The name “Charlottesville” still prompts memories of racism, the Confederacy and the alt-right.
On Saturday, Aug. 11, a group of white nationalists banded together for a “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville, VA, to protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue, the Confederate general. During counter-protests, a car drove into the crowd, killing one woman and injuring others.
On Thursday, Sept. 28, Vassar’s Black Students Union (BSU) held the first of three events intended to start a dialogue. As the press for the event stated, “‘History and Memory after Charlottesville’ is a series of informative and engaging conversations which will explore the ways that the U.S. and other countries are dealing with or are failing to address past injustices, wars, and conflicts in the wake of recent events in Charlottesville, VA.”
BSU invited West Point Professor and Head of History Department Colonel Ty Seidule to speak about his experience with the issue of the Confederacy and his take on it as a historian.
Students and citizens of Poughkeepsie and the larger Mid-Hudson area came to hear him.
Livia Bartels ’20 heard about the event through a Vassar History Department email and had heard great things about the West Point colonel.
BSU member Amanda Herring ’21 went to learn about the topic and hear from Seidule, stating, “I just want to be better informed and know more about what he has to say.”
Senior History Department academic intern and BSU Vice President Maya Sudarkasa ’18, the event organizer, introduced the topic of the lecture, stating, “History and memory after Charlottesville is, as its name suggests, a number of important and pressing conversations related to the recent racist display of hatred in Charlottesville.”
She went on to discuss how having difficult conversations such as these allow reflection, adding, “Thinking about the nature of history with a capital H, sometimes topics and issues
fall through the cracks, stories are left untold and moments fall into silence, and so [in] bringing this issue to light, we are doing justice to a much more larger encompassing subject that ultimately affects all of us in our understanding of national identity.”
Sudarkasa then presented Colonel Seidule, who has been coming to Vassar for years as part of the Vassar-West Point Initiative, an effort to bridge the gap between the military and civilians.
Seidule opened with lighthearted banter, urging all first-years to major in history, stating that the skills historians learn can be used in any field, and describing how his lecture would be equal parts autobiography and history. He repeated the words of a colleague, asking, “Why would a southern, middle aged, white army officer who is not an academy graduate write about [Confederate memory and African-American history]? It turns out [people] care.”
Seidule outlined the themes of his talk, stating that we should address myths and identity, that the truth is ruthless and that we can confront the past honestly, survive and thrive. He explained how he had three different identities, as a southerner, as a soldier and as a scholar.
As a writer who covers the Confederacy and African-American history as well as a citizen of Virginia, Seidule’s life is intertwined with this subject and, more specifically, with General Robert E. Lee.
Seidule was born in Alexandria, VA 99 years after Lee ordered the attack on Cemetery Hill and grew up learning about war hero Robert E. Lee. He attended Robert E. Lee Elementary School and later went to Washington and Lee University.
He explained how strange occurrences happened around him, yet he didn’t notice; he cited the last mass lynching in 1946, which took place in Georgia, his university state, and a lynching carried out by the KKK during his spring break.
When Seidule took the oath of office as an army officer in 1984 pledging to serve and defend the constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, in Lee Chapel, confederate flags surrounded him; he started his service in the U.S. Army surrounded by enemy flags. Seidule stated, “Ironically, that oath that I took… is an anti-Confederate oath written in 1863 at a time when Confederate spies and sympathizers worried Congress. That oath has been a guiding force in my life.”
He discussed a crowning idea he believed as a child, the “lost cause of the Confederacy” myth. He explained how the South seceded and started a war to protect the institution of slavery but, after failing, the South spread the “Lost Cause” myth. Now, according to him, possibly as many as 40 percent of Americans don’t believe that the secession was a result of white supremacy and a desire to protect slavery.
Seidule picked some common arguments and knocked them down. For example, “Slavery would have died out naturally in a few years. No. The price of slaves was at an all-time high in 1860.” The one theory that held the most weight for him was that Robert E. Lee was a gentleman and the greatest military commander in history. However, Lee left West Point to fight for the Confederacy, and he even wrote to oppose Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
Seidule referenced a previous cadet, stating, “[David Blythe said] the Civil War is like a sleeping dragon. If you poke it hard enough it will raise its head and breathe fire.”
He discussed the Confederate monuments at West Point, explaining, “Confederate monuments at West Point had two purposes: One, bring white America back together again, and two, protest against integration and equal rights.”
For example, the year the only African-American cadet, Benjamin O’Davis, graduated from West Point in the 20th century, West Point named a major road, gate and housing area after Lee.
Seidule also referenced 1971, when President Richard Nixon came to visit. Nixon asked the superintendent why there were no Confederate monuments, and the superintendent responded that at West Point they memorialize only those who fight for the country, not those who fight against it. Nixon demanded that a Confederate monument be built, and the superintendent notified a group of Black cadets, who organized to create a manifesto and protest the White House, which finally caved and voted to stop the production of the monument.
Seidule impressed, “America’s great chain, slavery and segregation, demand a reckoning. Not only at West Point but from sea to shining sea. And the only way to do that is to confront the past as you are doing here at Vassar, confront it head on. We must discover our personal history, our institutional history, our American history.”
There will be two other lectures taking place on Oct. 17 and Nov. 9 that will discuss the history and memory in the United States, as well as other countries, as a result of the unrest in Charlottesville.
As Siedule concluded, “A true education demands that you challenge your myths, your identity. Go find your dangerous history. Go tell the ruthless truth. Go slay some dragons.”