Starting with Ty Seidule’s insistence that instead of using the word, “plantation,” which conjurers up Scarlett O’Hara’s Tara and magnolia-scented breezes, we should call plantations “enslaved labour farms,” devotees of the “Lost Cause” will object to just about everything Seidule writes about in his captivating Robert E. Lee and Me.
They will have special ire, however, for the book’s second to last chapter. In a little over 30 pages, the 40-year U.S. Army veteran and emeritus professor of history at West Point presents an air-tight case that his childhood hero, the man he believed was the “last great man of Old Virginia,” whom he rated above Jesus, was guilty of treason. Treason is the only crime defined by the Constitution of the United States, which, as an officer cadet and then a soldier, Lee had sworn to protect, as had Seidule.
Lee’s defenders explain his decision to abjure his oath, made 36 hours after being promoted by Abraham Lincoln to the colonelcy, to mail in his resignation from the Army of the United States and high tail it to Virginia, as proof of his nobility. His honur prevented him from drawing his sword against his “native state,” which he also called his “country.”
It was, Seidule shows, nothing of the kind. First, and here numbers matter, the majority of southerners at West Point, which Lee had graduated from and which he was commanding at the time, stayed loyal to the United States. Seidule also argues that we should not use “Union” because it gets paired with “Confederacy” and, thus, elevates a non-state, one founded on slavery, to the level of the legitimate country, the United States of America.
Lee’s sons followed him, but the majority of his family did not. One cousin served in the U.S. Navy while his brother, John Fitzgerald Lee, was the U.S. Army’s Judge Advocate General. After hearing that Lee prayed for guidance, before declaring for the nascent Confederacy, still another cousin said, “I wish he had read over his commission as well as his prayers.”
Lee, who was already famous and considered by most to be the finest officer the United States had ever produced, could have intervened during the Virginia secession debates in defense of the United States. By choosing not to and then defecting, he abetted and committed treason.
The general’s defenders point to the end of a paragraph in an letter written in 1856 — “How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild & melting influence of Christianity, than the storms & tempests of fiery Controversy” — to argue that deep down the gentleman planter opposed slavery. Lee joined the Southern cause, they argue, because he supported “states rights,” because of federal over-reach that “aggrieved” Lee’s Virginia.
But, Seidule shows, in Lee’s eyes, that over-reach was Lincoln’s legal and constitutionally warranted order to resupply Fort Sumter. The North’s action that “aggrieved” Lee was nothing less than Lincoln’s election, partly on the promise to prevent the expansion of slavery to the West. Lee, it turns out, was no different from the Southern fire-eaters who proudly proclaimed in their Confederacy’s constitution that it was founded on chattel slavery; how could he be, he owned dozens of slaves.
Indeed, he was so committed to slavery that in 1841 when he was superintendent at West Point, Lee ignored New York State’s laws against slavery and brought a slave named Burke with him to the army’s college. Lee even entered Burke’s name on West Point’s pay list.
Seidule goes on, noting how Lee broke up families when he inherited his father-in-law’s slaves. During this time, Lee hired the slaves out and, of course, pocketed the money. When his overseer refused to whip Wesley Norris and two of his female cousins for escaping, Lee turned to a constable, giving the orders to “lay it on well” and to pour salt water over the slaves’ wounds.
Lee responded to the Emancipation Proclamation by writing about how it would lead to “pollution” (a code for forced miscegenation and, of course, a trope for lascivious African American males) and the destruction of “our social system,” words that meant the South’s “peculiar institution”: that is, chattel slavery.
The book’s other chapters are equally forensic –and much more personal. Seidule charts how from his youth in Alexandria, Virginia, and several moves further south with his parents, through his attendance at Washington and Lee University, and then his military career, part of which was with the 82nd Airborne Division, and finally his tenure as a history professor at West Point, time and again, he encountered the myth of the Lost Cause and, especially, Robert E. Lee. His school textbooks might as well have been written by Margaret Mitchell, for they differed not at all from her epic apologia for the South.
The Confederacy was crushed, he learned, by a wealthier foe and generals, especially Ulysses S. Grant, who used their larger armies to overwhelm, not out general, the South’s. Slavery, one textbook said, was less onerous in the South than it had been in Africa (!) and “the Negroes learned also to enjoy the work.” Not a word of the savage whippings, legal killings and uncounted rapes of slave women, whose bodies were at the service of their masters.
Only when Seidule turned his research skills on Alexandria’s street map did he discover that the scores of North/South streets that immortalized Confederate names were put in place as a response to the Civil Rights Movement, daily reminders of what the most recalcitrant southerners saw as the ebbing of their glory.
Monroe, Georgia, where his family moved when he was a teen, was the locale of the last mass lynching in America, a fact not commemorated on any of the plaques he saw growing up. Nor was there mention of the 1890 lynching of Jim Hanson. He had been tied to a log that was thrown into a pond — and then shot 85 times.
In 1946, Sgt. Isaac Woodard, was blinded after night sticks were driven into his eye sockets. This savage attack led Woody Guthrie to protest in song and Orson Wells to decry it on his radio show, but in Monroe, Georgia, it was unremarkable. Seidule’s older self is embarrassed to tell how, as an undergraduate at Washington and Lee College he, quite literally, worshiped at Lee’s shrine (Lee was buried at the college) and exalted in becoming, like Lee was said to have been, a “Virginia Gentleman.”
By their very nature, forensic arguments are not emotional. It is to Seidule’s credit that in addition to detailing chapter and verse, in the case of the U.S. Army how the names of bases glorify Confederates (Fort Bragg, for example, is named the Confederate general Braxton Bragg), Seidule tells of us of the difficulties he had researching the army’s history and the pain it caused him to learn how thoroughly the U.S. Army was inculcated with the myth of the Lost Cause.
By including the story of law professor Adrien Katherine Wing’s visit to Confederate general Pierre G. T. Beauregard’s mansion in Louisiana, he all but erases the century and a half between her visit and when, just before the Civil War, Beauregard took two slaves with him when he was appointed Commandant of West Point. Wing tells how after she asked a number of difficult questions, the docent asked if she had “a particular interest” in the general.
“Not exactly. It’s the general who has an interest in me—a property interest.” For Wing is the great, granddaughter of a slave named Susan he owned, one of the uncounted hundreds of thousands of slave women who were raped by their masters.
Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause shows that when wielded by a clear-eyed, honest historian, the pen is truly mightier than the sword Lee raised against the nation he had sworn to defend and the one carved in the marble slab atop his tomb.
Nathan M. Greenfield is a Brooklyn-born author who taught English at Algonquin College in Ottawa and has written extensively on U.S. and Canadian history.