The Myth of the Lost Cause

I suppose the first order of business is to establish just what this Lost Cause myth is. We’ll spend quite a number of blog pages explaining why it’s bogus. This overview is necessarily brief, but there are a number of good books on the Lost Cause, starting with Confederates in the Attic, by Tony Horwitz.

This entry in the online Encyclopedia Virginia has an excellent overall description of this phenomenon by historian Caroline E. Janney of Purdue. She includes “Six Tenets” of the Lost Cause, which I find helpful:

The Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War typically includes the following six assertions:

  • Secession, not slavery, caused the Civil War.
  • African Americans were “faithful slaves,” loyal to their masters and the Confederate cause and unprepared for the responsibilities of freedom.
  • The Confederacy was defeated militarily only because of the Union’s overwhelming advantages in men and resources.
  • Confederate soldiers were heroic and saintly.
  • The most heroic and saintly of all Confederates, perhaps of all Americans, was Robert E. Lee.
  • Southern women were loyal to the Confederate cause and sanctified by the sacrifice of their loved ones.

The historical consensus, however, presents a picture that is far more complicated, one in which some tenets of the Lost Cause are obviously false and some are at least partly true.

We can dispense with the true aspects pretty quickly:

  • Secession was the direct cause of the war, but the South seceded because of slavery.
  • Some slaves were undoubtedly “faithful.” But the thumping great vast majority of slaves loathed bondage and yearned for freedom.
  • One of the major reasons for Union victory was indeed an “overwhelming advantages in men and resources.” But if this was the only reason, the Union would have won the war in 1862, ending the rebellion, and restoring the Union—with slavery intact!
  • Confederate soldiers fought extraordinarily well. But there’s no evidence they fought better or worse, were more brave or more cowardly, than Union troops. And some of them committed documented atrocities against black Union soldiers.
  • Lee was a very great general. But he also made mistakes, and he committed, or allowed to be committed in his presence, a great many crimes.
  • Southern women were probably as loyal as any other women whose men are involved in a great war (although I fully admit I have no data on this one way or the other).

The rest of the Lost Cause is a desperate attempt to control the opinion of posterity, and—what’s more important—to control Southern blacks.

The first Big Idea around the Lost Cause is that the Southern states had every right to leave the Union of their own accord. This is probably the biggest talking point neo-Confederates have, and it is I believe the most misunderstood aspect of the period. Of course, the South did not have the right to secede, and I will deal with this later in a more detailed post. But it is a terribly crucial question; because if they are right, then Lincoln was wrong, and between 620,000 (the age-old, tried-and-true estimate) to 750,000 (a new estimate, based on new ways of looking at the evidence) men perished in an illegal war that is only justified by the destruction of slavery. Some would argue this justification is good enough, and perhaps it is, but I will argue that Lincoln was indeed legally in the right.

The reason for this white-washing (pun intended) of the history of the war was because ex-Confederates basically wanted to extend their control of black people beyond slavery. One must keep in mind that 9,000,000 white people in the South suddenly confronted 4,000,000 freedmen, and were horrified to find the freedmen considered themselves equal to whites. In order to control this large population of black Americans in their midst, then, ex-Confederates first needed to justify their behavior (secession and the war) and distance their “cause” from slavery. To do this, ex-Confederates had to convince the rest of America that the Civil War was a tragic “family feud,” and that Reconstruction was a terrible mistake, a hideous crime against good, upstanding white citizens—that they were completely in the right to “redeem” their governments from “negro rule.” If Southern white elites could control the narrative, then there was an excellent chance they could control blacks.

Complicit in the white-washing were moderate, business-oriented Northern Republicans who represented the forces of Big Capital. Poised on the edge of the period known as the Gilded Age, they saw opportunities in the New South, filled as it was with newly freed labor and ripe for investment, and salivated. The impatient drive to maximize the nation’s economic and industrial power encouraged many in the North to accept this Southern definition of the War, and so to push for reconciliation of North and South. Thus began a partnership between white Americans from the two sections.

Of course, the cost of this partnership of reconciliation was the disenfranchisement of Southern blacks. Northern whites tacitly accepted the newly-constructed Southern narrative of Reconstruction, which portrayed blacks as ignorant at best, violators of white Southern virtue at worst, incompetent always. While the economic development of the South by Northern capital never quite took place, the narrative stuck. It gained power after the turn of the twentieth century thanks to films like Birth of a Nation, and attitudes of those in power (like Woodrow Wilson, and inveterate racist, who appears to have believed that Birth of a Nation was a documentary).“Let’s just forget that silly war” or “Let’s put that tragic misunderstanding behind us” was the message. Southern blacks would have to wait for the 1950s and 1960s for a Second Reconstruction, where they could begin to enjoy the rights won by the Civil War and secured in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.

The Confederate South, then, did not get the economic development promised, but they got something else that I suspect they wanted more: their version of the Civil War made something close to mainstream and Jim Crow. While the Lost Cause was never the dominant view of the war, enough of it stuck that, to this day, many Americans—including friends of mine, students of mine, and yes, drinking partners of mine—believe crucial elements of it, distorting the real meaning of the war.

This is the short version of the Lost Cause Myth. Let’s now look at some aspects of it, and tear them apart. In fact, let’s start with the most important legal aspect, secession.


About Christopher Shelley

Christopher Shelley teaches American history and American Indian history at Portland Community College. He is fond of border collies, and bleeds Dodger-blue. Any and all opinions expressed here are those of the expressors themselves, and in no way represent the views of Portland Community College.
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