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.

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The True Blue Federalist

The True Blue Federalist

I was at my favorite pub a while back, and a conversation began that drifted toward Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War. “Well you know,” said the guy on my right, “the war wasn’t really about slavery.” I looked at him: he had the knowing leer of a conspiracy theorist. “And,” he continued, “Lincoln had no right to invade the South; the South really did have the right to leave the Union.” He was young-ish, white, seemingly educated. He had no drawl in his speech to suggest he was from somewhere else. He looked a tad smug after his observation. Without even setting down my Guinness, I let out my “inner professor,” and laid waste to his argument, such as it was. (Yes, I can be a prick that way.) In less than a minute and a half his opinion lay in ruins. After I finished, there was silence. (This is why you don’t pontificate at a bar: you kill the conversation.) “So,” said another drinker on the stool to my left, “how ’bout them Blazers?”

I don’t know if it’s because we are in the middle of the sesquicentennial, the 150th anniversary, of secession and the American Civil War, or because of the recent rise of Libertarians who aspire to high political office, but I seem to be running into more and more of these neo-Confederate opinions—bogus arguments about how the Civil War was actually an unjust war that should never have been fought, and the blame for this monumental catastrophe lay at the feet of Abraham Lincoln. It never fails to surprise me. Being a native Californian, I had always assumed that the “Lost Cause” was a relic of the past found only in the South, that no-one of any real awareness could sincerely believe in such a thing. Not at all—that is a stereotype I much regret. My recent experience sitting in pubs having conversations with various people showed a disturbing trend: that close to half of the people I talked with—most of them educated people from places outside the South—believed in some form of the Lost Cause: that the war was over tariffs, that Lincoln started the war, that he was a tyrant, that secession was legal.

This, to me, is a grave problem.

As the writer Shelby Foote put it, the Civil War is to Americans “the crossroads of our being—and it was a helluva crossroads.” But if the nature of this great cataclysm is misunderstood or worse, purposely obscured—if the signposts of this crossroads are moved in the night by vandals—how are we to make sense of where we are today? Our ideas of government power; our notions of citizenship; our struggles with race—all these depend on a realistic interpretation of the Civil War and its aftermath.

The historian and Civil War blogger Kevin Levin believes that the people who support the notion of the “Lost Cause” are a dying breed, that they have lost their relevance. While I hope this is true, it hasn’t been my recent experience. Most worrisome, I see or hear too many instances of this false memory of history in the media, where they can have a much larger effect on public opinion than a hipster on a barstool in a brewpub.

If it was merely a matter of “Americans don’t understand the Civil War” (similar to the hand-wringing “Americans can’t find Asia on a map” or “one in four Americans don’t know the earth goes around the sun,” and other such declarations on the failure of the American education system), I could handle it. It’s not good, but it’s why I’m a teacher. But what’s happening here with the Civil War is much more insidious: it is the purposeful misrepresentation of Secession and the Civil War for modern political purposes.

A few days after Presidents’ Day, Jon Stewart and Larry Wilmore took on one of these misrepresentations on The Daily Show. Andrew Napolitano had appeared earlier in the week on a Fox show stating that Lincoln’s fighting a war to end slavery was wrong. Stewart and Wilmore confronted his statements directly as only The Daily Show can. While the segment necessarily oversimplified the issues around the profitability of slavery, it was still fabulous. A few days later, Stewart had Napolitano on the show for a segment called “The Weakest Lincoln”, and brought in three eminent historians, including Eric Foner, to judge Judge Napolitano’s warped misinformation on Lincoln and the war. Stewart and Wilmore have done this kind of thing more than once, beginning with the hilarious segment on the ordinances of secession (I actually play this one in my class).

There are two nagging problems with this method. First, Stewart and Wilmore (and Eric Foner) can’t be there every time a neo-Confederate or a Libertarian spouts nonsense about Lincoln or the war. Second, fitting these nuanced arguments into a two-and-a-half or three minute segment on a late-night fake news show necessarily means elements are going to be lost—that the public is not going to get the full meaning of why these are bogus arguments. (But I want to be clear that the fact that Jon Stewart even attempts this is awe-inspiring to me. I agree with the late great David Rakoff when he said of Mr. Stewart, “I would drink his bath water.”) Part of the idea for the True Blue Federalist, then, is to provide a kind of “one stop shopping” for arguments against the Lost Cause myth and its Libertarian counterpart, what I will call the “Evil Genius Lincoln” hypothesis.

And so, that’s the point of this blog. Now, there are many excellent Civil War blogs, by actual Civil War scholars, to be sure—Kevin Levin’s Civil War Memory (which is brilliant, especially if you are a teacher); Brooks Simpson’s Crossroads (which is thoughtful, sharp and provocative); Andy Hall’s Dead Confederates (which is fun, sarcastic, and insanely genius for those of us fascinated by the maritime aspects Civil War), just to name three—but these blogs aren’t totally dedicated to “debunking” neo-Confederate BS in the popular media. (Although they sometimes do, and when they do so, they are all excellent.) Those blogs, especially Levin’s and Simpson’s, focus as much on actual scholarship as they do correcting false statements and impressions. (Again, when they choose to, they all do an excellent job debunking statements in the blogosphere from some of the more notable neo-Confederate groups.) The difference between those blogs and this is that “debunking,” especially in the media, will be the main focus.

In addition, I hope to cover a broader territory that deals with federalism over time—which helps to explain the title of this blog. That includes what we in Oregon refer to as the “three sovereigns”: the federal government, state governments, and Indian governments. Because, whatever you may think or feel, Indian sovereignty in real, and it has shaped our constitutional system is surprising (and, I argue, encouraging) ways.

So, away we go. I hope you enjoy.

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