The Lost Cause

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The Lost Cause

While the Civil War occupies a central place in U.S. history and culture, the legacies of the war have been the subject of considerable debate. The cultural memory of the war, or the ways in which people collectively have understood and represented the Civil War, have never been homogenous, static, or inextricable from the politics of the present (Blight 2002, p. 1). Over the years, multiple and often conflicting interpretations of the war have battled to dominate Americans' understanding of the ultimate meaning of this climactic event in their nation's past (Blight 2001, p. 2).

Confederate Mythology

In an atmosphere of demoralization in the years immediately following the war, former Confederates sought to justify the South's secession and defeat in a catastrophic war. Nearly every aspect of this so-called Lost Cause account of the war has been refuted by contemporary scholars, with the exception of the fact that the Union fielded a higher number of soldiers than the Confederacy (Waugh 2004, p. 17; McPherson 2004, p. 73; Gallagher 2004, p. 58). Yet with its white supremacist underpinnings, the myth of the Lost Cause thrived in the era of Jim Crow. And well into the twentieth century, the myth eclipsed the emancipationist interpretation of the war, which can be defined as understanding the conflict as the reestablishment of the American republic and the admission of black people to citizenship and political equality (Blight 2001, p. 2).

Adherents of the Lost Cause hold that the Southern states seceded and waged war in defense of states' rights, not slavery; that despite being vastly outnumbered and undersupplied, the Confederate Army fought heroically in the face of overwhelming odds and inevitable defeat; that despite the loss, the integrity of the struggle is preserved through the veneration of military leaders, especially Robert E. Lee. Variants of the Lost Cause myth also recycled antebellum defenses of slavery. While maintaining that slavery was neither the cause nor the central political issue of the war, Lost Cause ideologues insisted that slavery had been a benevolent institution (Nolan 2000, pp. 11–31; Waugh 2004, pp. 15–16).

The latter item of propaganda was and remains impossible to reconcile with the personal testimonies of former slaves and the well-documented history of slave rebellions, fugitive escapes, and smaller-scale forms of day-to-day resistance by enslaved people before the Civil War. It likewise fails to account for the masses of bonds-people who freed themselves during the war by fleeing to Union lines and joining the service of the army that fought their enslavers. According to the historian Alan Nolan, the Lost Cause version of the war is a caricature largely made possible by its misleading picture of slavery and of African Americans. This caricature, he continues, removes African Americans from their central role in the war and makes them historically irrelevant (Nolan 2000, p. 27). Nolan highlighted three issues that he considered the ultimate stakes of the Civil War: the nation's territorial and political integrity; the "survival of the democratic process"; and human freedom (p. 27).

Northern Histories of the War

The third point is what emancipationist interpreters understood to be the most important result of the war, the most significant memory of the war, and the central subject of African American celebrations of Emancipation Day after the war. But by that time, however, the contest over the meaning of the war had already begun to take shape. Several multivolume war histories sold on subscription during the 1860s were marketed as keepsakes that provided a more "permanent" history than newspapers. The first of these was written by John S. C. Abbott (1805-1877), a Congregationalist minister and historian. It was distributed in April 1863, roughly halfway through the war it purported to commemorate (Fahs 1998, p. 118). The editor of the New York Tribuune, Horace Greeley (1811-1872), followed Abbott's work with his own history in 1864. Both Abbott and Greeley understood the Civil War to be about slavery, but their histories, particularly the second volumes published soon after the war's end, offer a preview of the way in which the Lost Cause interpretation would ultimately combine with other forces to stake its claims to the memory of the war. In the first volume of his History of the Civil War in America, John Abbott writes:

From the commencement of our government there have been two antagonistic principles contending for the mastery—Slavery and Freedom…But freedom has outstripped slavery in this race. And consequently, the slaveholders, unreconciled to the loss of supremacy, strive to destroy the temple of liberty…This conflict in which our nation is now involved, is simply a desperate struggle, on the part of the slaveholders, to retain by force of arms that domination in the government of the Republic, which they had so long held, and which, by natural operation of the ballot box, they were slowly but surely losing…This slaveholding rebellion is the greatest crime on earth. (Abbott 1863, pp. iii–iv)

Personally, Abbott rejected biological arguments about racial difference, which placed him toward the radical end of the era's racial thought (Fahs 1998, p. 116). And Abbott's introduction casts the war in terms that would resonate in the emancipationist memory of the war. Indeed he cited emancipation as the most important outcome of the war. But Abbott largely relegated the history of slavery, emancipation, and black military service to the end of his text.

