The South “Won” the Civil War via its Lost Cause

The Southern account of the Civil War developed almost as soon as the guns went silent. Edward Pollard, wartime editor of the Richmond Examiner, published his 752-page The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates in 1866.

Considering the technology of the time, this was a virtuoso feat, because this 752-page book covered the war’s battles and campaigns from beginning to end. It also contained some very interesting allegations, including an insistence that the South’s nearly 4 million slaves were merely servants: ”…the system of negro servitude in the South was not “Slavery,” (but) “one of the mildest and most beneficent systems of servitude in the world,” which he insisted, as Southerners often did, “uplifted and protected” Africans. He also touted slave patrols: “order was maintained by an unpaid police.” and indulged in other flights of fancy, insisting that the South was led by Cavaliers and knights with a high sense of honor and noblesse oblige, in contrast to the crass and money-grubbing Yankees and their foreign hordes.

Pollard’s effort was followed in the 1870s by Jubal Early, the general who Phil Sheridan’s army crushed in the Shenandoah Valley in the autumn of 1864. Early, along with other Confederate leaders, established the Southern Historical Society, and he and others wrote a series of articles for the society’s journal that firmly established the Lost Cause as a long-lasting literary and cultural phenomenon fundamentally altering the actual history of the war and its outcome. The 1881 publication of The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government by Jeff Davis, a two-volume defense of the Southern cause, provided another important text in the South’s alternate historiography. Davis blamed the North for “whatever of bloodshed, of devastation, or shock to republican government has resulted from the war.”

Chapters of the United Confederate Veterans and numerous local Ladies Memorial Associations integrated Lost Cause themes to help white Southern Confederate sympathizers cope with post-war changes, most significantly the loss of slaves, the South’s most significant asset, and Reconstruction, which Southerners called “bayonet rule.” Actually, the presence of federal troops was minimal given the vastness of the area in which they were deployed. The ferocity of anti-black violence and atrocities perpetrated against Republicans clearly demonstrate that the South was hardly ruled by an iron hand. Years went by, and as Confederate veterans died off, they were replaced by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

A Virginian who fought for the North, Major General George Henry Thomas, (the “Rock of Chickamauga” and “Hammer of Nashville”), wrote in 1868: 

“[T]he greatest efforts made by the defeated…have been to promulgate the idea that the cause of liberty, justice, humanity, equality, and all the calendar of the virtues of freedom, suffered violence and wrong when the effort for Southern independence failed. This is, of course, intended as a species of political cant, whereby the crime of treason might be covered with a counterfeit varnish of patriotism, so that the precipitators of the rebellion might go down in history hand in hand with the defenders of the government, thus wiping out with their own hands their own stains; a species of self-forgiveness amazing in its effrontery, when it is considered that life and property—justly forfeited by the laws of the country, of war, and of nations, through the magnanimity of the government and people—was not exacted from them.”

Thomas expressed the views of many Northerners, although not those of most Democrats, whose views would eventually prevail in the interest of “reconciliation.” Tragically, this ultimately meant abandonment of the newly freed slaves , or as black historian Rayford Logan wrote, “The Betrayal of the Negro.” The nation’s lack of commitment to human rights had enormous unintended consequences: the South made sure that the majority of freedmen were enmeshed in a system of sharecropping, a feudal system that continued to bind most blacks to their former masters’ lands, barely eking a subsistence.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy, founded September 10, 1894 had among other goals “collect and preserve the material for a truthful history of the War Between the States” and “to assist descendants of worthy Confederates in securing proper education.” In practice, their major objective was to ensure that the “correct” version of history was taught at every level, one that eliminated slavery as a cause of the rebellion.

Then, beginning at the end of the nineteenth century and first two decades of the twentieth, a despotic system of Jim Crow segregation laws spread across the South and spread north. This was identical to the system the Nazis used to subjugate the Jews. The Germans were in awe that the United States was able to practice such a double standard, with blacks as a subhuman, subservient caste, and still somehow maintain a reputation as a progressive democracy. An American author even gave the Germans the word “Untermensch” they applied to Jews.

