Welcome to a special edition of a OneReadingNurse book review … On American History. A topic that while I read and discuss extensively elsewhere, I normally keep off the blog where I focus on Fantasy/Sci-Fi. Below you can see a very small portion of my Civil War library, one of my favorite time periods to discuss. And yes, I have read most of those texts.
Thank you so much to St. Martin’s Press for the digital ARC of Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause by Ty Seidule. The book reads as equal parts a reflection, a memoir, and a history lesson, with an interesting but brief speculation on alternate history as well. I am just going to start by saying I agree 100% and wholeheartedly with his premise ((of the war being based on slavery, systemic racism and oppression via monuments, and Lee committing treason)), before I break down why I don’t necessarily love the book.
- Title: Robert E. Lee and Me
- Author: Ty Seidule
- Publisher & Release: St. Martin’s Press, 1/26/21
- Length: 304 pages (including approx 60 pages of index)
- Rate & Recommend: 🌟🌟🌟⚡ maybe
Here is the synopsis from GoodReads:
In a forceful but humane narrative, former soldier and head of the West Point history department Ty Seidule’s Robert E. Lee and Me challenges the myths and lies of the Confederate legacy–and explores why some of this country’s oldest wounds have never healed.
Ty Seidule grew up revering Robert E. Lee. From his southern childhood to his service in the U.S. Army, every part of his life reinforced the Lost Cause myth: that Lee was the greatest man who ever lived, and that the Confederates were underdogs who lost the Civil War with honor. Now, as a retired brigadier general and Professor Emeritus of History at West Point, his view has radically changed. From a soldier, a scholar, and a Southerner, American history demands a reckoning.
In a unique blend of history and reflection, Seidule deconstructs the truth about the Confederacy–that its undisputed primary goal was the subjugation and enslavement of African Americans–and directly challenges the idea of honoring those who labored to preserve that system and committed treason in their failed attempt to achieve it. Through the arc of Seidule’s own life, as well as the culture that formed him, he seeks a path to understanding why the facts of the Civil War have remained buried beneath layers of myth and even outright lies–and how they embody a cultural gulf that separates millions of Americans to this day.
Part history lecture, part meditation on the Civil War and its fallout, and part memoir, Robert E. Lee and Me challenges the deeply-held legends and myths of the Confederacy–and provides a surprising interpretation of essential truths that our country still has a difficult time articulating and accepting.
Alright, that summary is a mouthful but Seidule has excellent credentials to live and experience the history firsthand, from first a civilian and then a military perspective. Some people may remember Seidule from a viral video in 2017, or more recently for openly criticising POTUS after his West Point commencement speech.
The aforementioned video, HERE, in 2017 went viral. Seidule received death threats
After reading this review, if you want to see a phenomenal speech that Seidule gave at Lee Chapel, the basis for this book, and summarized at the end of the book, take the time and watch it HERE.
Alright enough, let’s discuss the book itself .
Seidule does a pretty good job condensing a TON of history into enough paragraphs that lay readers can understand the injustices of slavery, reconstruction, and the civil rights movement, in relation to the public placing of confederate propaganda. Why did a monument pop up? Well, someone probably initiated a bill about desegregation or civil rights. Maybe there was an important vote coming up.
Later on I discuss how Seidule arranges the history he presents, but I am a little shocked at how much he glazes over Union blunders (Maryse Hill/Fredricksburg for example) then criticizes confederates for similar slaughters. Actually it’s not shocking because lay readers won’t care and Seidule wants us to be mad. Right. Onwards. I had to google one general that he mentioned there – Humphreys – and found his paragraph to basically be the wikipedia entry… Facepalm.
Seidule’s wife originally tuned him into the Confederate Lost Cause myths of slave happiness, of southern gentlemen, of lies and propaganda, and the myth of Lee himself. Let me stop there and say that Seidule is pissed, and I don’t blame him but I found his passion/anger extremely off putting. There is enough anger already, but the author is targeting a white middle class audience and he wants us to get the point.
On that note, how readable is this book for that audience? The chapters are LONG. I read textbooks for fun and am down for it, but after chapter 4 a lot of readers are going to tune him out, which is curious because you have to read until chapter 7 to hear anything positive said about Lee.
My first question as a lay reader would be: What did this guy do, that everybody worships him so much? Was he a military genius? What did he accomplish? Are any part of the myths accurate?
Well – lots, yes, quite a bit, and some, yes, are those answers. Without going into a historical diatribe I can say that in chapter 7, Seidule finally answers those questions and gives Lee enough credit to make him not seem like a complete idiot. Prior to that, if I knew absolutely NO history, I would have not understood why Lee was worshipped so much. For the readers who just want to be mad about racism through a 2020 lens and ignore the war itself – this is a fantastic book. He even ends chapter seven with a perfect segue to the rest of the book: why it was SO bizarre that Lee went with Virginia. Did he commit treason? I think so. Should we worship him? No. Does he deserve a tad bit of credit as a military strategist and general? I think yes.
Even if you don’t watch the entire speech linked above, watch like 30 seconds of Seidule’s longer speech, note the Recumbent Lee statue, and you’ll see that Lee is actually somewhere at or around Jesus in Southern history and curriculum
Not so much anymore, but he was.
This is a picture of a Civil War media book, where the New York Times coverage is shown next to the Southern newspaper’s coverage of certain events. Northern vs Southern media has always, always been a battle. Seidule acts like this started after the war and it didn’t, the myth was propagated even as the war happened.
I am from northern NY and was raised with a GRADE SCHOOL curriculum in which we watched a movie where a slave was made to create a fire under a cauldron, and boil himself to death while being stabbed with a pitchfork. One of the more interesting chapters talked about the totally disillusioned southern curriculum, where slavery was a positive thing for everyone. Thankfully I wasn’t raised with any of these myths.
Another ‘myth’ discussed is that the South only lost because of manpower and resources. There was definitely a numerical advantage (I am not getting into numbers here) even though it wasn’t as profound as re written history wants people to believe, and you can’t possibly deny that Southern supplies and conditions were atrocious. My point is that even though the myths are myths, they are rooted in SOME fact. Except the slavery one, which is total hogwash and I agree with Seidule that Gone With the Wind is total trash.
Content wise, the most informative and disturbing part was about the lynchings in Virginia and history of lynching in general – I thought it started with civil rights but was predominately a white punishment before the war.
One more interesting thing I want to point out is that to an amateur historian looking for books about the civil war and the portrayals of the Generals, society, historical accuracy vs a lauding of a myth… There is a lot of literature out there. It is easier to find books on the confederacy and confederates, although I probably have dug up equal reading on both sides at this point. Most of the Union biographers don’t match the gusto of the southern ones. The year the books are written and the historian themselves effects the writing so much, from the textbooks to the fiction. I even have books of songs and poetry and medicine from the war and hardly any of it is impartial, which only roves that from day one this has been a charged subject. I think the historians that Seidule mentions are quite good picks from what I can tell, and have ordered a few of their books based off his recommendations.
The takeaway: Do I recommend this book? Seidule sets out to prove that the Civil War was about slavery, and monuments are about oppression and racism. He succeeds very handily. Minus the long chapters and Seidule’s angry “passionate” and often repetitive writing… I would say read the book. Read it but not as a Civil War historical source. Read it to learn about the roots of racism and how it’s manifested over the years, but keep your mind open to further historical reading because it’s all pretty fascinating.