Book Review: “Robert E. Lee and Me” — An Incomplete Reckoning

By Jeremy Ray Jewell

This is a noble effort to reconcile with the Southern past, but are suggested changes in nomenclature — rather than statements of moral and political clarity — good enough?

Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause by Ty Seidule. St. Martin’s Press, 304 pages, $27.99.

Ty Seidule is a retired US Army brigadier general. He was also once the head of the United States Military Academy’s history department and West Point’s first professor emeritus of history. He is also one of four representatives of the Department of Defense who were selected for the so-called “Confederate Base Naming Commission,” mandated by Congress at the beginning of this year in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and subsequent unrest. Seidule’s appointment inspired the writing of Robert E. Lee and Me — part autobiography, part history, part polemic — because his pro-renaming position drew considerable ire from some of his colleagues. Still, it should be kept in mind that this is the autobiography of a white Southerner of a very specific class.

It is an autobiography of a member of a class who has reached a high level of education and who has been invested in the order of things. It was still possible in the 1960s to aspire to the grandeur of cavalier gentility, to respect the glory of the fabled Old South. Those from the right homes were encouraged to become a “well-educated Southern gentleman” as well as a good “Christian.” Seidule attended Washington and Lee University: he sat in Lee Chapel, where you could see the Confederate general himself lying on the altar. The Southern pecking order was always clear, even when it came to the military. One’s family “saw the army as a place for miscreants,” which included the grunts then in Nam or the gray-clad farmers who fought in Antietam. A “gentleman” would aspire to Lee’s namesake university, but would consider it vulgar to race his namesake 1969 Dodge Charger. So, while Robert E. Lee and Me chronicles a young man emerging from the cognitive dissonance generated by the Lost Cause South and its class prejudice, the book also reflects the persistence of another class-based paradigm — real existing economic privilege.

Problematically positing that “culture decides truth,” Seidule sees it as his duty to help readjust the terms in the current culture wars. Many of these changes meet with my approval, and would be cheered on by liberals. Instead of the clash between the “Confederate” and “Union” armies, Seidule argues that more truthful labels would be “Confederate” and “United States.” Rather than the oft idealized “plantation,” Seidule insists on “forced labor farm.” Rather than a segregated Commonwealth of Virginia, Seidule prefers the words “racial police state.” Yet what we seem to be getting are changes in nomenclature rather than statements of moral and political clarity.

This fudging can be seen in how Seidule tells his story of climbing the class ladder in the white supremacist South with the help of a wealthy family. At one point, he tells us that “as a Southerner, I have extensive experience with foul smelling industries, which took advantage of the nonunion cheap labor, low regulation, and business friendly South.” So you would think he would support unionizing today, right? Maybe not, because he turns around and argues for the value of “carpetbaggers,” such as Amazon, who are bringing much needed capital to the South. He also argues that “racism isn’t just morally wrong, it’s economically stupid.” He seems, to this reader, to be particularly concerned with the perniciousness of the latter. He can be hard to pin down. Seidule keeps telling us that he has reformed, implying that he, like Northern Virginia, is “both Southern and not so Southern.” Is this a case of culture waffling?

The strongest part of the narrative is Seidule’s personal story. It is powerful when a man with a vested interest in repressing the truth faces it. He grew up worshiping Lee (in a very literal sense) and then found his way to appreciate Black W&L alumni John Chavis and Ted DeLaney. He was shocked to learn that his second childhood home in Walton County, GA, had been the site for Moore’s Ford Lynchings. This is truly the tale of “a [white] Southerner reckoning with the myth of the Lost Cause.” I can strongly identify with his experience, despite our different upbringings. I was born in 1986 in Jacksonville, Florida’s “Bold New City of the South.” I discovered the story of Axe Handle Saturday woefully late.

Of course, Seidule grew up knowing that he was somewhere near the top of the Southern class ladder. And that makes an enormous difference in his perspective. The best a poor cracker could ever muster — opportunistically stoked by the people at the top — was hatred and hostility against their perceived racial enemies. In his bubble, Seidule could “grow up during the Civil rights struggle far more focused on Lee than on racial equality.” Of course, white perpetrators of racial violence at the time, violently upholding their immoral sense of racial superiority, made them far more focused on Civil Rights — not on maintaining the enshrinement of Lee. So there is a historical irony to Seidule’s successful climb up the ladder: unlike the lower classes, who were fighting for what they perceived to be their “way of life,” he treasured the anachronistic, unobtainable fantasies of “Southern gentility.” His class exploited those below it, while their embrace of aristocracy made him more acceptable across the political/military spectrum.

