Lost Cause of the South
| Fiction over fact|
|How it didn't happen|
“”So, let's start with the facts. The historic record is clear. The Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause. This ‘cult’ had one goal—through monuments and through other means—to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity.
|—Mitch Landrieu, Mayor of New Orleans|
The term Lost Cause of the South (also Lost Cause of the Confederacy) refers to a number of interpretations of the American Civil War from an effectively pro-Southern perspective. The idea of the "Lost Cause" provides a good example of denialism, especially denialism of the chief underlying cause of the war, slavery. This mythos makes reference to a number of different themes, and these appear in various pop culture sources and persist to this day.
- 1 History
- 2 Themes
- 3 Conclusions
- 4 Right from the horse's ass...er, mouth
- 5 Afterword
- 6 See also
- 7 External links
- 8 Further reading
- 9 Notes
- 10 References
“”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|
Almost immediately after the war ended in 1865, the defeated Southern states had to form a coherent reason why they had engaged in a rebellion against the Union. Such 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. A very good example of this is how Robert E. Lee is often played up as being opposed to slavery and only fighting for the Confederacy because his home stage of Virginia joined the South, which ignores he himself actually owned slaves and refused to ever release them, punishing them brutally when they tried to escape.
The myth as laid out by Jefferson Davis drew on contemporary trends in its portrayal of an idyllic rural south opposed to the industrial north. It was influenced by naive Romanticism, in particular the writings of the Scottish Tory novelist Walter Scott, several of whose stories referred to the defeat of the Jacobite pretenders in Britain; these books were popular in the South before and during the Civil War. In 1869, Davis travelled through Britain to Culloden, site of the Jacobites' ultimate defeat in 1746, to pay his respects and reflect on an earlier lost cause. Many Scots had emigrated to New World, particularly the Carolinas, and Davis praised the Scottish heritage of Stonewall Jackson and John C Calhoun. An 1875 lecture published as Scotland and the Scottish People celebrated what he identified as the Scots and Irish love of tradition, and gave them as examples of glory in defeat, while recasting the war in Romantic terms as a defeat of rural tradition by brutal modern armies, and nothing to do with slavery.
The Lost Cause mythos has several themes associated with it. Here is a brief summary of some of them.
The War itself
“”Legalistic Southerners tried to view the Constitution as a contract. Unfortunately, that viewpoint breaks down when viewed as a lawyer views a contract. There are very few ways to legally break a contract unilaterally.
| —William C. Davis, historian from the |
“”In fact, the state rights defense of secession in 1860–1861 did not really appear in force until after 1865 as builders of the Lost Cause myth sought to distance themselves from slavery.
|—William C. Davis.|
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.
“”Southern gentlemen who led in the late rebellion have not parted with their convictions at this point, any more than at any other. They want to be independent of the negro. They believed in slavery and they believe in it still. They believed in an aristocratic class, and they believe in it still.
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".
Lost Causers also frequently invoke the pseudohistory of the United States as a Christian nation. Confederate generals and soldiers, particularly Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson are often described as pious, competent, gentlemanly figures, who often opposed slavery (despite owning slaves). Their motives were because their "home" was invaded. Lost Causers will often highlight the daring tactics of the Southern generals or the dashing nature of the cavalry units. Wartime atrocities committed by Union troops and generals are highlighted, but similar actions by "chivalrous" Southern troops (such as the Fort Pillow Massacre) and terrible conditions at various POW camps such as Andersonville are ignored.
Robert E. Lee is claimed to have magnanimously "granted" an end to 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. Lee, even among historians, is highly overrated as a general. 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. On the other side of the coin is southern general James Longstreet, arguably the most competent corps commander of the war. 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 single-handedly losing the Battle of Gettysburg, despite Lee having ordered the strategy (including Pickett's Charge) that led to the loss.
