In May of 1865 the Confederacy
lay in ruins. The City of Atlanta had been burned
and Charleston, South Carolina
fared little better. Much of its railways had been turned into Sherman Necktie
s, where the rails had been heated red-hot and twisted around a tree, rendering them unusable. Twenty-five percent of all men aged between twenty and forty had been killed or maimed by war. Most of the South's wealth had been destroyed and the slave-based agrarian economy that represented much Southern wealth had been destroyed forever. Southerners had begun that war confident and proud of their strength in arms yet their cause had led to an undeniable disaster. The Myth of the Lost Cause
was a series of myths constructed around the war designed to make so much sacrifice seem worthwhile, even enobling. Simplified, the Myth argues that the War was not about slavery
, but Slavery itself was good. That South had not chosen war but had war forced upon the South by an aggressive North. They argued the superiority of Southern culure and the chivalric nature of the Confederate soldier. Robert E. Lee
represents the apogee of all virtue to apologists of the Lost Cause. They also argue that secession was legal and right. The myth gained a great deal of traction in historical and literary circles after the war, and appears to be gaining renewed popularity today in part because an idealized Confederate image appeals to many modern day American conservatives.
The myth was first named in The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates
by Viriginia journalist Edward Pollard. The man most associated with the Lost Cause is Confederate General Jubal Early
. Early had served as a corps commander under Lee and his defeat at the hands of Phil Sheridan
in the Shenandoah Valley
was one of the bigger nails in the Confederate coffin. A slaveowner, Early recognized that he who wrote the first histories of that conflict would carry inordinate influence over all who would follow. Early was a clear admirer of Robert E. Lee even though Lee dismissed him after the Shenandoah campaign. He contributed to the Southern Historical Society whose monographs which would elevate the Southern Cause. Early was deeply embittered after the war, so much so he oncse stated "I could scalp a Northern woman and child with scarcely a shudder." Early more then anyone else defined what would become the tenets of the Lost Cause.
Briefly summed up, the high points of the Myth are:
- The War was not about Slavery
- Where slavery existed, it was a good and civilizing affair for both white and Negro. Southern slavemasters were tolerant, enlightened and beloved by their darkies
- Southern Culture was noble and refined, greatly superior to a crude Yankee culture
- Robert E. Lee represented the peak of all virtues, civilian and military. Much reference is also made to the piety of Lee and Stonewall Jackson, who are regarded as the greatest soldiers of the war. Ulysses S. Grant is regarded as little more then a talentless butcher who won only because of numbers.
- War was not chosen by a peaceful South, but forced upon it by an agressive North
- The South, thanks to the superior bravery of its soldiers and skill of its Generals, was only defeated thanks to the North's overwhelming numbers. In fact, it was not possible for the South to win against such numbers, hence the "Lost Cause"
- The only battles which realy mattered were fought in the East, especially Northern Virginia. The Western Theater of operations is rarely mentioned as events there do not fit the Lost Cause narrative
- The Battle of Gettysburg was represented the high point of the Confederacy, and the decisive moment of the war
- Union soldiers were cruel, selfish and minimally skilled while Southerners were brave and chivalrous
The Myth of the Lost Cause gained considerable traction despite the fact that none of those assertions stands up to historical examination. Consider the claim that the War was not about Slavery. Before the War Southerners were quite explicit about the role of slavery in fomenting secession. South Carolina
was the first state to secede and its secession declaration explicitly named slavery in the very first sentence!
Slavery was explicitly mentioned as justification four more times in the declaration. Want more proof? Look at the history of the fillibusters
who tried to carve out new slave states in Central and South America. The most famous of these, William Walker
, actually succeeded in briefly ruling Nicaragua
. The effects of the Dred Scott decision
and the Fugitive Slave Act
are all summarily ignored as peaceful Southerners only sought to live as they were with the entire conflict made up by rabid abolitionists. They're happy to point to John Brown
, but never mention pro-slavery abuses in Kansas, Missouri and elsewhere as if they had never happened.
Slavery is treated as a positive good for both slave and slave owner. Culturally backward negroes gained the civilizing influence of their tolerant, even indulgent masters. Slave labor freed the owners to become more culturally enlightened, raising Southern culture above the crude Northern society. Blacks are presented as loyal to their masters or happy simpletons incapable of advanced reasoning. This portrait of slavery should require no refutation, but revisionist historical and modern secessionist Steve Wilkins
(a favorite of Michelle Bachmann
) recently reiterated the benevolence of slavery.
which mattered was fought in the Eastern Theater, where Early and others could point to the success enjoyed by the Army of Northern Virginia
against the Army of the Potomac
until Gettysburg. The narrative here supports the idea of a small, noble of group of Confederates beating off hordes of Northerners. The Western Theater, where the history is one of steady Union victory, almost never makes it into the Lost Cause literature, and then only where circumstances fit the narrative. In fact, the Western campaigns recieve far less study then the east throughout Civil War literature even though Grant's victory at Vicksburg
was probably more important then Gettysburg in the bringing about the fall of the Confederacy.