At one point, Seidule writes that “since 1775, the Army has put down rebellions, broken strikes, enforced Civil Rights, forced Native Americans onto reservations, propped up dictators, and freed people across the globe from tyranny. As a military, we’ve represented the United States of America at its best and at its worst.” Reflecting on the United States Uniformed Services Oath of Office, Seidule points out that it includes the duty to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” up to and including military superiors.

Yet this oath, because it refers to an undivided United States, was designed to exclude Confederates and their sympathizers. It was this very oath that Seidule swore “in Lee Chapel, surrounded by Confederate flags, next to a portrait of Lee in Confederate grey.” If, as Seidule insists, “culture decides truth,” then what was the status of the South’s Lost Cause narrative in that swearing in? The Lee statues were standing by, whether they were referred to or not. Robert E. Lee and Me may want to rename or remove offensive symbols and objects, but not to clearly change economic and social relations. It wants to join in the BLM chorus, but without the class analysis of the white South to let us know how we got where we are in the first place. Culture can dictate how we perceive  something like war but not its reality — victory can be claimed despite ample evidence to the contrary (from Nixon’s “Peace with Honor” to Colin Powell’s doctrine of war with no [American] casualties). You can change the bugle tune, but the armed forces, the prestigious academies, and all the other trappings of today’s “gentility” — and the people who control them — remain the same. For all its admirable sentiments, Robert E. Lee and Me falls short of a full reckoning.

Jeremy Ray Jewell hails from Jacksonville, FL. He has an MA in History of Ideas from Birkbeck College, University of London, and a BA in Philosophy from the University of Massachusetts Boston. His website is


  1. Callum Banks on August 11, 2021 at 9:38 pm

    Nailed it.

  2. Pat Connolly on August 15, 2021 at 2:42 am

    Your esoteric argument is boarder line incoherent. The book was forthright, honest and extremely well researched. It may not have covered every angle of the lost cause that you desired, but it is a book every American should read.

  3. Maria Seager on October 4, 2021 at 8:15 pm

    Thank you for your review. Oddly, it seemed to me to be another choir in the current orchestral maneuvers of too many Americans including liberals for “Perfection and purity! Perfection and purity.”

    This may not have been your intent, but the idea that someone cannot be different than you, arrive at a different conclusion than you, is an oddly troublesome sign of our times. It’s seen on both sides of the political divide and feeds the drumbeats of sectarianism.

    I will be reading this book along with others. I don’t want to hear only from people who have my experience, have my bias, are part of my sect.

  4. Chris Clark on January 22, 2022 at 3:26 pm

    The book rings hollow. This man is an emeritus professor of history and it only took him 59 years to realize Robert E.Lee was a traitor? I knew it in 3rd grade. Spare me.

    • Tom Wenzka on July 3, 2022 at 11:08 pm

      Life and social context are powerful factors in one’s belief system. I lived the first half of my life in New York State and New England. Were I not living in Georgia since 1986, I might share cynicism about taking so long to see through Lee and the Lost Cause. The influences of family, geography, slanted education, and the military are powerful. Seidule describes these convincingly. He may also and belatedly come to see that his devotion to the military is equally flawed.

    • Drucker on September 3, 2022 at 12:43 pm

      You didn’t read the book or weren’t really paying attention to the timeline.

    • Richard Scott Farris on April 14, 2023 at 1:14 am

      A stupid (low IQ), ignorant (low “education”), prejudiced, biased anti-South bigot like you does not deserve to be spared [the truth]..I knew in the 3rd that you lie (I’m age 66). You stupidly state an obvious oxyMORON: It is IMPOSSIBLE for an Authentic American Patriot such as C.S. General Robert E Lee to be a “traitor” against immoral, illegal (unconstitutional), treacherous, treasonous, lying northern yankee traitors..What was the name of your elementary/”grammar” school where you attended 3rd grade?

  5. Michael Connors on October 25, 2022 at 9:46 pm

    This is an odd review. I truly don’t understand its premise. The book is fantastic. So many Southerners were brought up believing in all the tenets of the Lost Cause. He methodically destroys that myth. He links the sins of Reconstruction to today’s societal woes. And the Confederacy and all its monuments to the White Supremacy movement. He took on his employer – the Army – so he had to retire. This is a really important book and one I hope enjoys full readership.

  6. Edward Murdough on January 6, 2023 at 8:28 pm

    One major issue that I have with the book is that it at once seems to be opposed to both the Lost Cause and Robert E. Lee, the man. Lee’s status was raised to the level of myth by the Lost Cause after his death so one cannot blame the rewriting of history after 1870, which did happen, on Lee. In fact, during the remainder of his life after Appomattox, Lee advised southerners to put the war behind them and go on with their lives.

