At some point in all of our lives there comes a time of reckoning. A time when we understand that we have no choice but to look at a long-cherished belief, to see its false promise—indeed, its pernicious grip on us—and to realize that we must let it go, as painful as that process might be. Robert E. Lee and Me is about one man’s arrival at that point, and his brutally honest exploration into the effects of his former creed, his past associations, and his cherished beliefs, indeed his conception of who he was. His conclusion is that all of that must be questioned and addressed. This is not an easy, or a casual reading experience. For any American, regardless of ideology, religious bent, acculturation, skin color, or social stratum, this is a book that will disturb any thoughtful reader. It should be used in early classroom situations, as we struggle with the ugly, the still deep seated racism that pervades this country.
The author’s background informs his writing. A historian by education and training, he spent many years in uniform teaching history at West Point. He describes his early life’s ambition as the traditional rise in society as, ‘a christian gentleman’ in the southern understanding of that term. In other words, Ty Seidule was a white man immersed from top to toe in the southern lost cause myth. He spent most of his previous life in adulation of Robert E. Lee ‘more deity than man’, and in full throated defense of the heroes of the insurrection against the U.S., despite his own dedication to the country as a member of its armed forces.
Seidule describes how, at every turn, whenever the idea of slavery as the true cause of the Civil War pushed forward for recognition, evil forces of southern tradition, the ‘sweet tea on the verandah’ narrative brutally suppressed that truth.
As if he’s peeling a particularly pungent onion, the author winces as each new revelation of this countries brutal racism shimmers into his view, and pens its way onto his pages: The retrocession in his hometown; his families frantic rush to change schools when integration loomed; the silence that surrounded lynching in proximity to his boyhood home in Georgia; finally, his awakening to the egregious presence of confederate souvenirs, monuments, and regalia adorning The U.S. Military Academy at West Point, items that glorified men who, in Seidule’s words, ‘killed U.S. soldiers’. Perhaps his most painful revelation is the realization that northern, progressive politicians—men like Franklin D. Roosevelt—pandered to powerful racists to curry favor, and to win legislative battles.
The author describes the beatification of Robert E. Lee, his history as ‘a southern christian gentleman,’ his rise through the ranks in the U.S. Army, and Lee’s seemingly inexplicable abandonment of a promising future as a true leader of that institution. Seidule writes that Lee’s path, however, was not so inexplicable after all; Lee resigned his commission, and walked away from the U.S. Army that had given his life purpose, and meaning, and potential, for one simple reason: Like his southern peers, Robert E. Lee was enmeshed in the sordid business of enslaving men & women for profit. As clearly painful as it was for him to do so, the author calls Lee out for what he truly was: A traitor.
Finally, the book is about the mandatory reckoning we Americans must have with our racist past. For white Americans, we simply must face this brutal and ugly part of our history, or it will haunt us forever. So long as we refuse to face it square, call it what it was and is, remove the symbols that contribute to the perpetuation of the damaging ‘lost cause’ myth, the southern ‘tea on the verandah’ tradition, we will never move forward as one country.
Robert E. Lee and Me is not an easy book to read, especially if one’s background is based in the south. It is, however, a book that should be read by anyone who loves the United States of America as its author clearly does, and by anyone who has the courage to dredge up our racist past, and subject it to the cleansing sunshine of truth.
An afterthought: This reader wondered, in a bit of counterfactual questioning, where America might be today had Robert E. Lee followed his oath, and marched against those rebels that he instead chose to lead? Our history could have been truly glorious. And Lee’s position could have been truly exemplary and heroic, instead of the tawdry, carefully cultivated chimera of heroism that it is.