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Robert E. Lee and You

This is a book critique by my West Point classmate Colonel (ret) Barrie E. Zais

          The most visible socio-political movement of our time is identity-based politics. In its broadest sense, it includes a range of gender and racial causes. Agendas such as critical race theory, diversity and inclusion, the Me Too movement, The 1619 Project, Black Lives Matter, and equity are all part of this larger counter-culture war. Most claim the existence of an American form of systemic and institutional racism and discrimination and call for some sort of social justice. Today identity politics permeates governmental, military, and educational institutions at all levels. And it divides us.

          Emerging as a manifestation of this movement is the recent work, Robert E. Lee and Me, (St. Martin’s Press, 2020) by Ty Seidule. The author, a former head of the West Point Department of History, claims to have discovered that all we have been taught about the Civil War and the South are myth. While in his position, Colonel, now Brigadier General Retired, Seidule presided over a fundamental shift in the teaching of military history at West Point until his retirement in 2020. Announcing that “it is important that we get our gender and racial agenda right,” large portions of the military history curriculum were eliminated, specifically the Civil War.  As an example, the study of Lee’s brilliant campaigns were scrapped in favor of things like a Civil Rights staff ride throughout the South. Military history is the data base of the military profession. When it is diminished, as has been the case at the West Point, the result is professional catastrophe. Current faculty have told prominent sources, “Sir, it’s so bad I don’t think we are going to be able to fix the department.” Another more optimistic senior professor said, “Give us some time.” 

          Unfortunately, when one sets out to write history for political purpose, it usually turns out to be bad history. And Robert E. Lee and Me is just that. The author’s purpose is to indict Robert E. Lee and other Confederate leaders and purge them from the Army and West Point. In a fit of self-righteous virtue signaling, Seidule declares that “Lee was a traitor and does not represent my values.” So Seidule proudly committed to “change our history to reflect our values.” Some have argued that it is disingenuous to judge one’s views on an issue from another era by the circumstances and ideologies of today. Or judging historical figures based upon current mores and understanding does not lead to an accurate interpretation of the figure in question. Rather, they must be placed in historical perspective. If so, this book is the poster case of historical malfeasance.   

          Seidule’s method is to indict all white, Southern culture, and in doing so, take down its most revered symbols. How Seidule goes about this takes a classic page out of the Marxist handbook. It starts with what is called “The Big Lie,” in this instance, that the South seceded from the Union and fought the Civil War for the exclusive purpose of perpetuating white supremacy and expanding slavery.  Few, if any, of the hundreds of books tracing the coming civil war arrive at such a simplistic conclusion. Of course, slavery was the dominant issue of the time, but the cause of the war was far more complicated than that. One must go back at least to James Madison, the Constitution, and the rights of states in the new nation. But Seidule hammers his Big Lie over and over, four or five times in the Introduction alone. Once he gets the gullible to nod, the rest is easy. If the protection and expansion of slavery was the singular Confederate purpose, then they all must have been bad, and their version of events must be myth. And the actions of succeeding generations of Southerners must be evil and their historical interpretations, myth. In history this is called a single factor theory. This is not to ignore decades of slavery and segregation and their evils, but just to acknowledge that single factor theories are always simplistic and most often wrong.

           The author’s misuse of historical events and documents has gone unnoticed, as the book’s reception has been mostly unfettered acceptance. He is loose with both facts and interpretations. His assertion that the Ordnances of Secession of the seceding states confirm that the issue was slavery is not true. Some of the deep South ordnances stress the subject of slavery, but Virginia and others emphasize threats to their sovereignty.  Seidule’s mean attempt to bring down a great man consciously omits facts such as two thirds of Virginia born officers in the Army went with the Confederacy and that in 1882, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Arlington House and the surrounding grounds, now Arlington National Cemetery, were taken illegally by the Lincoln Administration without due process. The court returned the property to the Lee family. An attempt to advance “social justice” should not dispense with a respect for factual interpretation.

           Seidule’s intent to smear Lee as a cruel racist is a most egregious historical assassination. Lee was at least ambivalent, at most opposed, to slavery. However, his foe, U.S. Grant, only freed his personal slave in 1859, but his wife kept hers. There is some discussion whether the slaves were legally hers or her father’s, but they were in the Grant family. Years later she claimed the four were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. We know this is not true since the proclamation freed no slaves in Missouri where Julia Grant resided.

