Ty Seidule on Exposing Robert E. Lee, Lost Cause Myths, White Supremacy, and Treason
tags: Civil War,memorials,Robert E. Lee,West Point,Lost Cause
I grew up with a series of lies that helped further white supremacy. That’s uncomfortable. To see the real agony, think about the millions of people who lived their entire lives enslaved, knowing that enslavement would be the future for their children and their children’s children. Think of living with the violence of the Jim Crow era as an African American.
Ty Seidule, Robert E. Lee and Me
In his candid and searing recent memoir, Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause (St. Martin’s Press), retired US Army general and renowned professor of history Ty Seidule recounts his odyssey from youthful hero worship of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and an indoctrination in racist myths of the Lost Cause to acclaim as a historian devoted to challenging the poisonous white supremacist lies about slavery, the Civil War, African American inferiority, Jim Crow segregation, and the deified Lee.
As a distinguished scholar of history, a decorated soldier, and a native of the South, Professor Seidule writes with rare authority about race, the Civil War, and the myths and lies about the war that he learned from an education presented through the lens of racism and Confederate mythology. He explains how his early beliefs were shaped by white supremacist ideology that demeaned and dehumanized Black citizens. These racist views imbued Southern culture and were widely shared throughout the country in textbooks, popular periodicals, and the media, with movies such as the award-winning Gone with the Wind and Disney’s Song of the South rife with degrading stereotypes of African Americans.
And Professor Seidule vividly describes his path to understanding and his emergence as a leader for historical truth and for a reckoning on race. He demolishes the myths about the saintly Lee and, based on extensive research and overwhelming evidence, concludes that Lee was a traitor to his country who fought to preserve slavery. And, as Professor Seidule describes the military’s veneration of Confederate leaders in naming of bases and other actions, he rejects honoring of those who fought to preserve slavery and committed treason in the effort.
He further details how he became a scholar of our deeply conflicted past, and how that study revealed the noxious, insidious influence of racist ideas that have poisoned white minds since the dawn of slavery. And he considers the timely and vexing issue of how otherwise seemingly admirable people could embrace the odious tenets of white supremacy and the oppression of others.
Professor Seidule’s powerful personal observations and insights are especially timely as our nation continues to suffer serious divisions on issues of race and democracy. He urges that understanding our past is critical to confronting and stopping the generational transmission of pernicious racist ideas.
Ty Seidule is Professor Emeritus of History at West Point where he taught for two decades. He served in the U.S. Army for thirty-six years, retiring as a brigadier general. He currently teaches history and serves as the Chamberlain Fellow at Hamilton College as well as a New America Fellow. He is the author or editor of six books of military history, three of which won distinguished writing prizes, including The West Point History of the Civil War. Also a leader in digital history, Professor Seidule created and co-edited the award-winning West Point History of Warfare, the largest enhanced digital book in any field. His video lecture “Was the Civil War About Slavery” has had more than 30 million views on social media. He also serves as the vice chair of the Congressional Naming Commission, which will rename Department of Defense assets that honor the Confederate States of America. He graduated from Washington and Lee University and earned his doctorate at Ohio State University.
Professor Seidule generously responded to questions about his work and his new book by email.
Robin Lindley: Congratulations Professor Seidule on your candid new memoir Robert E. Lee and Me and thank you for considering questions. You have a distinguished background as a military historian and author. What inspired you to write your revelatory memoir now on your indoctrination in the myths and lies of the Confederate Lost Cause and your rigorous exploration of the reality of our history of racism and white supremacy?
Professor Ty Seidule: When I was at West Point, I chaired our memorialization committee. We created a new memorial room to the 1500+ Academy graduates who “gave the last full measure of devotion” to the nation from the War of 1812 to the present, including more than 100 alumni killed since 9/11. One decision caused a ruckus. Should the West Point graduates who fought and died in Confederate gray be included in the new Memorial Room? I argued, stridently, no! After all, Confederates abrogated their oath, killed US Army soldiers, and committed treason for the worse possible reason: to create a slave republic. Yet, I lost. The superintendent wanted to include the names.