The literary historian Alice Fahs suggests that Abbott curbed his own radicalism in order to sell more books to a wider audience (Fahs 1998, p. 116). These same market imperatives may have led Abbott to apply his characteristically florid language to describe Lee's surrender as a sentimental reunion of the opposing sides. A scene of Union troops saluting passing Confederate soldiers as they stacked arms concludes with the assurance that former animosities would be set aside and that "the Union was secured for ages to come…we had emerged from the conflict with an established nationality…"(p. 593). Already in Abbott's work emancipationist themes receive less emphasis, with greater evidence of a reconciliation theme that would grow in Civil War memory of the war. But exactly who was included in this reunion and national identity that Abbott praised would become another contested aspect of Civil War memory

Like Abbott, Horace Greeley understood slavery as the cause of the conflict. Unlike Abbott, however, Greeley made the history of slavery in the United States the focus of the first volume of his Civil War history. Greeley's text argues that the Civil War was the inevitable result of slavery and emancipation the inevitable result of the war. Arguments of inevitability are poor substitutes for attention to historical process and should almost always be regarded with suspicion. But even more curious is Greeley's treatment of Lee's surrender. Though more matter-of-fact about the event than Abbott, Greeley writes, "The Rebel Army of Virginia had not failed." They had rather, fought "sternly against the Inevitable" and "proved unable to succeed where success would have been a calamity…" (Greeley 1867, p. 745). That Greeley tempers the defeat with a valorization of Confederate soldiers anticipates a trend in war remembrance literature that acquired new prominence in the 1880s.

In The American Conflict (1864-1867), Greeley may have been motivated by the philosophy of reunification that he espoused at the end of the war, which he summarized as "magnanimity in triumph" (Fahs 1998, p. 119). According to Greeley, "What we ask is that the President say, in effect, 'Slavery having, through rebellion, committed suicide, let the North and the South unite to bury its carcass and then clasp hands across the grave."' (Fahs 1998, p. 119). Greeley might also have had in mind the farewell speech Lee gave his troops in General Order No. 9, which begins, "After four years of arduous service, marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources" (Gallagher 2005, p. 40). In the years that followed, purveyors of the Lost Cause would seize upon arguments based on "overwhelming numbers and resources" and inevitability to justify their defeat, just as they would fetishize the Southern soldiers' valor to mitigate their loss.

Southern Histories of the War

While Abbott's and Greeley's histories showed signs of reconciliationist impulses, the Southern journalist Edward A. Pollard (1832-1872) urged the necessity of Southerners writing their own histories of the conflict. Pollard, who published his own multivolume series during the war, wrote in his fourth volume of the Southern History of the War that "the very fact that the war has gone against them makes it more important that [the South's] records should not fall entirely to the pens of [its] enemies" (Pollard 1866, p. 4). Later the same year, Pollard published Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War. Part popular history, part manifesto, the book comprehensively stated the Confederate perspectives of the war. David Blight has argued that the Lost Cause was initially a byproduct of grief but that the ideology soon sought to gain control of the nation's collective memory (Blight 2002, p. 261).

As Pollard's writings illustrate, that desire to control the historical memory of the Civil War was inextricably bound to the politics of race and Reconstruction. Pollard conceded that the war decided emancipation and restoration of the Union but also insisted that the war did not decide issues of racial equality or African American suffrage. In the supplement to the second edition of The Lost Cause, Pollard seethed against the extension of full citizenship rights to African Americans, which occurred at the same time that Reconstruction policies banned former Confederates from voting. In his 1868 political tract The Lost Cause Regained, Pollard prescribed limited reconciliation with Northerners but on the condition of "securing the supremacy of the white man" (Blight 2001, p. 260).

