It is hard–incredible–to believe that the Lincoln bicentennial was twelve years ago. That year too marked the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, which in our house at least marked the start of the Civil War sesquicentennial. My own institution, as far as I can tell, is one of the few remaining that closes for Lincoln’s Birthday. Usually I would take this day to go to a museum–last year it it the Metropolitan. February is conducive to such indoor pursuits, but with the pandemic still on I avoided any subway commuting and used the day for groceries and laundry. I also spent a good part of the day proceeding with Ty Seidule’s “Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause.” Seidule, a retired brigadier general and professor emeritus at West Point, grew up in Alexandria, Virgina where his father taught at a prestigious high school where many of the high-ranking administrators over the decades were Confederate officers, and then the sons and grandsons of such. Robert E. Lee’s own descendants attended the school–and took classes with General Seidule’s father. He then went on for his undergraduate work to Washington and Lee University. I am about a quarter of a way through the book, which is part memoir and part history. In it Seidule traces the role of Robert E. Lee and the Lost Cause in his own life and intellectual development. I cannot imagine the courage it took to look back at every assumption from his life, family history, and community, question what he discovered, and then share what he learned with the reader. It is a humbling read.
Seidule has been in the news a lot lately. For one thing he is currently on the book tour circuit discussing his new work. Then this morning Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin appointed Seidule and three others to the committee whose task it will be to choose those figures for whom to rename military bases and other installations currently named after Confederate figures. Intentional or not, it is nonetheless fitting that the announcement came on Lincoln’s birthday. These are emotionally fraught issues in an emotionally fraught time. It will be interesting to see what the committee does and how the process plays out in the coming months.