I went home, defeated, to tell my wife. She asked me if I had told everyone why I was so passionate. Why the issues were so important to me? No, I told her. I’m a historian. I tell other people’s stories. She told me if I wanted to convince anyone, I needed to be honest and tell my story.
Then, in 2017, Washington and Lee University invited me to give a talk in Lee Chapel, where Robert E. Lee is buried. I told my story and called Lee a traitor for slavery. The audience gave me a standing ovation. I realized that if I was honest about my own story, I might be able to convince others about the facts of the Civil War and the Lost Cause more readily. So, I decided to do what few historians do. Use my own story to try to reach a broader audience.
Robin Lindley: In your new book, you describe your virtual reverence for Robert E. Lee, and how your education as a child and young adult was imbued with Confederate myths and racist history. At one point as a child, you ranked Lee as an “11” out of a scale of 10, and ranked Jesus at five. How do you see the origins of your adoration of Lee? Did your parents and teachers encourage your embrace of Lost Cause myths and the veneration of Lee when you grew up in the 1960s?
Professor Ty Seidule: Every aspect of my life encouraged me to see Lee as the epitome of a Southern gentleman. I wanted to be a Virginia gentleman because that meant status. My first chapter book was Meet Robert E. Lee. Lee looked like a military god on loan from Mt Olympus, framed by a gigantic Confederate flag. Today, it’s hard to imagine just how reverential Lee was to the white South, especially in Virginia.
Robin Lindley: What was your view of the causes of Civil War and its outcome as a child and young adult?
Professor Ty Seidule: It wasn’t something I remember thinking about. My culture focused on the romantic, underdog Confederates who fought nobly for a doomed cause. But honestly, I don’t remember thinking or hearing anything about the cause, the purpose. That was the problem. The purpose of the war and the war itself weren’t linked.
Robin Lindley: You vividly describe your college experience at Washington and Lee University—a veritable shrine to Robert E. Lee, who was seen as the paradigm of the Southern Christian gentleman. What did you learn about Lee and the college’s efforts to deify Lee, the former president of the college?
Professor Ty Seidule: The entire history of the school revolved around deifying Lee until very recently. Fundraising was successful for years by its association with Lee. Lee Chapel was called by the University in the 1920s “The Westminster Abbey of the Confederacy.” In fact, Lee Chapel is more a reliquary to a saint than a chapel. His basement office remains untouched from the day he died in 1870. Traveller, his warhorse, buried outside Lee’s crypt, often has apples left by tourists.
The fact that Lee’s statue lies on the altar in the Chapel’s apse clearly shows who is venerated – and it’s not Jesus. When my wife saw it for the first time, she understood that the school literally worshipped Lee. Her reaction? “Get me out of here!”
Robin Lindley: It may surprise some readers that so many bases and other US military facilities are named for Confederate leaders. Why did the US military honor traitors to the US in this way?
Professor Ty Seidule: Yes. Several of our most prestigious army posts honor the enemy. The War Department named them during WWI and WWII when the army was a segregationist institution, and the South was a racial police state.
Black people did protest these names, but they had been violently excluded from voting and could not change it. But to me it’s outrageous that the US Army, the most diverse workforce in the country, honors the enemy. An enemy who fought for slavery and killed US Army soldiers. Some like Henry Benning and John Brown Gordon never served in the US Army. Others like Braxton Bragg, Leonidas Polk, John Bell Hood and other West Point graduates chose to fight against the country that educated them. Lee served in US Army for over 30 years before choosing treason to preserve slavery.
Robin Lindley: You had a distinguished teaching career at the US Military Academy at West Point. You note that Lee casts a long shadow there with numerous tributes to the Confederate general. What are a few examples of this admiration for Lee at West Point that struck you?
Professor Ty Seidule: I lived on Lee Road, by Lee Gate, in Lee Housing area. At West Point our barracks are named for America’s greatest military heroes, Washington, MacArthur, Eisenhower, Bradley, Scott, Sherman, Grant, and Pershing. We recently named our newest barracks after Benjamin O. Davis, Jr, the first Black West Point grad in the twentieth century. But one barracks bears Lee name. When was it named? The early 1970s. I counted more than a dozen memorials to Lee at West Point.
