Lost Cause of the South

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Not just a river in Egypt

Denialism

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♫ We're not listening ♫
O, I'm a good old Rebel / Now that's just what I am / For this "Fair Land of Freedom" / I do not care a damn!
—"I'm A Good Old Rebel," Confederate folk song[1]

The Lost Cause of the South (also Lost Cause of the Confederacy) is a term referring to a number of interpretations of the American Civil War from an effectively pro-Southern perspective. It is important as it is a good example of denialism, especially in regards to the chief underlying cause of the war, slavery. This mythos makes reference to a number of different themes, and these can be found in various popular culture sources and persist to this day.

Contents

[edit] History

Almost immediately after the war ended, the defeated Southern states had to form a coherent reason why they engaged in a rebellion against the Union.[2] This reason could not highlight the centrality of slavery to the Southern cause, but instead had to minimize, or even deny the role of slavery. Furthermore, many white Southerners during Reconstruction believed that the Union had, in fact, placed an oppressive regime on their states. As a result, once the Yankee troops left the South, Southerners began forming memorials often funded and driven by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and supported by many Southern veterans' groups. The purpose of this was to try and redefine the meaning of the war to ignore slavery, so that the Southern "heroes" would not seem like evil racists seeking to hold down an entire race of people.

[edit] Themes

The Lost Cause mythos has several themes associated with it. Here is a brief summary of some of them.

[edit] The War itself

  • A common claim is that the principles of Constitutional originalism allowed for the legality of unilateral secession and that it was unconstitutional to use military force to keep the Union together. Thus, James Buchanan is often portrayed as adhering to the true meaning of the Constitution while Abraham Lincoln violated it by disallowing secession. The question of why the Framers didn't spell out this right when they wrote the Constitution is left unanswered.
  • Confederate generals will often be described as pious, gentlemanly figures, who often opposed slavery (despite owning slaves). Their motives are because their "home" was invaded. These generals are often products of another gentlemanly era, and hold "Southern honor" in high regard. Their subordinates often treated them as if they walked on water. Lost Causers will often highlight the daring tactics of the Southern generals, or the dashing nature of the cavalry units.
    • Typically Robert E. Lee and/or Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson are overly glorified. While Lee criticized the institution of slavery on a few occasions, it didn't stop him from owning a large estate full of slaves or, by many accounts, having his foremen beat and whip them regularly. Additionally, during the Gettysburg Campaign, his troops kidnapped hundreds of free blacks in Pennsylvania and Maryland and sent them south for enslavement.
    • Southern general James Longstreet, arguably the most competent corps commander of the war, is often the exception to the above. Having become a "scalawag" (Confederate turned Republican) after the war, he is often demonized as a traitor to the South and especially to Lee, and somehow gets blamed for singlehandedly losing the Battle of Gettysburg, despite Lee taking full responsibility for the loss.
  • In contrast, Union generals are often portrayed as barbaric, incompetent commanders. These are commanders who do not respect private property (Benjamin Butler), were violently bloodthirsty (William T. Sherman), or alcoholic atheists (Ulysses S. Grant). These generals supposedly had little regard for the lives under their command. They are enframed as having sub-par tactical skills and only being able to win because the Union had more men, resources, or (rarely) technology.
    • In the case of Grant, this even extends to his presidency. Yes, there was corruption (though Grant personally was innocent) and some of his ventures - like the annexation of what is now the Dominican Republic - failed spectacularly, but he was insanely successful in his Reconstruction policies or in crushing the KKK. Aspects that were swept under the rug by a century of neo-confederate historians.
    • To be fair, Sherman's March to the Sea[wp] more or less burned an entire state to the ground. It did achieve its objective of crippling the South's ability to wage war, but was obviously a large source of resentment for a number of decades afterwards. In modern eyes the march to the sea does not look so horrible, but given that it was the first (and only) time total war and modern weaponry were combined on North American soil it strikes out. Many wars in Europe Africa and Asia have seen both more cruel tactics and more victims through them and Sherman's March arguably did succeed in its goal of a quick decisive end to the war on the Western theater.
  • There is a strong focus on the Eastern Theater of the war, especially the battles that took place in Virginia, where Lee was able to hold down and defeat several Union generals. It ignores the Western Theater in Tennessee and points south, primarily because the Southern forces were routed there in the Battles of Shiloh and New Orleans in spring of 1862. When the Western Theater is brought up, it is to focus on William T. Sherman's scorched-earth "March to the Sea".
  • Wartime atrocities committed by Union troops and generals (such as the aforementioned Sherman) are highlighted, but similar actions by "chivalrous" Southern troops (such as the Fort Pillow Massacre[wp]) and terrible conditions at various POW camps such as Andersonville are ignored.
  • Robert E. Lee is claimed to have magnanimously "granted" an end of the war by surrendering in order to stop the bloodshed, rather than having his exhausted men, fleeing the fall of Richmond, being boxed in on all fronts.
  • Invoking the myth of the United States as a Christian nation to frame the war as a religious one, once again, with Confederate troops as pious and Union troops as sinners.
  • When it comes to the Emancipation Proclamation, issued by Lincoln as a war measure halfway into the war, it is emphasized that it "only" declared the freedom of slaves in those states still in rebellion, or about 78% of all American slaves. The Emancipation Proclamation did not affect the slaves in the "border states", the slave states which chose to stay in the Union (Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, Delaware and West Virginia), or Confederate territory that was occupied by Union troops at the time.
    • This point is meant to paint Lincoln as some kind of slavery-loving monster, which in turn supposedly makes the South look not as bad. But Lincoln (probably) didn't possess a wartime power to unilaterally abolish slavery in areas not at war with the USA, and in any case, enacting immediate emancipation in slave states within the Union would have risked alienating those states, possibly driving some into the arms of the Confederacy. (Ironically, the fear that Lincoln would somehow dictatorially abolish Southern slavery was an inspiration for secession, yet only from secession could this become a practical possibility.) As the war came closer to an end, he pushed for the Thirteenth Amendment (which did abolish American slavery altogether) against some counsel that it would be better to wait until the conflict was over.
    • That said, this point has been raised by non-Lost Causers (like Lerone Bennett[wp]) who intend to diminish modern reverence for Lincoln without suggesting that his moral shortcomings are somehow balanced by an equal measure of Confederate nobility. However, like Bennett they often resort to gross revisionism and oversimplification and end up being little better than Lost Causers, despite having different intent.
    • A common corollary, advanced by both Lost Causers and left-wing critics of Lincoln, is that since Lincoln only abolished slavery in rebellious states, the Proclamation didn't actually free a single slave. This ignores the fact that in January 1863, large chunks of the Confederacy were under Union military occupation, and hence subject to Emancipation. According to Eric Foner, as many as 50,000 slaves were freed immediately, and more throughout the war as Union armies occupied other Southern states.

[edit] African-Americans

  • Lost Causers claim that slaves were content with their lot.
  • Likewise, they claim that slavery was a "mild or benign institution" that was for the "betterment" of Africans (Sounds familiar?). Examples include claims that slave owners were paternalistic figures to their slaves, that they loved their slaves like children, and were in turn loved as parent figures. Black women will fall into a "mammy" stereotype to defend the white families that they somehow love more than their own.
  • They highlight and present as typical the rare occasions where African-American slaves may have fought against Union forces, ignoring the fact that the Confederate government emphatically refused to allow any slaves to fight until about two months before the end of the war.
  • They overemphasize the (very few) free blacks who did indeed own slaves[3] or fought for the Confederacy.
  • They ignore the fact that millions of slaves fled to Union lines with whatever property they had, hoping to gain their freedom. Or if they do talk about them, consider them traitors, thieves, or collaborators (especially during Reconstruction).
  • They ignore that a substantial portion of the Confederate army had to be kept on the home front to guard against slave revolt and/or mass escape of slaves.
  • There is an inordinate focus on atrocities committed by Union forces against slaves and free blacks.
  • They also emphasize the cruelty of black units against white populations (also known as the Black brute stereotype). Northern black troops are also presented as being alien to the southern slaves, and because of that they were not willing to join. This claim is made despite the fact that the black troops were often the North's best recruitment tools for southern slaves to join the army.
  • They point to the fact that slavery was ended in the Southern states before it was ended in the Northern (border) states, as a sign that the war was not really about slavery or that the North enjoyed slavery more. Of course, slavery's ending in the South was not voluntary, and its existence in border states was much smaller in slaves per capita.
  • They repeatedly bring up that the vast majority of whites in the South did not own slaves. This ignores two things: most of them almost certainly hoped to be wealthy enough to own slaves someday, and all whites benefited whether they personally had slaves or not. As long as blacks were slaves, being white guaranteed you weren't on the bottommost rung of society no matter how poor you were.
  • They argue that today's African-Americans are fortunate to live in the United States rather than modern Africa. Putting aside the problems with generalizing Africa as entirely miserable, this ignores that in the hypothetical absence of any slave trade (or the accompanying European/American imperialism), today's Africa would be a very different place in ways that are hard to estimate. If alien invaders regularly kidnapped thousands of Americans over hundreds of years, the USA just might become a tad worse off.
    • If the slavery industry had worked with such a goal in mind, then there's no reason anyone had to be taken forcibly from their families, and definitely no reason for actual enslavement. The (non-)slavers could simply have provided a free or commercial travel service, akin to the ships that went to Ellis Island. Yet Lost Causers who make this rather outrageous argument also tend to take a hard stance on modern illegal immigration (such as by supporting deportation of undocumented immigrants). If Africans enter the USA illegally, a consistent conservative would insist that they be sent away.
    • Furthermore, no one who says this has ever proposed which modern-day endemically-poor country the USA should start kidnapping from for the sake of future generations.

[edit] Reconstruction

Reconstruction refers to the period of time in between 1865 and 1876 when the US Army was in effective control of the former Confederacy. While not a part of the war per se, it is nonetheless important. Important myths include:

  • That freed slaves were coerced by Union forces to vote in elections for puppet Republican governments.
  • Conversely, that freed slaves collaborated with the Union forces to install harsh Republican governments and suppress and harass white people.
  • That many freedmen and women were content to engage in share-cropping.
  • That Jim Crow laws were needed in order to deal with a "small number of malcontents", or that most black people liked it.
  • That Congress was overly harsh in its reconstruction policies (this is still disputed).
  • That the Ku Klux Klan was not a terrorist organization, but was some type of veterans or civic group (and if you believe this I have a really nice bridge in Brooklyn that I'm looking to sell).

[edit] Conclusions

All of the above themes are present in the myth of the Lost Cause of the Civil War. Sadly, they have not fully gone away a full century and a half after the war ended, especially in popular culture. Notable examples include the movies Birth of a Nation (1915), Gone With the Wind (1935), and more recently Gods and Generals (2003).[4] There are some historians today who still persist in presenting these myths (though very few of them are mainstream academics). In their more extreme forms these myths are still alive and well in neo-Confederate organizations and other hate groups.

[edit] Right from the horse's mouth

Still believe that the Confederacy wasn't about slavery and racism? Well, their own vice-president, Alexander H. Stephens, disagrees with you. An excerpt from his famous cornerstone speech:

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth 'that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

Among the various Articles of Secession promulgated by the would-be members of the Confederacy were:

Georgia,

The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.

Mississippi,

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun.

South Carolina,

We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

Texas,

Texas abandoned her separate national existence and consented to become one of the Confederated Union... She was received into the confederacy...as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery — the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits — a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time.

In all the non-slave-holding States… the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party… based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color — a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States

all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations

Constituent assemblies the other members of the Confederacy all underscored in their discussions the need to maintain a slaver society and economy. Likewise, the right to hold slaves was specifically protected by the constitution of the Confederacy, denying its constituent states the right to outlaw slavery within its territories.[5]

Now do you think the South wasn't racist, or that slavery was just a minor issue in the declarations that led to the treasonous War to Preserve Slavery?

As a final nail in the coffin, there's the proposed Crittenden Compromise[wp] of 1861. Four states had already seceded, but Senator John J. Crittenden hoped that war could be prevented and union restored with a massive "compromise" that was largely a concession to the South. The compromise consisted of a set of proposed Constitutional amendments which dealt entirely with slavery. In other words, Crittenden had some reason to believe that war could be prevented solely by promising the preservation of Southern slavery, and if it weren't for Republican opposition (the amendments lost in the Senate by 25 Republican votes to 23 others), the compromise could very well have succeeded. It would never have occurred to anyone to prevent war by offering the South a non-slavery-related compromise.

[edit] Afterword

Consider the future of a nation whose founding principle was the right to secede from the larger body over any heated political disagreement in which regional interests were also involved. Consider how fortunate all of us are — especially those who would have had to live there — never to have had such a nation in North America.

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

[edit] Further reading

[edit] References

  1. the lyrics
  2. Compare and contrast with the former Imperial German High Command's invention of the stab-in-the-back legend to scapegoat the civilians[wp], socialists, and not least the JOOOOZ for the defeat in World War I.
  3. Black Slaveowners: Free Black Slave Masters in South Carolina, 1790-1860 by Larry Koger, University of South Carolina Press (1995). ISBN 1570030375.
  4. Roger Ebert review of Gods and Generals
  5. See Article I, Section 9 (4); Article IV, Section 2 (I) and (3); Article IV, Section 3 (3) of the Constitution of the Confederate States.
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