The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War Historyby Gary W. Gallagher
Was the Confederacy doomed from the start in its struggle against the superior might of the Union? Did its forces fight heroically against all odds for the cause of states’ rights? In reality, these suggestions are an elaborate and intentional effort on the part of Southerners to rationalize the secession and the war itself. Unfortunately, skillful… See more details below
Was the Confederacy doomed from the start in its struggle against the superior might of the Union? Did its forces fight heroically against all odds for the cause of states’ rights? In reality, these suggestions are an elaborate and intentional effort on the part of Southerners to rationalize the secession and the war itself. Unfortunately, skillful propagandists have been so successful in promoting this romanticized view that the Lost Cause has assumed a life of its own. Misrepresenting the war’s true origins and its actual course, the myth of the Lost Cause distorts our national memory. In The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History, nine historians describe and analyze the Lost Cause, identifying ways in which it falsifies history—creating a volume that makes a significant contribution to Civil War historiography.
"The Lost Cause... is a tangible and influential phenomenon in American culture and this book provides an excellent source for anyone seeking to explore its various dimensions." —Southern Historian
"Well reasoned and timely." —Booklist
"Well reasoned and timely." Booklist
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The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History
By Gary W. Gallagher, Alan T. Nolan
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2000 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
The Anatomy of the Myth
Alan T. Nolan
In the period 1861–65, there was a major war in the United States of America (USA). The antagonists were the "North," that is, the United States except for eleven states, and the "South," which claimed to have seceded, that is, withdrawn from the United States to form a new nation, the Confederate States of America (CSA). The citizens of both sides were of the same Caucasian race and national and ethnic origins. They were committed to democratic political principles and were blessed with an unusually rich geography. The Confederate states had an African-American slave labor system. Although it was racist, the North's labor system was free, except in the border states of Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, and Delaware and in the District of Columbia. Northern people in the main were antagonistic to slavery. The two sides had been unable politically to resolve sectional disagreements.
The United States refused to recognize the existence of the Confederate States of America as a nation. The Confederate states promptly recruited armies and claimed as their own all property within their borders that had been the property of the United States of America; in many cases, the Confederate states seized that property by force. Ultimately, the United States refused to surrender Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. Thereupon Confederate and South Carolina forces attacked the fort and forced its surrender. Then, in President Abraham Lincoln's words, the war came.
The war ended in 1865 within a period of several weeks after the surrender at Appomattox, Virginia, of Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, the CSA's most prominent army. The United States successfully reclaimed the eleven seceded states and the United States of America survived. During the course of the war and as a consequence, slavery was abolished and African Americans were emancipated. The people of the Confederate States of America were left free by the United States government. There were no large-scale arrests or punishments. As stated by Samuel Eliot Morison, "By 1877, all of the former Confederate states were back in the Union and in charge of their own domestic affairs, subject only to the requirements of two constitutional amendments (Articles XIV and XV) to protect the freedmen's civil rights." Within a few years of the surrender at Appomattox, former Confederate leaders were serving in high offices in the United States government. According to Morison, white supremacy continued in a different form, "as numerous lynchings in rural districts indicated; and presently 'Jim Crow' would emerge" to intimidate and control the Southern Negro.
The war had been enormously destructive. More than six hundred thousand American men, soldiers from both the USA and CSA, died in the war. Thousands more were wounded, many of whom were disabled for life. The destruction of property was also vast.
* * *
The foregoing carefully phrased, simple declarative statements are believed to be undisputed as accurately describing the central aspects of the event generally called today the American Civil War. Despite the undisputed essentials, the war is surrounded by vast mythology. Indeed, it is fair to say that there are two independent versions of the war. On one hand there is the history of the war, the account of what in fact happened. On the other there is what Gaines Foster calls the "Southern interpretation" of the event. This account, "codified" according to Foster, is generally referred to by historians today as "the Lost Cause." This version, touching almost all aspects of the struggle, originated in Southern rationalizations of the war. Then it spread to the North and became a national phenomenon. In the popular mind, the Lost Cause represents the national memory of the Civil War; it has been substituted for the history of the war.
The Lost Cause is therefore an American legend, an American version of great sagas like Beowulf and the Song of Roland. Generally described, the legend tells us that the war was a mawkish and essentially heroic and romantic melodrama, an honorable sectional duel, a time of martial glory on both sides, and triumphant nationalism.
Cambridge political scientist D. W. Brogan, a keen and detached observer of the United States, has written that "the country that has a 'history,' dramatic, moving and tragic, has to live with it—with the problems it raised but did not solve, with the emotions that it leaves as a damaging legacy, with the defective vision that preoccupation with the heroic, with the disastrous, with the expensive past fosters."
In the case of the Confederacy, the past was indeed expensive. James M. McPherson has briefly summarized the ultimate consequences of the war in terms of its impact on the South: "The South was not only invaded and conquered, it was utterly destroyed. By 1865, the Union forces had ... destroyed two-thirds of the assessed value of Southern wealth, two-fifths of the South's livestock, and one-quarter of her white men between the ages of 20 and 40. More than half the farm machinery was ruined, and the damages to railroads and industries were incalculable ... Southern wealth decreased by 60 percent."
Leaders of such a catastrophe must account for themselves. Justification is necessary. Those who followed their leaders into the catastrophe required similar rationalization. Clement A. Evans, a Georgia veteran who at one time commanded the United Confederate Veterans organization, said this: "If we cannot justify the South in the act of Secession, we will go down in History solely as a brave, impulsive but rash people who attempted in an illegal manner to overthrow the Union of our Country."
Today's historians did not, of course, coin the term "Lost Cause." It goes back almost to the events it characterizes. An early use of the term occurred in 1867 when Edward A. Pollard, the influential wartime editor of the Richmond Examiner, published The Lost Cause: The Standard Southern History of the War of the Confederates. It is a full-blown, argumentative statement of the Confederate point of view with respect to all aspects of the Civil War. The character of Pollard's insights may be judged from a quotation from another of his books, Southern History of the War, published in 1866, in which he wrote of the sectional disagreement in this way: "The occasion of that conflict was what the Yankees called—by one of their convenient libels in political nomenclature— slavery; but what was in fact nothing more than a system of Negro servitude in the South ... one of the mildest and most beneficent systems of servitude in the world."
The origins and development of the Lost Cause legend have been the concern of several excellent modern books, including Thomas L. Connelly's The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society; Gaines M. Foster's Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South, 1865 to 1913; and Lee's Tarnished Lieutenant: James Longstreet and His Place in Southern History by William Garrett Piston. These studies establish that the purpose of the legend was to foster a heroic image of secession and the war so that the Confederates would have salvaged at least their honor from the all-encompassing defeat. Thus the purpose of the legend was to hide the Southerners' tragic and self-destructive mistake. The creators of the myth, certain Confederate leaders, prominent among them Jubal A. Early, William N. Pendleton, and Rev. J. William Jones, and the Virginia Cult, intentionally created the principles and misinformation of the Lost Cause.
The victim of the Lost Cause legend has been history, for which the legend has been substituted in the national memory.
My purpose here is not to retell the story of the origin and development of the legend. I am more concerned with its historicity. Thus I will catalogue the assertions of the Lost Cause and compare them to the history of the Civil War experience. The goal is to correct the national memory by refuting the Lost Cause legend and reestablishing the war as history.
* * *
The Lost Cause
The Lost Cause as Advocacy
As has been suggested, the Lost Cause was expressly a rationalization, a cover-up. It is, therefore, distinctly marked by Southern advocacy. As pointed out by Michael C. C. Adams in Our Masters the Rebels, long before the secession crisis, Southerners "came to see themselves as representing a minority within the nation." One reason for this was "the need to justify the existence of slavery ... even before the abolitionist attack from the North, Southerners began the defense of slavery as a social system that provided unique benefits, both for the slaves whom it placed under the fatherly care of a superior race and for the master who was given the freedom from toil necessary to the creation of a superior culture." In short, Southerners were placed in a defensive posture before the war, and this has never changed.
The advocacy aspect of the Southern legend has been express on the part of Southern spokesmen. On the back page of the April 1880 issue of the Southern Historical Society Papers, as well as in other issues, the following advertisement for subscriptions appears above the name of Rev. J. William Jones, D.D., secretary of the Southern Historical Society of Richmond, Virginia: "[The contents] will make our Papers interesting to all lovers of historic truth and simply INVALUABLE to those who desire to see vindicated the name and fame of those who made our great struggle for constitutional freedom." Writing whose purpose is to "vindicate" the "name and fame" of the South's "great struggle" plainly proceeds from an advocacy premise.
Douglas Southall Freeman, one of the twentieth century's most prominent historians of the war, was also quite candid regarding his concerns. In The South to Posterity, Freeman published a critical bibliography of works about the war. He acknowledged that he was "interested to ascertain which were the books that seemed to have made new protagonists for the South." He states that his effort is to identify the books "that have brought a new generation of Americans to understanding of the Southern point of view." Freeman clearly identified himself as an advocate, and his advocacy marked his view of the war, General Lee, and other Confederate leaders. His books have been highly influential with other historians and the American public.
The Claims of the Legend
Slavery Was Not the Sectional Issue. According to the legend, slavery was not the critical issue between the sections. Slavery was trivialized as the cause of the war in favor of such things as tariff disputes, control of investment banking and the means of wealth, cultural differences, and conflict between industrial and agricultural societies. In all events, the South had not seceded to protect slavery!
