A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause
By Ty Seidule
A Review by Dwight A. Moody
My library has more than its share of books about conversions, religious conversions that is, from doubt to faith, from sin to salvation, from lost to found. Books like Born Again by Charles Colson, Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis, and The Seven Storey Mountain, by Thomas Merton. I have a long-standing interest in the journey that people make on their way to truth, and grace, and life. Which is why this book appeals to me—it is a conversion story from beginning to end, and one with a quasi-religious dimension.
As Seidule points out in this book about his journey, adulation of the famous southern general Robert E. Lee borders on adoration; there is a religious-like fervency in the way many people feel about the man who led the Confederate armies in the insurrection of 1861-1865.
I was almost there at one point: a fan, we might say, enthralled with Lee’s military skill and what I thought at the time was his character, discipline, and dignity. I have read multiple times the three-volume set The Civil War by Shelby Foote; and I have visited as many times the famed and fabulous battlefield in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania—“stars in their courses,” Foote entitled that chapter, quoting the Bible.
I was a casual student, a modest admirer of Rebert E. Lee, but Seidule was far more intense in every respect; and that is the narrative of this conversion story: how one true Southerner, himself a 40-year veteran of the U. S. Army, a professor of history at West Point holding a PhD from Ohio State University, came to grips with his obsession and then, by the grace of God, gave it up, repented, changed his mind, and went in another direction.
Lee was a traitor, pure and simple, Seidule asserts. He was one of the nine Virginia natives who had graduated from West Point and, at the time the Civil War broke out, held the rank of colonel in the U. S. Army. He was the only one who defected, resigned his commission, and took up arms against the country.
Details like that abound in this richly research book; six hundred and twenty-five footnotes! Clearly, Seidule has done his homework, over many years, and distilled it in lectures, articles, speeches, and now, this book.
Seidule puts Lee in his place, and that place is not in chapels, or on monuments, or on the name plate of any building—all the places where it has been for a century and a half. His place is on the list of those men who rebelled against the United States and sought our destruction; his place is on the list of those men who believed, defended, and practiced the enslaving of people, who denigrated African Americans as unworthy of citizenship and uncapable of self-determination or self-care.
Our calling today is to think more of his slaves (and their descendants) than he did and less of him (and his exploits) that his fans have, be those fans soldiers, politicians, relatives, or even historians, like Douglas Southhall Freeman, who a century ago wrote the Pulitzer-winning, four-volume hagiography that has so shaped public opinion about Lee.
Seidule’s book is a powerful testament that people can change, and this is so important in our country today, rife as it is with racism and misinformation. Think of all the people who have embraced “the big lie” of our 2020 election—that it was “stolen” by some thorough manipulation of the voting system. It reads so very much like the myth of the Lost Cause, which is at the heart of the adulation of Lee. It is also at the heart of so much of the racism that continues to wreak violence upon our nation and her people. In fact, both the long-standing religion of Robert E. Lee and the longer-standing religion of White Supremacy have their roots in the American South, the home turf of both Ty Seidule and me; which helps explain why this book and its witness to transformation is so important to me—as a person, as a citizen, as a scholar, and as a Christian.
I have always liked a good conversion story!