Robert E. Lee and Me
A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause
St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2021, 300 pages
Book Review published on: May 20, 2022
As a nation we have argued over the meaning of the Civil War since it started in 1861. I can safely predict we will argue about it for generations to come, but slowly, surely, the view of the Civil War throughout the country is becoming more accurate. … To create a more just society we must start by studying our past. If we want to know where to go, we must know where we’ve been. (p. 247)
For some readers, the reasons that sparked the Civil War might seem a settled matter. What we learned in school, saw in movies, or read in books may indicate to us that the causes were clear. For some the war was about states’ rights. For others it may have been the competition of different ways of life. For others it was about the abolition of the institution of slavery. Additionally, where some readers grew up may or may not have influenced how they describe the causes that may have sparked the Civil War. Some readers might ask, “Why does it matter why the Civil War occurred?” As the above quote indicates, Ty Seidule would argue that it matters a great deal why the Civil War was inaugurated because how we view our past may influence our future.
A recent guest speaker at the Command and General Staff College, Ty Seidule’s discussion of his book Robert E. Lee and Me, has sparked discussion in classrooms across the college. In this book, Seidule describes his journey as he grappled with the above concepts. Considering current events where disagreements about racial justice, critical race theory, and proposed law enforcement reform have emerged; contemplative dialog may be in order. Readers may find this reflective journey in the form of the book by a Southerner, historian, and military professional compelling and worth their attention.
If readers are looking for a standard history book, they will not find it in Robert E. Lee and Me. This is not a history book in the standard sense. This is a reflective memoir written by a former director of the history department at the United States Military Academy at West Point, a veteran with over thirty years of service, and a Southerner who came to question the narrative of the lost cause and the veneration of Robert E. Lee. He started with standard historical research and scholarly arguments. However, he came to realize that the standard scholastic approach could not persuade to the same level as a personal narrative. Therefore, in Robert E. Lee and Me, Seidule guides the reader through his personal journey as a child in Alexandria, Virginia, later in Walton County, Georgia, to a college student in Washington and Lee University, to a thirty-six-year career as a soldier and a military historian. Robert E Lee and me is the result of the chronicling of his journey and the curating of evidence that caused him to question what he wants held as truth.
Some readers might question Seidule’s argument for several reasons. Chief among these reasons might be that Seidule is engaging in revisionist history by employing a presentist argument, that is, applying the present context as if it were true in the past. This is not the case in Robert E. Lee and Me as Seidule applies the context of the past to a narrative invented years after the Civil War—the lost cause. Seidule forms his arguments using original documents, speeches, articles of Confederation, constitutional law, etc., to support his arguments. This approach addresses the argument that to relook the causes of the Civil War is to erase or reinvent our history. For readers who may feel this way, Robert E. Lee and Me invites them to examine the evidence and the conclusions drawn from that evidence for themselves. Some reflective questions for that examination could include: What did U.S. Army veterans believe at the time? Would those who fought to preserve the union agree with the loss cause narrative? What policies were put in place directly following the Civil War and why were they enacted? When did the preponderance of memorials and veneration of the loss cause narrative reach its zenith? What is the constitutional definition of treason and did that apply to Lee and the rest of those who seceded from the union? What was the genesis of the current oath of office that soldiers, and officers take and why was it developed? Such questions might lead readers through a similar reflective journey as the author.
Robert E. Lee and Me is especially pertinent now in our Nation’s history. At a time when there seems so much to divide our country at a moment when the stakes could not be higher, an honest reckoning of our history could be very beneficial. For those who may disagree with Seidule’s argument in Robert E. Lee and Me, I recommend examining his evidence for yourself. If it is not time now for such a national dialogue based on something that happened over 150 years ago yet still influences our national identity, when will it be appropriate?
Robert E. Lee and Me is an excellent read for military and civilian readers alike. This book would serve as an excellent reading for classes on social justice and history with great discussion points ranging from historical context of the 1860s when the war occurred, the evolution of policies relating to voting rights and criminal justice, and fair and equal treatment under the law. It is not that our country has not made wonderful strides. However, as Duane Wagner argued in Military Review in June 2021, “We have come a long ways … we have a ways to go,” what progress has been made is no reason to ignore the progress that still needs to occur. Such issues will not go away and will only become more important as our nation advances into an uncertain future. Perhaps Seidule said it best in his call to action, “Americans can and will confront their past, survive, and thrive. We will make a better more inclusive society for our children and our grandchildren. I believe in this country” (p. 254).
Book Review written by: Richard A. McConnell, DM, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas