The debate over the causes of the Civil War and how we remember it, has raged in the U.S. for decades. The Lost Cause Myth has played a major role in this debate.
The Civil War is a shared part of American consciousness. It is the event in American history that has shaped our history the most, by outlawing slavery and through the adoption of the 14th Amendment. Debates over its cause still rage on, over a hundred years after its end. In some circles, this has led to a complete misrepresentation of history.
The Lost Cause is the idea that the Confederacy was fighting for a noble cause. It portrays the generals, soldiers, and politicians of the South as being heroic and just. It depicts the Northerners during the war as evil tyrants or as bloodthirsty killers. Lost Causers often view the North as the oppressors of the South, and that slavery was morally defensible and just.
How We Know the Civil War Was About Slavery
Before we discuss the Lost Cause’s origins and impact, let’s review the current views of Lost Causers. One of the most pervasive things they say is that the Civil War occurred over “states rights” rather than slavery. This view is both racist and incorrect.
The most obvious rebuttal to this narrative is the declarations of various Confederate States before the war. Their documents of secession mention slavery as a justification, either implicitly or explicitly. For instance, South Carolina’s secession documents clearly state the North’s hatred of slavery as a reason to secede.
In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, 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. . .Texas articles of secession, adopted Feb 2, 1861
Texas’s documents clearly show the importance of slavery to the Confederate cause. It portrays anti-slavery sentiment as tyrannical and oppressive against the Southern states. It also accuses the North of wanting racial equality. There are also references that with expansion, anti-slavery politicians were beginning to upset the balance of power.
The balance of power shift was due to free states starting to outnumber slave states. As a result, they had gained more power in the Senate. The North had also begun to talk openly about limiting or abolishing slavery. This talk made the South very paranoid.
Reconciliationist Consensus in the Era of Jim Crow
Now that we have established the cause of the Civil War let’s return to the Lost Cause. After the Civil War, three schools of thought emerged: reconciliationist, emancipationist, and white supremacist. The reconciliationist view focused on uniting the nation after the war; they underlined the similarities between the North and the South. The white supremacist view of the Ku Klux Klan and similar groups hoped to reestablish white rule in the South. The emancipationist memory was that of the horrors of slavery and what freedom meant to them. These schools of thought matter because the first two schools merged to form the Lost Cause’s core beliefs.
During the Jim Crow Era, these narratives largely coalesced around a common white identity. They achieved this through things like Civil War reunions between Northern and Southern soldiers. The goal in these reunions was to foster a shared identity. However, in the process, it simplified the Civil War’s legacy. By excluding the emancipationist viewpoint, they ignore the primary cause of the war.
We can see this thirst for reconciliation in the memorializing of Confederate generals. Street names, statues, and even Army bases all suffer from this. These 10 U.S. Army bases include major forts such as Ft. Bragg in North Carolina and Ft. Hood in Texas. They show how the Lost Cause can be seen everywhere
This consensus between reconciliations and white supremacists also had the added effect of white-washing history. It largely suppressed the emancipation view still being told by black Americans like W.E.B. Dubois. It would take until the 1960s for the emancipationist viewpoint to gain mainstream attention again. Events such as the Reconstruction Amendments and the Freedmen’s Bureau regained importance due to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s, and 1960s. This rebirth gave more attention to the racial history and perspectives of black America.
Impact of the Lost Cause on Modern Cultural Memory
Every country has a popular myth that explains how that country sees itself. The Civil War has played a major role in defining this zeitgeist for Americans. It is often used as the defining line between early and modern U.S history. As a result, the history of the Lost Cause has dramatically influenced how we see ourselves. This is especially true in the South but is not limited to that region alone.
The best example of this impact is the legacy of the Confederacy’s top general, Robert E. Lee. He is considered one of the best generals of the entire war due to his tactical brilliance. As Gary Gallagher argues in The Confederate War, he was also central to Southern nationalism during the war and the Lost Cause after it. As a result of this, he has become a revered figure in many American minds.
Last but not least, the Lost Cause is central to modern debates over Confederate statues and Confederate flags. The Confederacy’s reputation means that they are seen as memorials to traitors or as Southern pride symbols. The stark contrast between the two views is why these issues can be so divisive. It’s not only a challenge to a statue. To many, it also is an attack on how they see themselves and what it means to be Southern.
The fact that many still believe in the Lost Cause shows how our perspectives can have wide-ranging consequences. It affects not only the academic world but also the world outside of the pages. This is especially true for a topic as central to America as the Civil War. The impact of this ideology will continue for many years to come.
- Gallagher, Gary W. The Confederate War: How Popular Will, Nationalism, and Military Strategy Could Not Stave off Defeat. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.
- “The Declaration of Causes of Seceding States.” compiled by the American Battlefield Trust, December 18, 2019. https://www.battlefields.org/learn/primary-sources/declaration-causes-seceding-states.