‘History is too important to be boring’
It’s a crisp and sunny late September day on Minor Field, where a group of students is taking advantage of the weather to get some socially distanced exercise. But instead of the typical workout playlist, their portable speaker is blaring 1860s fife and drum music. Oh, and there’s also a man in a U.S. Army Cavalry Stetson giving them literal marching orders.
That man is Ty Seidule, a visiting professor of military history and retired brigadier general. Along with Maurice Isserman, the Publius Virgilius Rogers Professor of American History, Seidule is co-teaching a course on Civil War history and memory as part of his two-year teaching fellowship at Hamilton. The spontaneous drill session was Isserman’s idea, Seidule says, but it aligned perfectly with one of his core beliefs. “History,” he says, “is too important to be boring.”
That notion is doubly true when it comes to the Civil War. Seidule, an expert on Confederate memorialization and the Lost Cause — the notion that the Confederacy was a doomed but noble undertaking, as exemplified in films such as Gone with the Wind—is particularly attuned to the ways in which the war and its aftermath shaped American culture.
“Growing up in Virginia, everything was Robert E. Lee,” he says. At his undergraduate institution, Washington and Lee University, the Civil War general served as president and is buried in Lee Chapel, which features a large statue of the general. “He’s literally the altarpiece,” Seidule says.
Even at West Point, where Seidule taught for 20 years (and where Lee served as superintendent before the war), there are several structures named for the man who committed treason to fight against the country he had previously served.
“I had this epiphany one day as I was walking down Lee Road and then past Lee Barracks,” he remembers. “I was thinking ‘why is so much stuff named after this guy?’” This January, he will answer that question with the release of his latest book, Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause. In it, he lays out a typically frank indictment of Lee’s treason and the Lost Cause.
“Of the eight U.S. Army colonels from Virginia at the start of the war, seven chose to fight with the United States,” Seidule says. “Lee was the only one who didn’t.”
The reason, he argues, is simple. As one of Virginia’s largest slaveholders, Lee chose to defend slavery rather than his country. After the war, he became the central figure in the Lost Cause. At its core, Seidule says, that mythology had a purpose: asserting white supremacy and racial control. “Once you understand Lee and the Lost Cause, that becomes clear,” he says, “and that’s why I’m so clear about it when I speak now.”
The military makes up a big portion of government spending, so it’s important for students to understand what the military is and what it does. That enables them to hold political leaders accountable.
In 2017, Seidule brought that clarity back to Lee Chapel for a Constitution Day lecture. As a talk, he admits, it was “a punch in the nose,” but it also resonated with much of his audience, who gave him a standing ovation. The audience that night included Suzanne Keen, Hamilton’s vice president of academic affairs and dean of faculty, who was then the dean at Washington and Lee.
Although Lee brought Seidule to Keen’s attention, another Civil War general, Joshua Chamberlain, was indirectly responsible for bringing him to Hamilton. Chamberlain served as a general in the U.S. Army and later became president of Bowdoin College. The Chamberlain Project, which funded Seidule’s fellowship, was created to pair credentialed retired military officers with teaching positions in schools throughout the Northeast.
When it came time for Seidule to pick his home institution, Keen played an integral part in making the case for Hamilton.
“Because of my military background, I know how to identify and follow great leadership,” Seidule says. “When I met with Suzanne and [President] David [Wippman], I knew very quickly Hamilton had that.” He also found a warm welcome from the History Department. “They really rolled out the red carpet,” he says. “They’re not just great scholars, but great people.”
With his focus on military history, Seidule will add even more depth to the History Department’s offerings. In addition to a course on Civil War memory this spring, he will teach a class on the world wars next fall and a strategy course for the Government Department in spring 2022.
Alongside teaching, Seidule identifies another mission for himself on campus: bridging the gap between the civilian and military worlds. He hopes his presence on campus will encourage students to look past a uniform to better understand the person wearing it. “The military isn’t a monolith,” he says. “We’re over a million people, with a diverse range of opinions and experiences.”
Having a more nuanced understanding of the military, Seidule points out, also serves an important civic purpose. “The military makes up a big portion of government spending, so it’s important for students to understand what the military is and what it does. That enables them to hold political leaders accountable.”
Ty Seidule is the Chamberlain Fellow and a visiting professor of history. His latest book, Robert E. Lee and Me, will be published in 2021 by St. Martin’s Press. He is the author or editor of six other books, three of which won distinguished writing prizes.
Although Hamilton and West Point differ in many respects, Seidule has found that students from both institutions share certain qualities, including self-discipline. “I’ve seen Hamilton students taking social distancing and mask wearing very seriously,” he says. “Everywhere I go on campus I see it. That’s remarkable — in general, 18- to 22-year-olds are not renowned for their self-control.”
The discipline, Seidule says, manifests itself in other ways, too. Students are engaged and prepared for class, which he sees as emblematic of a culture of learning on the Hill. Hamilton’s open curriculum, he says, enables this, since every student in a given class has chosen to take it. The open curriculum also contributes to what Seidule sees as the most important benefit of a liberal arts education: its ability to educate students to creatively solve different problems from different perspectives. Little wonder, he says, that liberal arts graduates are prepared for anything.
Including, apparently, Civil War drills.
A history major and former editor of the Duel Observer, John Boudreau ’14 is now a communications professional and writer with interests in history, culture, and the outdoors. You can find him on Twitter @jk_boudreau.