism, should be discussed and taught to our children. Indeed, some states (e.g., Idaho, Texas) have passed controversial laws that essentially make it illegal to teach “Critical Race Theory” and theories of systemic racism. And this all comes on the back of the ongoing debates swirling around the removal of Confederate statues.
Ty Seidule grew up revering those statues, and especially those of General Robert E. Lee, who commanded the Confederate military during the Civil War. For a Virginia boy like Seidule, Lee wasn’t just the greatest general of all time, but also the greatest exemplar of honor and duty. He was the very model of a fine, chivalrous Southern Christian gentleman. It wasn’t until well into his military career that Seidule, now a retired brigadier general, began to second-guess Lee’s legacy and importance (not to mention his military prowess).
With its blend of personal memoir and history, Robert E. Lee and Me is Seidule’s attempt to better understand and come to terms with his long-term idolization of Lee, who Seidule now — spoiler alert! — rightly considers to be a traitor who violated his oath to defend slavery. And it’s a powerful and convicting attempt at that, as Seidule reflects on his Southern childhood, college studies, and even his Army career. But more importantly, it’s a clear-eyed, searing indictment of the “Lost Cause,” i.e., the lies that have been spun to defend the South’s rebellion.
While these lies (namely, that the South was fighting to defend states’ rights and not slavery) are easily disproved by statements from the Confederacy’s own leaders — which Seidule handily points out — they nevertheless continue to plague our nation, 150 years after the Civil War’s end.
Seidule pulls no punches in his writing, and indeed, there were times when I wanted to put the book down in disgust.
For example, when he details the violence and lynchings that haunted the South well into the 20th century. Or the extent to which places like his own alma mater, Washington and Lee University, or even his beloved U.S. Army have memorialized and even worshipped Robert E. Lee. (In one passage, Seidule describes his wife’s disgust upon seeing Lee’s prominent position in Washington and Lee’s chapel.) Or the lengths to which Southern states went to oppress Black people, be it passing voting laws or promoting educational curriculum that celebrated whiteness and downplayed slavery. (History really is cyclical, it seems.)
But to his credit, Seidule’s even-handed approach, backed by numerous historical notes and accounts — he’s the former head of the history department at the United States Military Academy — makes for a compelling and even convicting read. Much of the history that Seidule writes about was familiar to me. And even though I’m a Yankee born and raised, I read plenty as a child that lionized Lee and celebrated his allegiance to Virginia and the South, not as the treason that it was, but rather, as an indication of his sense of honor and duty. But I feel like Seidule’s book helped me, or rather, forced me to see it all so much more clearly.
Upon finishing Robert E. Lee and Me, I can’t help but think about the progress our country has made in terms of its racist past and, paradoxically, about the stunning lack of progress we’ve made. Yes, we’re starting to question the wisdom of honoring individuals like Robert E. Lee in public spaces, be it with statues or military bases. We’re starting to wrestle with the effects that systemic racism has had on generations of BIPOC people. We’re beginning to tell the stories of those who’ve been marginalized for centuries. These are all good things.
But as the Right’s hissy fit concerning Critical Race Theory and the hypocritical and bull-headed responses and power grabs from various “conservative” elected officials show, there’s still a long way to go, and a lot more to be talked about. As Seidule writes at the end of his excellent book (emphasis mine):
To combat racism, we must do more than acknowledge the long history of white supremacy. Policies must change. Yet, an understanding of history remains the foundation. The only way to prevent a racist future is to first understand our racist past.
With its honest, unflinching, and deeply personal story, I believe Robert E. Lee and Me can prove immensely helpful in fomenting that understanding.