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 www.jeremyrayjewell.com.