By DENNIS HARROD
Ty Seidule never thought of himself as a white supremacist. He didn’t think about white supremacy at all. Growing up in the South, first in Virginia and then in Georgia, he had one dream: become a southern gentleman, like his idol, Robert E. Lee. He accepted without question the narrative of the Confederacy as a glorious lost cause, a defeat of right by might.
“I mainlined Gone with the Wind and overdosed on the Lost Cause,” he writes in his 2021 memoir, “Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause.”
But during a lifetime of studying history Seidule realized that he had grown up accepting a myth and that all he had been told and taught, all he had experienced as a white person, was part of a system dedicated to the perpetuation of white supremacy.
Now, he’s on a mission to correct the narrative of the glorious and virtuous cause of the Confederacy and especially the idolization of its heroes, starting with Lee. After spending a career as a soldier in the United States Army, Seidule does not look kindly on those who killed men like him and so refuses to honor the Confederate dead. The Confederacy went to war against the United States and before it was over, more than 350,000 United States soldiers were dead. Only in World War II were more U.S. soldiers killed. (If one counts the Confederate dead, the Civil War killed more American soldiers than any other war.)
Seidule says to make no mistake: The Civil War was first and foremost about the perpetuation of slavery. Many will argue the war was about states’ rights. Seidule agrees. “Sure, they fought for states’ rights,” he says. The states’ rights to perpetuate the enslavement of human beings.
He cites South Carolina’s given reason for seceding: “the hostility … to the institution of slavery.” Mississippi argued that it was seceding because “our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest in the world.” And he cites the speech given in March 1861 by Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy. Stephens said that the Confederacy’s “cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man … that slavery is his normal and natural condition.”
Seidule’s book follows his youth in Virginia and Georgia and then his 36-year career in the United States Army retiring as a brigadier general. As he studies history and begins to tear away at the fabric of the myth of the Lost Cause, he comes across innumerable atrocities committed against Black people for which there was no official memory. Statues and memorials to Confederate soldiers abound across the south (and the north) but there was little or no mention of the thousands of Black people who were murdered under a reign of terror that lasted well into the 20th century (some would say it continues to this day).
In the years following the war, the Confederacy was anathema to the United States. But toward the end of the 19th century, the myth of the lost cause began to take hold and a spirit of reconciliation and national unity fueled a new narrative. Seidule notes that this spirit of reconciliation extended only to white people and that the repression, terror and murder in the South continued unabated.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Army, which had lost so many soldiers to the South’s rebellion, began to honor many of those who fought for the Confederacy by naming forts after them. Forts Bragg and Benning are two of the better-known forts named for “unrepentant white supremacists,” Seidule writes. He takes special exception to John Brown Gordon, for whom Fort Gordon in Georgia is named. Gordon never served in the U.S. Army, but rose through the ranks of the Confederate army. After the war, he helped lead the Ku Klux Klan, calling it a “brotherhood of … peaceable, law-abiding citizens.” Much like those “ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse,” of whom the Republican National Committee recently spoke.
Other forts include one named for George Pickett of Gettysburg fame. Pickett, who executed 22 captured U.S. soldiers, was a war criminal, Seidule says.
And then there is Fort Lee, home of army logistics. At Fort Lee, “our most racially diverse post,” Seidule writes, “the army honors a man who wore army blue for three decades and then refused to stay when his nation needed him most. Instead, he fought so well and so hard to ensure African Americans stayed enslaved.”
But over the course of the 20th century, Lee had gone from traitor to hero. Even Franklin Delano Roosevelt praised Lee as “one of our greatest American Christians and one of our greatest American gentlemen.” As Seidule writes, “The South had lost the war but won the narrative.”
Having grown up worshipping Lee, Seidule is now unsparing in his contempt for the man. A great general, yes, Seidule says, but that makes Lee even more guilty for taking up arms against his country. “Because he fought so well for so long, hundreds of thousands of soldiers died. No other enemy officer in American history was responsible for the deaths of more U.S. Army solders than Robert E. Lee.”
In spite of his catalog of horrors, Seidule remains optimistic. He writes “never underestimate the ability of Americans to do the right thing – eventually.” He cites the gradual, grudging acknowledgement of the white supremacist legacy of the United States and the movement toward a reckoning of all of our history.
And he finds hope in stories like that of Ted DeLaney, who grew up attending segregated black schools in Virginia. He was offered a scholarship to attend Morehouse College, but was hesitant to move farther south and instead took a custodial job Washington and Lee University (Seidule’s alma mater). DeLaney’s intelligence got him promoted to a lab assistant job. In 1979 he began taking classes and graduated with a history degree in 1983 at the age of 40. From there he went on to a PhD in history and returned to Washington and Lee as a professor. He retired in 2019, 56 years after he started as a custodian, and died in 2020. “Ted DeLaney represents the America I love,” Seidule writes.
Seidule admits his passion for setting the record straight “can verge into righteousness,” but he is determined to keep on talking, teaching and writing in the hope that not only will we stop honoring traitors and white supremacists, but that we will begin honoring the stories of countless Black people whose stories remain untold and unknown. “The only way to prevent a racist future,” he writes, “is to first understand our racist past.”
Dennis Harrod is a co-founder of Sense of Decency, and in the spirit of full disclosure, he is a member of the board of the Cazenovia Forum. For more information on Seidule’s March 4 presentation, go to Cazenovia Forum.