Search for Historical Neutrality

While Lost Cause spokespersons espoused their ideology in a bid to control cultural memory, white Northerners grew increasingly weary of the war and the political battles of Reconstruction. By 1881, when the federal government published the first installment of Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, the series was notable not only for its sheer volume but also for the official editorial policy that aimed for a balanced nonpolitical representation (Waugh 2004, pp. 21–22). This decision by the War Records Office to include the offical records of both Union and Confederate armies and to employ veterans from both sides in the compilation signaled a growing tendency to interpret the war in the least controversial way (Waugh 2004, p. 22). More and more, the idea that Confederates went to war in defense of slavery and that the Union army was an instrument of liberation for four million slaves became an embarrassment to white Southerners and thus a hindrance to sectional reconciliation. Consequently, the presence and the roles of African Americans were minimized or ignored entirely in cultural representations of the war (Waugh 2004, p. 22).

As popular remembrance increasingly stripped the Civil War of its ideological contexts, the focus shifted to celebrations of the heroic soldier. In 1884 Century, a general-interest magazine of the period, launched its "Battles and Leaders of the Civil War," an enormously popular series of battle narratives submitted by veterans of the conflict. The announcement of the series, which appeared in the October 1884 issue, pledged that most articles would be written by the generals who had commanded troops in the featured battles. The publishers expected that the series would "prove of lasting value to the history of the most eventful period of our national life." But to avert the appearance of sectional partisanship and avoid offending subscribers, the Century's readers were assured that "it is not a part of the plan of the series to go over the ground of the official reports and campaign controversies, but…to clear up cloudy questions with new knowledge and the wisdom of cool reflection" (October 1884, p. 943).

For such a publication, declared the editors' announcement of the series, "No time could be fitter…than the present…when the passions and prejudices of the Civil War have nearly faded out of politics, and its heroic events are passing into our common history where motives will be weighed without malice, and valor praised without distinction of uniform" (October 1884, p. 943). David Blight maintains that the Century editors had structured the series as a celebration of the valor of soldiers on both sides in order to further reconciliation; the articles were silent on the causes and consequences of the war or the subjects of race and slavery (Blight 2001, p. 175). If the "passions and prejudices," which the editors had implicitly defined in sectional terms, had faded, it was due to a growing tendency to remember the Civil War apart from its ideological context and to put aside the still-divisive issues of race, slavery, emancipation, and African American civil rights. All in all, the Century series indicated that the "common history" was increasingly interpreted from the perspective of white males—not an inclusive interpretation but it was becoming increasingly masculine and increasingly white (Fahs 2004, pp. 84–85).

Alternative Views

The abolitionist orator and newspaper editor Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), who had escaped from slavery in Maryland, had always conceived the Civil War to be a war of emancipation, and what he recognized as a dismissal of the emancipationist view of the war deeply offended his sense of justice, as it threatened the fruits of his life's work. Douglass noted the national tendency to forget slavery and secession as well as the side effects of devotion to the Lost Cause, which prompted him to declare, "It may be said that Americans have no memories…We look over to the House of Representatives and see the Solid South enthroned there; we listen with calmness to eulogies of the South and of traitors and forget Andersonville…We see colored citizens shot down and driven from the ballot box, and forget the services rendered by the colored troops in the late war for the Union" (Blight 1989, p. 232).

There were exceptions to the trends that so incensed Douglass regarding the cultural memory of the Civil War—notably in the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, published in two volumes in 1885 and 1886. Not surprisingly, Grant devoted much of the work to his military experience, and he did conclude with a prophecy of sectional reunion. But he also stated unequivocally in his conclusion to the second volume, "The cause of the great War of the Rebellion will have to be attributed to slavery" (Grant 1886, p. 539). Rejecting the popular narrative that depicted the motivations of both sides as equally honorable, Grant insisted on the rightness of Northern action against slavery. He described the Fugitive Slave law, which required the return of fugitives to their former bondage, as a "degradation," and maintained that "the National government… had to be enlisted in the cause of this institution" (Grant 1886, p. 544; Waugh 2004, p. 27).

