As a way to ease the trauma of the Confederate defeat in the Civil War and the resulting Union occupation, many white Southerners sought to justify the cause for which they and their loved ones had fought. Led by figures such as Father Abram Ryan, the "poet-priest of the Confederacy," and groups such as ladies' memorial associations dedicated to creating and maintaining Confederate cemeteries, supporters of the "Lost Cause," as they called it, sought to preserve the memory of their dead.
From the beginning, the commemoration of the Confederacy had religious overtones that developed into a type of civil religion. Just as with any religion, the Lost Cause had its own elaborate ceremonies (parades and memorials), icons (statues of Confederate soldiers), and "saints," especially its "Blessed Trinity" (Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson and Confederate President Jefferson Davis). Confederate cemeteries became places of pilgrimage on various feast days of the Confederacy, which included Robert E. Lee's birthday and the anniversary of Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's death. Clergy played a central role in all the events and were key people in transforming historical commemorations into religious spectacles.
The Confederate dead were also honored because they had fought for what many white Southerners insisted was a just cause: states' rights, not slavery. Thus, while the Lost Cause began as a way to memorialize the fallen, it quickly developed a political side. The Southern Historical Society (SHS), founded in 1869, used its Southern Historical Society Papers to justify the Confederate effort. Its members were avowedly "unreconstructed" (that is, opposed to the federal government's "Radical Reconstruction" program giving rights to former slaves) and firmly against any reconciliation with the "accursed Yankees."
The SHS, however, did not have broad support. As the federal government began to retreat from reconstruction after 1873, unabashed hostility to everything Yankee seemed anachronistic to many Southerners, particularly those who called for a New South dedicated to economic development in partnership with Northern business. The prophets of this New South ideology, however, realized that they could not just dismiss the Lost Cause. For example, New South proponent General John B. Gordon, "the hero of Appomattox," used his Confederate record to win elections. He became the first president of the newly organized United Confederate Veterans (UCV) in 1889 and remained in that position until his death in 1904. The UCV organized annual reunions throughout the South which brought together thousands of veterans. The reunions became major events with various southern towns vying to hold them. Through its magazine, The Confederate Veteran, the UCV emphasized the experience of the average soldier, but it also continued the SHS position of denying that slavery was the cause of the war. Unlike the older organization, the UCV embraced reconciliation with the North and made some contacts with its Union counterpart, the Grand Army of the Republic. By the mid-1890s, over 75 percent of the South's counties boasted UCV groups. The UCV helped many white Southerners embrace their future and simultaneously vindicate their past.
A new organization formed out of, but not totally replacing, the ladies' memorial associations joined the UCV in remembering and justifying the Confederacy. The United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), organized in 1894, became the carrier of the Confederate torch as veterans began to die. The spectacular growth of the UCV and the UDC led to a new spate of Confederate memorializing, except that, unlike the memorials of the 1860s and 1870s, the new monuments and events were as often on the town square as in a cemetery. Because of UDC pressure, the ceremonies also began to recognize the role of civilians, particularly women, in the Confederate effort. By 1910, women of the UDC had become the preservers of the Confederate tradition.
Nonetheless, the southern-born Woodrow Wilson's election to the presidency in 1912, followed by the United States's entry into the First World War in 1917, dramatically decreased the Lost Cause's importance. Memories of the Civil War had faded, and Wilson's victory marked the South's ultimate return to the nation. The rise of Jim Crow and the disfranchisement of African Americans by the turn of the century also decreased the overarching need for white unity so well displayed on Confederate memorial days. The UDC kept the traditions alive, but they had lost their potency. The South did not need the political or religious power of the Lost Cause anymore. The recent revival of the concept in the 1990s, particularly in connection with the display of the Confederate battle flag, has had more to do with the contemporary political, economic, and cultural trends than with the Civil War or the trauma it caused.
Cox, Karen L. Dixie's Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003.
Horwitz, Tony. Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. New York: Pantheon Books, 1998.
Wilson, Charles Reagan. Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865–1920. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980.
David T. Gleeson
"Lost Cause." Americans at War. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 19, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/defense/energy-government-and-defense-magazines/lost-cause
"Lost Cause." Americans at War. . Retrieved January 19, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/defense/energy-government-and-defense-magazines/lost-cause
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