At the same time the Lee myth was being created, former rebels began reinforcing white supremacy all across the South. In Walton County, a rural community in Georgia, the Ku Klux Klan terrorized freedmen after the war. In 1871, Jake Daniels, an African American blacksmith from the county, was killed by 20 disguised men after refusing to repair a buggy for a White man, who still owed him money from previous jobs. The Klansmen showed up at Daniels’s door in the middle of the night. Daniels went outside but quickly recognized the danger. He tried to reenter his house but was shot in the back of the head. The men then shot him five or six more times before leaving the scene.
This type of violence was not uncommon in the South in the 19th and 20th centuries. In Georgia alone, 589 people were lynched between 1877 and 1950. As Ty Seidule writes in his powerful new book, “Robert E. Lee and Me,” “If Lee and Confederate worship created one side of the white supremacy coin, violent terror to enforce racial domination provided the other side.”
Seidule tells the story of his transformation from a believer in the Lost Cause to a critic. Growing up in Virginia and Georgia, he worshiped Lee. It was only later, as the head of the history department at the U.S. Military Academy, that he discovered the truth about Confederate myths. Seidule writes: “I grew up with a lie, a series of lies. Now, as a historian and a retired U.S. Army officer, I must do my best to tell the truth about the Civil War, and the best way to do that is to show my own dangerous history.”
Seidule has written a vital account of the destructiveness of the Lost Cause ideology throughout American history. He shows how films, textbooks and memorials promoted white supremacy by glorifying traitors and enslavers like Lee and other Confederate leaders. Perhaps the best attribute of this fine book is the author’s honesty. When talking of his personal metamorphosis, he vows to “quit hiding behind the impartial, know-it-all historian and open up about the southerner, the boy who grew up on Lee idolatry, and the man who wrapped his identity around the heroes of the Confederacy. Be honest. Be vulnerable. Above all, tell the truth.”
Initially, telling the truth mustn’t have been easy for Seidule, who admits, “I grew up on the evil lies of the Lost Cause.” His early life was shaped by white supremacy at every turn. Seidule, whose father was a teacher, lived for a while on the campus of a school in Alexandria, Va., that one historian called a “Lost Cause denominational high school.” Later, he attended George Walton Academy in Monroe, Ga. — a school that had one purpose, according to Seidule: “Ensure white kids didn’t have to go to school with Black kids.”
It would be many years before he learned of the racial terror that persisted in Monroe after the Civil War. After a quadruple lynching in 1946, The Washington Post published an op-ed describing Monroe as “lynchtown.” Eventually, Seidule attended Washington and Lee University, where Lee served as president from 1865 to 1870 (when the institution was called Washington College). Remarkably, the school still has a chapel dedicated to the former rebel chieftain, with a statue of Lee prominently displayed. As Seidule dryly notes, “My school worshipped Lee, literally.”
The key to Seidule’s rejection of the Lost Cause was his realization, while teaching military history at West Point, that the Confederate leadership committed treason “to protect and expand chattel slavery.” As a scholar, Seidule could no longer make excuses for the violent and degrading slave culture of the South. Describing an antebellum plantation, he imagined “coffle, rape, torture” and came to believe that plantations should be called “enslaved labor farms” instead. He also points out that there were eight colonels from Virginia in the U.S. Army on the eve of the war. Seven remained loyal to their oath, while only one, Lee, betrayed his country. The common belief that Lee did what every other Southern officer did isn’t true. “We must remember,” Seidule reminds us, “Lee fought for perpetual slavery.”
While at the U.S. Military Academy in 2006, Seidule had an “aha!” moment that revealed an important question, if not the answer: Why were there so many monuments to Lee at West Point? He headed to the archives to learn more. From his research, he gained an invaluable insight: A barracks had been named after Lee just one year after 44 Black cadets entered the academy. “I have no ‘smoking gun’ that academy officials named Lee Barracks because of the tenfold increase in African Americans,” he writes, “but I keep finding Confederate memorialization whenever West Point increases integration.”
Seidule noticed a similar process in Virginia during the 1960s and 1970s. Just as the state was being pushed toward integration, it began introducing textbooks that inculcated the Lost Cause view of the Civil War. “The Virginia textbooks formed one of the most powerful testaments to white supremacy, an insidious monument that poisoned children’s minds for a generation,” he writes.
It’s difficult to imagine a more timely book than “Robert E. Lee and Me.” At this pivotal moment, when we are debating some of the most painful aspects of our history, Seidule’s unsparing assessment of the Lost Cause provides an indispensable contribution to the discussion. “We find it hard to confront our past because it’s so ugly,” Seidule concludes, “but the alternative to ignoring our racist history is creating a racist future.”
Robert E. Lee and Me
A Southerner’s Reckoning With the Myth of the Lost Cause
By Ty Seidule
291 pp. $27.99