In contrast, Union generals are often enframed as being barbaric sinners, having sub-par tactical skills, and being able to win only because the Union had more men, resources, or (rarely) technology. William T. Sherman, for instance, was an advocate of a soon-to-be modern concept of a total war. Sherman's March to the Sea showed a grain of truth to the violence and disrespect for private property; by burning the entire state to the ground, William T. and his army 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 sticks out. Many wars in Europe, Africa, and Asia have seen both crueler 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.
Ulysses S. Grant was depicted as an alcoholic and atheist. This even extended 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 and in crushing the Ku Klux Klan, aspects that were swept under the rug by a century of neo-Confederate historians.
“”The party of Lincoln, called the Republican party, under its present name and organization is of recent origin. It is admitted to be an anti-slavery party... anti-slavery is its mission and its purpose.
|—Georgia Declaration of Secession.|
“”As soon as slavery fired upon the flag it was felt, we all felt, even those who did not object to slaves, that slavery must be destroyed. We felt that it was a stain to the Union that men should be bought and sold like cattle.
|—Ulysses S. Grant, remarks to Otto von Bismarck.|
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. This is ironic, as the South seceded due to fears that Lincoln would somehow dictatorially abolish Southern slavery, yet only from secession could this become a practical possibility. 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. 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.
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. Runaway slaves held in contraband camps were freed immediately, as were slaves e.g. the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia, already held by the Union Navy, where the whites had fled to the mainland and left the blacks to run their own lives. 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.
That said, this point has been raised by non-Lost Causers (like Lerone Bennett) 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.
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 (sound 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. Hearing these descriptions, one almost wonders what the whips were for! They either ignore the slave revolts or the millions of slaves that fled to Union lines with whatever property they had in the hope of gaining their freedom, or consider them traitors, thieves, or conspirators (especially during Reconstruction). Moreso, they ignore the significant numbers of military-aged white males who had to be continually kept on the home front to guard against slave revolts and escape attempts, despite the Confederate army experiencing a severe manpower deficit as the war went on.
They overemphasize the (very few) free blacks who did indeed own slaves or fought for the Confederacy, ignoring that the Confederate government emphatically refused to allow any slaves to fight until about two months before the end of the war. Even then only a small number were raised, most never saw combat, and a majority had soon deserted for the Union. Northern black troops, additionally, 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 that the black troops were often the North's best recruitment tools for Southern slaves to join the army.
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 bottom-most rung of society no matter how poor you were. That being said, slavery propagated the vast income inequality in the South, and rich white slaveowners could even opt out of the war with money (this had created complaints by soldiers being about a rich man's war and a poor man's fight), so to argue about a "Lost Cause" is really more of arguing for the Aristocrats' Lost Causes.
On the other hand, they deflect to the on atrocities committed by Union forces against slaves and free blacks. They also deflect the cruelty of black units against white populations (also known as the Black brute stereotype).
They argue 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 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, while also being irrelevant to history, 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, being for the betterment of people in the future, 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.
They may attempt to blame slavery on Britain, as it started when the future US was still part of the British Empire. However, this ignores that the British Parliament abolished slavery before the US, and did so peacefully. Not to mention that while it may have started with the British Empire, that hardly excuses continuing it after independence (which, incidentally, slaveowners had insisted on), thus making this argument also irrelevant.
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. Significant 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 sharecropping.
- 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).
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 (1939), and more recently the theatrical cut of Gods and Generals (2003). 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.
Right from the horse's ass...er, mouth
Still believe that the Confederacy wasn't about slavery and racism? The founding documents of the Confederacy disagree with you.
The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the "storm came and the wind blew."
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. [Crowd applauded.] This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind — from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics; their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just — but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails.
Articles of Secession
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.
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.
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 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 in the other states of the Confederacy all underscored in their discussions the need to maintain a slave 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.
