A White Supremacist Reformed by History
I first encountered Ty Seidule when I stumbled onto a video lecture he posted in 2015, in which he asserted that slavery was not merely a cause of the Civil War, it was the cause. While this has long been the consensus view of historians, the video garnered 30 million views and sparked such vitriolic hate mail as to warrant alerting the FBI.
Why so much rage? At the time, Seidule was a colonel in the U.S. Army and he delivered his video remarks wearing full dress blue uniform, bedecked with 30 years’ worth of medals. Even more provocative, the video carried his job title: chairman of the history department at the United States Military Academy, West Point. As a professional historian, Seidule buttressed his argument with statistics and charts and by the time he stopped talking there was absolutely no wiggle room. “The evidence is clear and overwhelming,” he said: the Civil War was about slavery.
The story of the video and the bitter reaction it provoked provides the opening scene of his new book, Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause (Before writing his book, Seidule retired from the Army as a one-star general.)
Ty Seidule has the perfect pedigree of a dyed-in-the-wool white supremacist: a son of Virginia, he grew up worshipping Robert E. Lee, “the sainted figure of the white South.” His education, first at a segregated private school and then at Washington and Lee University, only spurred his motivation to become “an educated Christian Virginia gentleman.” He was baptized in the myth of the Lost Cause, that enduring pro-Confederate propaganda campaign that became the ideological foundation for white supremacy and Jim Crow.
In Robert E. Lee and Me, Seidule weds his historian’s training and a convert’s zeal to catalogue in specific detail how and why his former beliefs were wrong. “It pains me to write that I believed something so grotesque and immoral but it is worse to lie.” As he describes it, he freed himself from his racist conditioning by years of study in the archives. “The history changed me,” he writes. “The facts changed me.” “I felt angry that I had grown up surrounded by the trappings of white supremacy and I had never realized it.” He is self-conscious enough to question whether he, as a white man, has a right to this anger. Yet he insists, “The damage done to everyone who grew up in the racial hierarchy is real.”
Seidule jumps into the issue of Civil War memorials with gusto and again leaves no wiggle room: the Confederate generals whose images are sculpted in marble or whose names bedeck Army bases? They were traitors who don’t deserve the honor, which in any case is always more about current politics than about veneration of the past.
Seidule believes that the cure for racism starts with a more honest engagement with history. He is encouraged that we are finally having a national dialogue about what the Confederacy and the Lost Cause myth mean. “The only way to prevent a racist future is to foster an understanding of our racist past,” he says.
In addition to reading Me and Robert E. Lee, I’ve also listened online to several of Seidule’s lectures and television appearances. I especially want to salute his fierce gift for calling things what they are. “The names we use matter,” he believes. “Accurate language can help destroy the lies of the Lost Cause.”
So, plantations? In Seidule’s book they are “slave labor farms.”
The Union Army? No, that obfuscates the difference between the sides. It’s more accurate to call it The United States Army and the men who fought to save their country U.S. Army soldiers.
The Confederate battle flag? The flag of treason.
General Robert E. Lee? “He wasn’t a general in my Army. In my Army he was a colonel.” (It was the Confederates who ranked Lee as general.)
Given Dr. Seidule’s belief that naming matters, it is fitting that he has recently been appointed to the federal commission to choose new names for the ten Army bases named after Confederate generals. Two of these bases I lived on as a child and another (Ft. Pickett) is named for an ancestor. I am eager to see what he and his fellow commissioners come up with.
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