Kenneth M. Stampp observes that Southern spokesmen "denied that slavery had anything to do with the Confederate cause," thus decontaminating it and turning it into something that they could cherish. "After Appomattox, Jefferson Davis claimed that 'slavery was in no wise the cause of the conflict' and Vice President Alexander H. Stephens argued that the war 'was not a contest between the advocates or opponents of that Peculiar Institution.'" The denial that slavery protection had been the genesis of the Confederacy and the purpose of secession became "a cardinal element of the Southern apologia," according to Robert F. Durden. He finds that "liberty, independence and especially states rights were advanced by countless Southern spokesmen as the hallowed principles of the Lost Cause." And James L. Roark notes that postwar Southerners manifested "a nearly universal desire to escape the ignominy attached to slavery."
The Abolitionists as Provocateurs. The status of the abolitionists in the legend is a corollary to the principle that slavery was not the cause of secession. In the context of the legend, the abolitionists' image is negative. They are seen as troublemakers and provocateurs—virtually manufacturing a disagreement between the sections that was of little or no interest to the people and had little substance.
The South Would Have Given Up Slavery. Another of the assertions of the Lost Cause is that the South would have abandoned slavery of its own accord. It was simply a question of time. If the war was about slavery, it was unnecessary to the elimination of slavery because it would have died a natural death. From this premise, it is claimed that the war was foolish, a vain thing on the part of the North.
The Nature of the Slaves. Given the central role of African Americans in the sectional conflict, it is surely not surprising that Southern rationalizations have extended to characterizations of the persons of these people. In the legend there exist two prominent images of the black slaves. One is of the "faithful slave"; the other is of what William Garrett Piston calls "the happy darky stereotype." It is interesting that the faithful slave had a more or less official status in the Confederate myth. In a message to the Confederate Congress in 1863 in which he attacked the Emancipation Proclamation, President Davis called the slaves "peaceful and contented laborers." It was the uniform contention of Southern spokesmen—the press, the clergy, and the politicians—that the slaves liked their status. Fiction writers from Thomas Nelson Page, James Dixon, and Joel Chandler Harris to Walt Disney and Margaret Mitchell in our own time carried this view well into this century. In the 1930s, Hollywood's slaves were invariably happy in their slavery and affectionate toward their uniformly kind and indulgent masters. Indeed, as evidenced by the 1940 film Santa Fe Trail, Hollywood embraced the full range of Lost Cause stereotypes: the abolitionists, the slaves, and the valiant Southern men.
The Nationalistic/Cultural Difference. Having eliminated slavery as the source of sectional contention, the South created a nationalistic/ cultural basis for the disagreement. This theory was instituted on the eve of the war and became a staple of the Lost Cause during and after it. An extensive statement of the argument appeared in June 1860 in the Southern Literary Messenger. Northerners were said to be descended from the Anglo-Saxon tribes that had been conquered by the Norman cavaliers. The cavaliers were, of course, the ancestors of the Southerners according to this theory. It was written that the cavaliers were "descended from the Norman Barons of William the Conqueror, a race distinguished in earliest history for its warlike and fearless character, a race in all times since renowned for its gallantry, chivalry, honor, gentleness, and intellect." As described in Why the South Lost the Civil War, "Without its own distinctive past upon which to base its nationality, the Confederacy appropriated history and created a mythic past of exiled cavaliers and chivalrous knights."
The Military Loss
Like the apologists who created the "stabbed-in-the-back" myth to explain Germany's defeat in World War I, Lost Cause spokesmen sought to rationalize the Southern military loss. This presented a confusing and sometimes contradictory set of assertions, the first of which simply manipulated semantics: the Confederates had not really been defeated, they had instead been overwhelmed by massive Northern manpower and materiel. This was presented with a suggestion that the North's superior resources constituted Yankee trickery and unfairness. Furthermore, the South's loss was said to be inevitable from the beginning; the fact of loss was somehow mitigated in the myth because it was said that winning had been impossible. If the Confederacy could not have won, it somehow did not lose. On the other hand, the myth asserted that had the South won at Gettysburg, it would have won the war. The loss at Gettysburg was attributed to Lt. Gen. James Longstreet. The "Longstreet-lost-it-at-Gettysburg" thesis was presented in this way by Rev. J. William Jones, secretary of the Southern Historical Society. He wrote that "the South would have won at Gettysburg, and Independence, but for the failure of one man" (emphasis in original).
Another Lost Cause rationale for the loss at Gettysburg was Stonewall Jackson's death earlier in 1863.
Excerpted from The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History by Gary W. Gallagher, Alan T. Nolan. Copyright © 2000 Indiana University Press. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Gary W. Gallagher is John L. Nau III Professor of History at the University of Virginia. He has written or edited a number of books in the field of Civil War–era history, including, most recently, The Confederate War, Lee and His Generals in War and Memory; and Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know about the Civil War.
Alan T. Nolan (1923–2008) is author of Lee Considered: Robert E. Lee and Civil War History and The Iron Brigade: A Military History (IUP, 1994), and editor (with Sharon Eggleston Vipond) of Giants in Their Tall Black Hats: Essays on the Iron Brigade (IUP, 1998).
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