According to the 1860 US census, among the states which attempted to secede, 30.8% of families owned slaves. The vast majority of soldiers depended on slaves. According to the exhaustive study of the Army of Northern Virginia performed by historian Joseph Glatthaar, about 10% of the 1861 enlistees personally owned slaves (along with more than half of the officers), and very nearly half either owned slaves or lived in a slave-owning household. And non-slaveholders had plenty of reason to fight to maintain these lucrative slave relationships: they had friends and neighbors who owned slaves; who ran businesses which rented slaves; they made their money by doing business with slaveowners; they aspired to own slaves; slaves kept the rich rich and the poor poor; or they simply believed that slavery was morally right and liked having someone to feel superior to. So sure, less than one person in three owned slaves, but when you consider the Glatthar study and other factors e.g. the manpower required to enforce slavery on a domestic and national level e.g. Overseers, domestic help on plantations etc, then it's likely that more than half the CSA's free population benefitted from, or depended on slavery. 
As a final nail in the coffin, there's the proposed Crittenden Compromise 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 never occurred to anyone to prevent war by offering the South a non-slavery-related compromise.
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?
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.
- American Civil War
- Fort Pillow Massacre
- Black brute
- Chronicles (magazine)
- Ku Klux Klan
- League of the South
- Second Vermont Republic
- States' rights
- Thomas DiLorenzo
- Stab-in-the-back legend
- PBS interviews historians debunking myths about Reconstruction
- Civil War causes, archive of primary documents
- Declaration of Causes of Seceding States
- L. Neil Smith's Ahistorical Comparison Of Lincoln To Lenin, Brian Tubbs
- Hollywood's Reconstruction and the Persistence of Historical Mythmaking, History Cooperative
- Confronting Slavery and Revealing the "Lost Cause", James Oliver Horton
- Lost Cause Religion, New Georgia Encyclopedia
- Lost Cause category at Civil War Memory
- Neo-Confederate hooey at Rantings of a Civil War Historian
- William L. Ramsey and Sean M. Quinlan. Southern Slavery As It Wasn't: Coming to Grips with Neo-Confederate Historical Misinformation. Oklahoma City University Law Review, Vol. 30, No. 1, 2005.
- Confederacy: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO) [Video]
- The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader, eds. James W. Loewen and Edward H. Sebesta
- Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz
- The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History, eds. Gary W. Gallagher and Alan T. Nolan
- He apparently thought the idea that black people were inferior to white people and should be slaves was a radical new idea that was just a bit slow catching on.
- 'We Can't Walk Away From This Truth': New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu explains to his city why four monuments commemorating the Lost Cause and the Confederacy had to come down. (May 23, 2017) The Atlantic.
- the lyrics
- Compare and contrast with the former Imperial German High Command's invention of the stab-in-the-back legend to scapegoat the civilians, socialists, and not least the JOOOOZ for the defeat in World War I.
- While Statues Sleep, Thomas Laqueur, London Review of Books, Vol. 42 No. 12. 18 June 2020
- The Walter Scott Experience, Mike Goode, in Constellations of a Contemporary Romanticism, edited by Jacques Khalip, Forest Pyle, Fordham Univ Press, 1 Jul 2016
- See the Wikipedia article on Great Hanging at Gainesville.
- The Cause Lost: Myths and Realities of the Confederacy University Press of Kansas, 1996
- The Cause Lost: Myths and Realities of the Confederacy University Press of Kansas, 1996
- Our Composite Nationality Teaching American History.
- Rosenwald, M. (October 31, 2017). The truth about Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee: He wasn’t very good at his job. The Washington Post. Retrieved May 11, 2018.
- Georgia Declaration of Causes of Secession Wikisource.
- Grant on Slavery. Ulysses S. Grant Homepage.
- Black Slaveowners: Free Black Slave Masters in South Carolina, 1790-1860 by Larry Koger, University of South Carolina Press (1995). ISBN 1570030375.
- Roger Ebert (February 21, 2003). "Gods and Generals Movie Review".
- 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.