    While many of the monuments and memorials resulted from the influence of adherents to the Lost Cause and others were even more sinister as symbols of white supremacy, there are those which did not stem from either of those forces.

    In particular, the naming of forts and the items at the U.S. Military Academy were done by the U.S. Government.The forts were named during WWI as part of the move for reconciliation with the former confederate states and in part because the soldiers of the South were needed to defend the country. Now, after those soldiers have done their duty in wars for more than 100 years,it is the height of hypocrisy for that same government to call those southern heroes traitors and to take back the honors.

    Another point that I would like to make is that the wording of the oath of commissioning for military officers between 1790 and 1862, as made by Lee and others, made no mention of the Constitution and it treated the term “United States” as a plural entity leaving an unanswered question if the enemies were states themselves. Furthermore, there is also nothing in the oath itself or in any law which makes the oath a lifetime commitment. Those who resigned their commissions were no longer obligated by their oaths. Marriage vows are frequently broken but are supposed to be for life and that wording is in the vow, so much for lifetime obligations.

    Finally no other military officers have been forced to make the decision that the confederate officers made. They followed their conscience in what they believed to be was an honorable manner. No one today has any right to stand in judgment of their decision. The review is generally accurate in my opinion. The book is not well researched and does not examine the issues in the framework of the time in which the decisions and events took place.

    • Richard Scott Farris on April 14, 2023 at 1:18 am

      Definitively well stated Mr Murdough.

    • Bob Millner on April 23, 2023 at 3:20 pm

      @Edward Murdaugh There is nothing inconsistent about both opposing the Lost Cause and pointing out the Marble Man’s feet of clay. Lee was, among other things, a cruel slave master. The Lost Cause is a false mythology of grievance, narcissism, bigotry, arrested grief, and, yes, baroque cruelty. It was the height of hypocrisy for the US Army to pretend traitors were heroes in the first place; it is a continuing outrage that such men still be honored. Quibbles about the “oath” and “honor” and “the framework of the time” are transparently weak and unworthy rationalizations and deflections. You’re just wriggling to avoid facing the truth: slavery was and racial hatred is evil and indefensible, the South was dead wrong and, in its arrogant intransigence, demanded its own crushing defeat, and Lee and others who turned their back on America in order to preserve a slave society were traitors, just as the author says. In some ways it’s astonishing that these things even need to be said, and of course in some ways it’s not at all. I acknowledge we may be talking past each other.

      The reviewer makes unwarranted assumptions and, I believe, unfair and inaccurate judgments about the author’s “class” background and “economic privilege” — his divorced parents were a teacher and a nurse, and he says he joined ROTC because he couldn’t afford college otherwise — and is wrong to insist that calling out Lee and the Lost Cause requires a Marxist class analysis to stand as a worthy contribution. Not that that might not be instructive or useful.

    • Marc Washburne on May 11, 2023 at 3:12 am

      Mr Murdough – Thanks for the insightful comments. I found the Author to sound self rigtheous – ‘Look at me, how I have become so enlightened I am ashamed of my heritage’. Wallowing in the flagellation of his heritage, I found him to be neither to be enlightened, nor able to convince me of his arguments. Of course the Lost Cause is wrong, but don’t tell me how wrong any man is when he is willing to stand inline to face certain death – seeking neither glory nor riches. Robert E Lee lives on because anyone can understand the suffering he and the men around him chose to endure – Lost Cause or not.

  7. Peter Keough on April 14, 2023 at 10:08 am

    Great review. The virulence (sometimes all-caps) of some of the comments indicates that you have touched on difficult truths.

  8. Mark Favermann on April 14, 2023 at 12:49 pm

    Difficult truths indeed. As a Virginia-born student at Washington & Lee University, I was taught from day one about the honor and grace of General Robert E. Lee. Perhaps, it was a mistake for me to have attended that college as I was punished for being a middle class Democrat in a sea of conservative wealthy Republicans. Lee was certainly sainted there. However, he was quoted several times as not wanting to have monuments and memorials built to the Confederacy and its military leadership. His notion was to move on, not continue to burn the seeming perpetual candle of the South’s Lost Cause. Though I was not embraced socially or as part of the student government, the more liberal faculty did recognize me and rewarded me with the school’s creative writing prize and the studio art prize. Drafted out of grad school, I also served in the Army during the Viet Nam War.
    The danger today is the hard positions of both the right and the left. Slavery and white supremacy vs. Presentism and rewriting history.
    Remember the first Thanksgiving was in Virginia in 1619–not in Massachusetts in 1621-22. But the history books were written and published in the North. Actual southern history during the 19th century was adjusted, biased and not even considered. and so it goes…

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