           These are only a few examples of the author’s selective use of facts. What we get throughout the book are disconcerting nomenclature changes, he refuses to use the term “Union Army,” using instead “U.S. Army,” and ideological interpretations rather than statements of moral and political clarity. The book is also bogged down by an overdone account of the author’s personal life and his purported epiphany.     

          Seidule, did, and continues to do much damage to the Army and West Point. Calling racism a “national institution,” he has played a key role in the cultural purge of Lee and Confederates at the military academy. It is all but certain that Lee Gate, Lee Barracks, Lee Hall, Lee Road, and Lee Housing Area will be erased from history by the cultural commissars. Heeding Seidule’s proposition that all use of the name “Lee” at West Point is “a protest against integration and equal rights,” the Military Academy leadership is all in on the purge.

            The Robert E. Lee Award for mathematics was eliminated and the West Point superintendent removed the Lee portrait from his quarters. Perhaps the Class of 1961 Reconciliation Plaza that recognizes post-civil war healing will survive. But that is not assured, as the current scorched earth movement shows no signs of abating.

            Riding the wave of uber wokeism sweeping the nation, Seidule received an appointment to another commission charged with renaming the ten Army posts in the South carrying Confederate names. Installation names such as Fort Gordon, Georgia will disappear from history. And the name of John Brown Gordon, civil war hero, once Governor, three times elected to the U.S. Senate, and idol of the state of Georgia for 40 years, will be purged from memory.

             It is no coincidence that Brig. Gen. Seidule is lauded in the 40-page June 2020 policy proposal authored by nine disgruntled West Point graduates. They allege that the Academy is racist to the core, that white privilege reigns, and that the institution does not accomplish its mission.  

           While political correctness, wokeness, and critical race theory thrive at West Point, expect no help from the very highest levels of our military establishment. The Secretary of Defense recently told Congress that the military does not teach critical race theory. He was wrong. The West Point superintendent confirmed the use of the book, Critical Race Theory: An Introduction. And Congressman Michael Waltz, R-Fla., provided slides from a West Point workshop entitled “White Power at West Point” and “Racist Dog Whistles at West Point.” At the same hearing, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff testified that he saw nothing untoward about teaching critical race theory to West Point cadets under the title “Understanding Whiteness and White Rage,” what some cadets have called a “woke effort to inspire race-based guilt among students.” The Chairman huffed that he found it personally offensive that the U.S. military was accused of being woke. He went on to say that he had personally read Mao, Marx, and Lenin and adamantly denied that political correctness and wokeism are rampant in the military. The facts do not seem to confirm his view.

  The Navy’s highest-ranking officer also wandered into the ideological stew by including several politically charged books on his officially endorsed reading list for all naval personnel. His refusal to address sailors’ complaints about Ibram X. Kendi, How To Be An Antiracist and what they called woke diversity training has drawn congressional attention. Two veterans, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Tex., viewed it necessary to establish a whistleblower hotline to report official military woke ideology training. The line has been flooded.     

          So, how does this end? Some are pessimistic. Others say the elections of 2022 have the potential to at least slow the tide. The elections of 2024 appear to offer a more critical opportunity. Prompted by attacks on the nation’s founders, in the waning days of the last Administration, the President signed an executive order establishing the President’s Advisory 1776 Commission. Calling America an exceptional nation dedicated to the ideas and ideals of its founding, the order noted a recent series of polemics grounded in poor scholarship that vilify our country. “This radicalized view of American history lacks perspective, obscures virtues, twists motives, ignores or distorts facts, and magnifies flaws, resulting in the truth being concealed and history disfigured.”

         The order called upon all of us not to abandon faith in the common story that binds us to one another across our differences. Those symbols that bind are, of course, the American flag, the National Anthem, the U.S. military, and places like West Point. Disrespect of those only deepens the division. It is identity politics that divides, rather than unites. At the most fundamental level, the order concluded that an informed and honest patriotism taught in our schools should be the goal. In closing it is only fair to note that early on the Biden Administration eliminated the Advisory Commission.

Barrie E. Zais is a graduate of West Point who served two tours in Vietnam and commanded infantry units from platoon to regimental level. He holds Masters and Ph.D. degrees in history from Duke University and has taught on three college faculties. He was the Course Director of the two semester course, History of the Military Art, in the Department of History, U.S Military Academy, West Point.  


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