Robert E. Lee, and a lesser extent, Stonewall Jackson
, have been elevated to near sainthood in the literature. Both were clearly outstanding soldiers, capable of inspiring their men and pious individuals (in Jackson's case to the point of fanaticism) which allowed lost cause writers to imbue them with knightly virtues. Their mistakes are ignored. No credit at all is given to any Union General, Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, or worst of all the Virginian George H. Thomas. Grant is portrayed as a butcher who simply threw incredible numbers against the brave Confederates without regard for his own casualties. The Battle of Chancellorsville
is particularly celebrated. The exception to the deification of Confederate Soldiers was another of Lee's corps commanders, James Longstreet
who accepted the defeat and made no effort to rationalize it.
It is true the North possessed greater resources then the Confederacy in industry, population, railroad mileage and more which clearly benefitted the Union. But to say the Union victory rested solely on numbers is unfair. It is important to remember that to survive all the Confederacy had to do was defend itself taking advantage of its interior lines of communication. They need not have initiated war and had several opportunities to defeat the Union. Lincoln was a President whose military knowledge was learned on the job while Jefferson Davis was an experienced soldier. The war was fought in an era where the rifle and the trench
gave advantage to the tactical defense. The Union had to build its armies and subdue the South. Southern defeat was not a foregone conclusion. In fact, the unwillingness of the states to submit to the military requirements of the Confederate Government contributed to its defeat, which led to the common statement that the Confederacy "died of a theory".
Another easily exploded myth is that War was forced upon a peaceful South which wanted nothing better then to be left alone. Remember that secession
followed the election of Abraham Lincoln
and preceded his taking office. The first shots were fired at Fort Sumter
by Confederates even though Lincoln assured the Confederacy that no new soldiers, weapons or ammunition would be delivered to the hungry soldiers inside the fort. War in fact, was celebrated by many papers througout the south and many of its most prominent citizens. Kentucky moved from neutrality to the Union after Confederate troops occupied the bluffs of Paducah, Kentucky
(and were promptly maneuvered out by Grant after Kentucky's neutrality had been violated).
The Union Soldier when portrayed is shown as greedy barbarian out for destruction. This in part is owned to Sherman's campaign across the South, into Savannah and up into South Carolina, where Union soldiers did remember South Carolina
seceeded first. But it is important to remember the Union soldiers too fought bravely, often in the face of horrendous casualties because they wanted to "see the thing through". They did so not for the Slave, for it is true that racism
was rampant in the abolitionist North. but for the Union itself.
Finally, the Lost Cause movement insisted secession was legal, moral and constitutional. But the United States Constitution
has no such provision. Weak central government had been tried first under the Articles of Confederation
and failed which is why the Constitution was written in 1787. Internal squabbling and complex tarriffs that in effect divided the nascent United States into simply a group of small principalities incapable of mounting any effective response to any foreign pressure. The economy was being strangled by regionalism, which is why the Constitution was negotiated and ratified. No weak government can treat with foreign states. No provision for withdrawal exists in its texts and wishful thinking cannot make it so.
Despite its historical innacuracy the Myth of the Lost Cause and gained and continued to enjoy considerable currency. The gentle soldier Lee is seen (and probably rightly) as a worthy hero even though he had been a slaveowner and remained bitter until the end of his life. A number of Lost Cause topics have been promoted by historians, most notably Douglas Southall Freeman
and in the literature. D.W. Griffith
's The Birth of a Nation
and Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind
both present Lost Cause views of a noble south, happy slaves and brave Confederates facing cruel, depraved Northerners. Recently new Lost Cause arguments have appearned on the bookshelves, such as The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War
. Another biography attempts to argue that Nathan Bedford Forrest
was a good and godly man. Forrest was a brilliant cavalryman, and if he truly repented at the end no doubt God forgave him. Given that he made his fortune trading slaves, happily massacred black soldiers, and founded the Ku Klux Klan
history should offer him a sterner verdict. The return of the Lost Cause probably reflects the current anti-federal government sentiments espoused by many conservatives, as Republican Presidential Candidate Rick Perry
has hinted at approving secession. In the old South of happy darkies and civilized, God-fearing culture it may be that modern conservatives have found a story they can point to.