The “Lost Cause” — What Does It Mean?

The Southern account of the Civil War began to be written almost as soon as the guns went silent. Edward Pollard, the 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 the book covered all the war’s battles and campaigns from beginning to end. It did, however, contain some interesting interpretations, including 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,” uplifting and protecting 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 knights  and Cavaliers with a high sense of honor and noblesse oblige, in contrast to the crass and money-grubbing Yankee hordes.

Pollard was followed in the 1970s by Jubal Early, the general crushed in the Shenandoah Valley, who wrote a series of articles for the Southern Historical Society, firmly establishing the Lost Cause as a long-lasting literary and cultural phenomenon. The 1881 publication of The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government by Jeff Davis, a two-volume defense of the Southern cause, cemented 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.” The United Confederate Veterans, United Daughters of the Confederacy, and numerous Ladies Memorial Associations integrated Lost Cause themes to help white, Confederate-sympathizing Southerners cope with post-war changes, most significantly Reconstruction and the loss of “their” slaves, the South’s most significant asset, owned by a small minority of Southerners. The Daughters and others insured that this vision of Southern culture and heritage was enshrined in school texts.

Major General George Henry Thomas, a Virginian who fought for the North and “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.

Yale University history professor Rollin G. Osterweis summarized 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.

There are numerous celluloid reflections of this alternative history or mythology (Birth of a Nation, Gone With the Wind, Gods and Generals), which explains why there are so many Neo-Confederates expecting the South to “rise again,” oblivious to the fact that slavery is inherent in such a vision, as are the Ku Klux Klan, white supremacists, and other anti-government organizations. Although the “Lost Cause” interpretation did facilitate the reunification of North and South, it did so at the expense of African Americans. Even their critical role in ending the war was erased; 175 US Colored Troop Regiments disappeared as if by magic.

Kali Holloway, Director of the “Make It Right” Project, devoted to the removal of Confederate monuments, points out the influence of Confederate monuments 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 Dylann Roof’s murder of nine Bible study participants in Charleston “Mother Emmanual” Baptist church in June 2015, several political entities removed Confederate monuments and memorials on public property. The momentum accelerated in August 2017 after the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. 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, now legally prohibited by most Southern states, is the addition of contextual markers to clarify what actually happened. Of course, this generally does not sit well with those imbued with Southern “tradition.”

Most likely, this process will continue for some years to come

Marker erected in DeKalb County, Georgia in 2019


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Gene Betit

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