In January 1872, Jubal Early, a former Confederate corps commander, delivered an address at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., to honor Robert E. Lee, who had recently died. Believing that Lee was one of the finest military leaders in history, Early declared, “Our beloved Chief stands, like some lofty column which rears its head among the highest, in grandeur, simple, pure and sublime, needing no borrowed lustre; and he is all our own.” In subsequent years, Early and several elite ex-officers would deify Lee while creating the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War. According to that view, the war wasn’t about slavery but rather states’ rights. And the North won only because of its superior resources. An additional tenet is that Lee was the greatest soldier in the war on either side.
At the same time the Lee myth was being created, former rebels began reinforcing white supremacy all across the South. In Walton County, a rural community in Georgia, the Ku Klux Klan terrorized freedmen after the war. In 1871, Jake Daniels, an African American blacksmith from the county, was killed by 20 disguised men after refusing to repair a buggy for a White man, who still owed him money from previous jobs. The Klansmen showed up at Daniels’s door in the middle of the night. Daniels went outside but quickly recognized the danger. He tried to reenter his house but was shot in the back of the head. The men then shot him five or six more times before leaving the scene.
This type of violence was not uncommon in the South in the 19th and 20th centuries. In Georgia alone, 589 people were lynched between 1877 and 1950. As Ty Seidule writes in his powerful new book, “Robert E. Lee and Me,” “If Lee and Confederate worship created one side of the white supremacy coin, violent terror to enforce racial domination provided the other side.”
Seidule tells the story of his transformation from a believer in the Lost Cause to a critic. Growing up in Virginia and Georgia, he worshiped Lee. It was only later, as the head of the history department at the U.S. Military Academy, that he discovered the truth about Confederate myths. Seidule writes: “I grew up with a lie, a series of lies. Now, as a historian and a retired U.S. Army officer, I must do my best to tell the truth about the Civil War, and the best way to do that is to show my own dangerous history.”
Seidule has written a vital account of the destructiveness of the Lost Cause ideology throughout American history. He shows how films, textbooks and memorials promoted white supremacy by glorifying traitors and enslavers like Lee and other Confederate leaders. Perhaps the best attribute of this fine book is the author’s honesty. When talking of his personal metamorphosis, he vows to “quit hiding behind the impartial, know-it-all historian and open up about the southerner, the boy who grew up on Lee idolatry, and the man who wrapped his identity around the heroes of the Confederacy. Be honest. Be vulnerable. Above all, tell the truth.”