Writing History in the 1880s

But the most widespread depictions of the war in the 1880s borrowed from the mythology of the Lost Cause. The strategy of sectional reconciliation through mutual acknowledgment of the soldiers' valor echoed the South's esteem of the soldier. And the growing willingness to forget emancipationist politics reflected the Lost Cause's denial of the evils of slavery and the reality of African Americans' roles in the war. These tendencies were not the natural effects of passing time, as the Century editors suggested, tempered by the "cool wisdom of reflection." Rather, as the purveyors of the Lost Cause expressed their own version of the Civil War through literature, public monuments, Memorial Day ceremonies and the like, they also attempted to influence the production and adoption of school textbooks. Letter-writing campaigns persuaded Northern publishers to excise content objectionable to Southerners (McPherson 2005, pp. 64–78). The criteria for what these activists found acceptable is reflected in a guide to textbook adoption committees that advised the rejection of any book that "says the South fought to hold her slaves," "speaks of the slaveholder of the South as cruel and unjust," "glorifies Abraham Lincoln and vilifies Jefferson Davis," or "omits to tell of the South's heroes and their deeds" (McPherson 2005, p. 72).

The long reach of the Lost Cause narrative is evidenced in an 1896 article in Century that departed from the editorial policy reflected in the "Battles and Leaders of the Civil War" series. The piece, which was written by the son of a Confederate veteran, attempts to answer the question posed by its title: "Why the Confederacy Failed." The apparently novel answer posed by the author was the "excessive issue of paper money" and misuse of the Confederate cavalry. But having been schooled in the romance of the Lost Cause, the author felt compelled to acknowledge the widely held answer he was attempting to revise. The probable response to the question he had undertaken was either that "America was designed by almighty Providence for one great nation" or "if he is a Southerner, that the South was overpowered by the superior numbers and resources of the North" (November 1896, p. 33).

The effect of the Lost Cause on family experience was recalled by a Southern writer, Katharine Du Pre Lumpkin (1897-1988), whose father had served in the Confederate army at the age of 15 and indoctrinated his children in the mythology of the Lost Cause. He often invoked a popular phrase that suggested the Lost Cause was a kind of secular religion. According to Lumpkin, "his wife taught the children prayers, he taught them to revere the Lost Cause…we were certainly reared, each of us in turn, to revere the veterans of that period and to do everything we could to help them" (Lumpkin 1975, pp. 3–4). But Lumpkin's early education later affected her study of Southern social history, particularly the history of slavery, which had been "unknown" to her. "I had to—by reason of my upbringing…really go back and re-do, for myself," she recalled. "I had to relearn from the sources, because my picture is the one…that I was reared in" (Lumpkin 1974, p. 66).

When asked to characterize her father in a 1974 interview, Lumpkin replied, "I would say he was a man torn between the past and the present, perhaps. Never having given up the past" (Lumpkin 1974, p. 3). For Lumpkin's father, as with many others of its devotees, the Lost Cause was a refuge from the stresses of military defeat and social change (Blight 2001, p. 266). But at the same time the Lost Cause also provided ammunition for those determined to prevent black people from obtaining equality (Blight 2002, p. 266).

In Richard Wright's autobiography Black Boy, first published in 1945, eighty years after the war, the author recalled his grandfather, who escaped from a slaveholder during the Civil War, then joined the Union Army, and stood military guard as the newly enfranchased freedmen cast their first ballots during Reconstruction. According to Wright, when radical Reconstruction ended and the freedpeople were "driven from political power" by the efforts of white supremacists, "his [grandfather's] spirit had been crushed" (Wright 1993 [1945], p. 40). Wright also suggested a link between the politics of white supremacy and the memory of the Civil War. The litany of tabooed subjects that Southern white men did not like to discuss with African Americans, according to Wright, included "the entire northern part of the United States; the Civil War; Abraham Lincoln; U.S. Grant; General Sherman… the Republican party; slavery; social equality….the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution; or any topic calling for positive knowledge or manly self-assertion on the part of the Negro" (p. 231).

As the United States commemorated the war's centennial in the 1960s, the writer Robert Penn Warren observed, "The Civil War is, for the American imagination, the greatest single event of our history (Grow 2003, p. 77). But even as he wrote, the observances assumed the character of a racially divided country in the midst of another political revolution. And though the discredited Lost Cause has lost much of its former influence, it still persists, along with disputes over the memory of the war. Not the least of these battles concerned the display of Confederate flags, many of which were raised over Southern capitols during the centennial observances but not lowered afterward (Wiener 2004, pp. 237–253).


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Christina Adkins