Review: A military writer topples the Robert E. Lee statue

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This cover image published by St. Martin’s Press shows “Robert E. Lee and I: A Southerner’s Account with the Lost Cause Myth,” by Ty Seidule. (Saint-Martin press via AP) This cover image published by St. Martin’s Press shows “Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southern’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause,” by Ty Seidule. (Saint-Martin press via AP)

“Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southern’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause”, by Ty Seidule (St. Martin’s Press)

Few can say that they lived their history with the same authority as Ty Seidule, retired US Army Brigadier General and Emeritus Professor of History at the US Military Academy at West Point. He grew up in Alexandria, Virginia, and lived a life of white privilege provided by de facto segregation. He worships Robert E. Lee.

Now, with the vigor of a prosecutor, Seidule dismantles the almost sacred beliefs of many Southerners that the civil war was a noble cause to preserve a way of life that benefited everyone. Robert Edward Lee personified the myths of a romantic era, a just cause, and contented slaves who were better off than they had been in Africa.

The Book of Seidule is particularly timely given the recent raid on the Capitol by hundreds of mostly white believers in an assortment of old and new myths. At least two of those who broke into the Capitol carried Confederate flags.

Seidule completed his book before the January 6 uprising on Capitol Hill, which made his research and writing even more heartbreaking. During the Civil War, he writes, “the United States fought against a rebel force that would not accept the results of a democratic election and chose armed rebellion.”

Lee, still commemorated in many monuments, roads, counties and historical markers, was a traitor, writes Seidule, abandoning his oath of allegiance to the United States to lead the struggle to preserve slavery.

Does anything endemic to American character make us susceptible to accepting beliefs not supported by even weak evidence? That’s a question for another book; Seidule offered clear and compelling evidence, to our shame as a nation, that many of us remain reluctant to confront an American past that includes slavery, lynchings and the entrenched segregation that endures today.

Seidule’s book has a few more chapters to write – probably soon. The 2021 military budget contains guidelines to change the names of army bases appointed for the Confederates.

And for whom should these bases be renamed? Seidule thought about it too.

In a Washington Post essay in June 2020, he recommends, among others, Vernon Baker, a black lieutenant and medal of honor for his heroism of World War II, and Charles Young, the third black graduate of West Point. Young was forced to retire because then President Woodrow Wilson did not want a black man to lead the white troops.

Monuments and Confederate names elsewhere must also disappear, writes Seidule, observing that otherwise they serve the same purpose as lynchings – upholding white supremacy.

Seidule wrote an extraordinary and courageous book, a confessional of the great American sins of slavery and racial oppression, a call to face our wrongs, to reject our mythologized racist past and to resolve to create a just future for all.

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