The first Lee memorial came about in the 1930s and the last in 2002. That’s part of what changed me. West Point was an anti-Confederate monument in the nineteenth century. No Confederates in the prestigious cemetery. No Confederates in the Memorial Hall. None on the towering Battle Monument to the US Army dead from the “War of the Rebellion.”
“Duty, Honor, Country,” West Point’s motto is anti-Confederate. West Point in the nineteenth century saw Lee and his Confederate comrades as traitors. Lee made a comeback when West Point moved towards equal rights and integration. And that really informed my understanding of Confederate memorialization. It’s always about white supremacy.
Robin Lindley: Thanks for that striking observation. You’re a retired general and renowned expert on military history. Was Lee a good soldier and general?
Professor Ty Seidule: For years, I let the smell of gunpowder seduce me into answering that question. No more!
Lee chose treason to preserve slavery. His army kidnapped Black people during the Antietam and Gettysburg campaigns and brought them back for sale in Virginia. Lee’s army depended on enslaved people for much of their logistics – cooks, teamsters, nurses, engineers, farriers, and servants. The Army of Northern Virginia was an enslaving army. And Lee desperately wanted more enslaved labor throughout the war. Think of that for a minute. What other army depended so thoroughly on enslaved labor for its logistics? Also, Lee’s army routinely executed Black prisoners of war. Too often, we look at the tactics of war and forget the purpose.
I cover Lee as a strategist and tactician only after I clearly talk about treason and slavery.
Robin Lindley: Lee was an enslaver. How did he treat enslaved people? Did he ever emancipate slaves or call for abolition of slavery?
Professor Ty Seidule: Lee was a cruel enslaver. He enslaved people from the time his mother died soon after his graduation until 1863. When Lee’s father-in-law died in 1857, Lee took control of three enslaved labor farms for more than two years (I won’t call them plantations, which evoke images of the wind whispering through the Spanish Moss. Plantations are more Dachau than Disneyland).
Lee’s father-in-law recognized enslaved marriages and kept families together. Lee tried to maximize his profits at the expense of enslaved people by using the hiring system to break apart all but one family. He also ordered Wesley Norris and his sister whipped, telling the constable to “Lay it on well.”
As for emancipation, he once said that freedom would come on God’s time. He certainly fought for slavery, not emancipation. Lee’s actions are what count to me.
Robin Lindley: Your verdict on Lee is straightforward: He was a traitor who fought to preserve slavery. What was the most important evidence you considered in reaching this verdict?
Professor Ty Seidule: For treason: The US Constitution lists only one crime. In Article III Section 3: “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.” No court convicted him, although he was indicted.
I write as a historian but also as a US Army officer who served nearly 36 years. Lee also abrogated the oath he had taken only three weeks earlier on his promotion to colonel. In fact, he didn’t even wait three days to let his resignation process before he accepted a commission in the Virginia militia. Of the eight US Army colonels from Virginia in 1861, all West Point graduates, Lee and only Lee chose to fight for the Confederacy, chose treason.
As for slavery, that’s easy. Everyone knew that’s why the white South seceded. They told everyone. It wasn’t a secret. If senior officers fought for the Confederacy (especially one as smart as Lee) they knew damn well what they fought for – slavery. Then there are Lee’s comments after he heard about the Emancipation Proclamation on January 10, 1863, calling it,
A savage and brutal policy … which leaves us no alternative but success or degradation worse than death, if we would save the honor of our families from pollution, our social system from destruction.
He fought for slavery because he believed in slavery.
Robin Lindley: Was there a moment or incident that sparked you to challenge your admiration of Lee and question the Lost Cause lies?
Professor Ty Seidule: Like many changes in life, it came gradually and then very fast.
First, my identity became army officer, not Southern gentleman. Second, I married a woman incapable of lying. My culture lied constantly. She really changed me. Third, I became a historian at West Point and then a historian of West Point.
