This book review is by Iain Standen who is a member of ACWRT(UK) and is CEO of the Bletchley Park Trust as well as being a Battlefield Guide. He also has his own blog which members may be interested to have a look at.
Robert E. Lee and Me is an unusual book, combining many different elements to create a compelling and thought-provoking read. In part it is a history of the post-Civil War United States of America examining the legacy of the Lost Cause myth of the Confederacy. Central to the myth is the lie that the Confederacy was a just and heroic cause, and fundamentally not about defending slavery. It is also an examination of the post-war memorialisation of the Confederacy that the Lost Cause encouraged, as well as a commentary on the history of racial injustice in the United States. But at the heart, as the title suggests, it is the story of one man coming to terms with these large and important themes.
The author is a recently retired United States Army officer who served for 'thirty-six years, retiring as a brigadier general.’ In this honest and illuminating narrative, Seidule describes how he grew up in the American South with the ghost of Confederate commander General Robert E. Lee as a constant companion. He reflects on his school days in Alexandria, Virginia and Monroe, Georgia, and his college years at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. In doing so he highlights how Robert E. Lee, as a role-model southern gentleman, shaped his upbringing and his thinking. He also recounts his time as a military officer including his academic career as a member of staff at the United States Army’s officer training academy, West Point, recalling how the shadow Lee was also present through this part of his life.
In successive chapters Seidule examines each of these periods, the places associated with them, and how in each he encountered the myth of the Lost Cause. More alarmingly he highlights how it contributed to the systemic racism that has endured in the United States of America throughout the one hundred and sixty years since the Civil War, a conflict that was ostensibly fought to defeat slavery! He explains how he became increasingly aware that despite the Confederacy losing the Civil War its influence, particularly that of Robert E. Lee, has had a disproportionate impact on the memory of the war. As evidence he cites memorials commemorating notable Confederates, pictures of Lee hanging in prominent public locations, and the fact that the U.S. Army still has military bases named after Confederate generals.
The book’s final chapter is a passionate and articulate exposition of how in the author’s words, ‘Robert E. Lee committed treason to preserve slavery’. The author argues that Robert E. Lee did this by resigning his commission in the U.S. Army in 1861 and choosing to fight for his birth-state, Virginia, and the Confederacy. In doing so Lee ignored the oath that all U.S. Army officers take on commissioning and retake on each promotion, in which they affirm their allegiance to the United States of America. Seidule persuasively suggests that it is this fact that means that Lee should not be honoured as he has been. It is testament to Seidule’s balance as a writer and historian that, whilst challenging Lee’s loyalty and patriotism, he does so without resorting to denigrating Lee’s undoubted ability as a military commander. He acknowledges that ‘Lee the military commander was first-rate’ and highlights his tactical battlefield achievements.
As already stated, this book is principally the story of the author’s reckoning with the misplaced idolisation of Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy that has developed since the end of the Civil War. But it goes much further. It is also a well-executed examination of how, from the era of Reconstruction onwards, the process of recreating the Union failed its African American population, in some cases deliberately and in others inadvertently. It is difficult to disagree at all with the evidence that Seidule presents. The Jim Crow laws of the late nineteenth century and the consequent segregation, the barbarity of the lynch mob that continued in some places until after World War Two, and the legacy of this today, all add solid evidence to support his case.
If there are is any criticism to be made of this book it is that the author’s passion for his subject and how he lays out his case can sometimes verge on self-righteousness which tends to jar. This minor criticism aside, it is a valuable, very readable and emotional contribution to the current debate about racism in the United States of America, and the role that memory and memorialisation of the Civil War has had, and continues to play, in this debate. Its content and accessible approach to its subject matter will appeal to a wide readership. At a time when the subject of racism is in the forefront of the world's mind, and the memorials that provide the physical legacy of the American Civil War are under attack, it provides information and food for thought in equal measure.
Hardback Pages: 301 pp St. Martins Press Published: 2021