Yale University history professor Rollin G. Osterweis summarized the mythology that grew around the “Lost Cause: ” 

“The Legend of the Lost Cause began as mostly a literary expression of the despair of a bitter, defeated people over a lost identity. It was a landscape dotted with figures drawn mainly out of the past: the chivalric planter; the magnolia-scented Southern belle; the good, gray Confederate veteran, once a knight of the field and saddle; and obliging old Uncle Remus.”

In addition to works of “history” and literature inspired by these and other organizations, a graphic, powerful new technology, motion pictures (Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind, Gods and Generals and many others) spread and popularized this totally fictional history, which explains why so many Neo-Confederates expect the South to “rise again,” oblivious to the fact that slavery is inherent in such a vision, as are Ku Klux Klan, white supremacist, and other anti-government organizations. The Daughters ensured that the Southern version became the norm in most textbooks about the war and Reconstruction. Even the terms they adopted “scalawag,” (Southern Unionists and Republicans), “carpetbaggers” (those who came South to help the region recover from the war’s devastation) and “Radical” Republicans (members of Congress who believed that blacks were human beings entitled to citizenship and its rights) are still in common use today.

The Lost Cause facilitated the reunification of North and South at the expense of African Americans–even their critical role in ending the war was erased:   175 US Colored Regiments vanished as if they had never existed. White supremacy blinded the nation for a century despite the heroics of the “Buffalo Soldiers,” four black regular army regiments authorized by Congress in 1866, who were fully one fifth of the force that “won the West” (i.e., exterminated the greater part of the Native American population) and charged up San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War. Not long after that war, the black cavalrymen who fought alongside the Rough Riders were literally cropped out of the picture. Two divisions of blacks fought heroically in an utterly segregated army during both world wars. But by far, the greater number of blacks who volunteered or were drafted served in logistic and engineer units, where they nevertheless made a vital contribution to victory in both wars. Despite Truman’s Executive Order desegregating the armed forces issued in 1948, this did not occur until the Vietnam War in the mid-1960s and 1970s. The last Buffalo Soldier regiment fought as a segregated regiment for the duration of the Korean war.

Kali Holloway, Director of the Make It Right Project, an organization concerned with facilitating the removal of Confederate monuments, points out the influence of Confederate monuments, most erected in the 1890s and early twentieth century:

“Confederate monuments, including (Moses) Ezekiel’s highly visible sculptures, were part of a campaign to terrorize black Americans, to romanticize slavery, to promote an ahistorical lie about the honor of the Confederate cause, to cast in granite what Jim Crow codified in law. The consequences of all those things remain with us.”

In the wake of the Charleston church shootin of June 2015, several municipalities removed Confederate monuments and memorials on public property. With Mississippi’s decision in 2020, the last emblem of the Confederate flag has been removed from Southern state flags. The removal effort accelerated in August 2017 after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, although there remains an on-going controversy over the removal of Confederate statues, including the four removed in New Orleans two years ago. An alternative to removal, which is legally prohibited by some Southern states, is the addition of contextual markers to clarify what happened. Likely, this process will continue for some years to come.

Marker erected in DeKalb County, Georgia in 2019

The amply demonstrated power of the concerted Confederate effort to rewrite history had a major and tragic effect that has wounded the soul of the nation, festering in our core values of equality and justice. Despite the gains of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, racism still lingers. In fact, it has been exacerbated over the last four years and it could become far worse in the near future.

Historical veracity very much matters!

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Gene Betit

2 Comments

  1. Charlie Moyer on September 23, 2020 at 7:36 am

    Very nice writing! Thanks.
    Saw 2 date (year) typos. Early on you put Jubal Early in the wrong century. And at the end “very must matters” should be “very much matters”.
    Just wanted you to know I did actually read your posting.😄 Charlie

    • Gene Betit on September 25, 2020 at 5:29 pm

      Thanks, Charlie!! I think I may have to run my posts by you before I embarrass myself by posting bloopers!

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