I understood the Civil War was about slavery, but for too long, I held romantic notions of Lee. Then, when I started studying West Point’s memorialization of Lee, I just became outraged that tributes to Lee came at the same time as integration. That made me not just a historian but an activist for change.
Robin Lindley: How do you see views of the Confederacy and Lee evolving, if at all?
Professor Ty Seidule: Radical change! The US Congress created a commission to change the names of the army posts that honor Confederates, and then overrode President Trump’s veto by a supermajority. I serve on that commission. Memorials to Lee in Richmond, Charlottesville, and the US Capitol are gone. Wow! I would not have taken a bet with high odds in my favor that those iconic statues would be taken down in one year.
In a very short time, many (but not all) Americans see the values of the Confederacy as antithetical to our values and that gives me hope. My home state of Virginia is leading the way.
Robin Lindley: You write powerfully of how you felt betrayed by your education, your indoctrination with the lies of the Confederate Lost Cause, adoration of General Lee, and more. What would you like to see today’s students learn about our history?
Professor Ty Seidule: Everyone has a history. Every school has a history. Every town has a history.
I would love to see more students research their own lives. I taught a course on West Point’s history for years. We become better citizens, better people when we understand the history of where we live. And not just the myths, but the tough history: slavery, segregation, and redlining. A better understanding of our local history will, I think, make us more empathetic.
At West Point, our mission is to educate and inspire leaders of character for the nation who live the values of duty, honor, country. How do you teach character? Nothing works better than history. What we research and write can change our character, at least it did for me.
Understanding local history, through primary sources, made me a more empathetic and honest person.
And, for anyone teaching the Civil War, please, please have students read the Southern States Ordinances of Secession and Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens’ Cornerstone Speech. If you start with those documents, a teacher is on the right path.
Robin Lindley: I was struck that you received hate mail and even death threats in 2015 after you stated your view—and that of virtually all academic historians—that slavery was the cause of the Civil War. How are readers responding to your candid new book on Lee and the Lost Cause?
Professor Ty Seidule: The reception this time is far better, mostly. For the 2015 video I did on the cause of the Civil War, the online comments ran at least 20 to 1 negative. Now, it’s probably 10 to 1 positive. However, I still have plenty of one-star reviews on Amazon. There also seems to be a few folks who make videos debunking my argument.
If I receive hate mail in any form, I take it positively. I hope that my writing is clear enough that no one would mistake my message: treason for slavery. The Lost Cause, Confederate monuments, Jim Crow laws, disenfranchisement, and lynching all created a system of white supremacy to ensure white political power. Of course, history is dangerous because it challenges our myths and identity. When I challenge people’s identity, the reaction can be ferocious, but I’ve faced far tougher foes than on-line trolls.
Robin Lindley: Your book Robert E Lee and Me is bound to become a classic study and it deserves a wide audience. Is there anything you’d like to add about your book or your insights on history and the time we live in now? Where do you find hope as a historian and professor?
Professor Ty Seidule: I have no shortage of hope. Through the political process, statues dedicated to white supremacy have come down all over the country. Remember that commemoration is about our values. These statues’ demise tells us that our values, at least in many places, no longer tolerate traitors who fought for slavery. The military is now in the process of ridding itself of Confederate commemoration. Now, of course, that doesn’t mean we’ve ended racism; we still have far, far to go, but for me as a soldier and a scholar, it’s a start. The only way to prevent a racist future is to first understand our racist past.
Robin Lindley: Thank you Professor Seidule for your thoughtful comments and insights, and congratulations on your moving and powerful new book. And best wishes on your new position at Hamilton College.
Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based attorney, writer and features editor for the History News Network (history news network.org. His work also has appeared in Writer’s Chronicle, Bill Moyers.com, Re-Markings, Salon.com, Crosscut, Documentary, ABA Journal, Huffington Post, and more. Most of his legal work has been in public service. He served as a staff attorney with the US House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations and investigated the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His writing often focuses on the history of human rights, conflict, medicine, art, and culture. Robin’s email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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