The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History - Book Review
This article was originally published on Videri.org and is republished here with their permission.
The Elements of the "Myth of the Lost Cause"
The southern states did not secede over the issue of slavery, but even if they had, that secession would have been legal.
Robert E. Lee did not commit treason in raising his sword against the United States, but rather served as an example worthy of emulation by all Americans.
Soldiers on both sides of the battle lines were equally brave, equally valorous, and equally deserving of respect.
The South was not defeated on the field of battle, but rather was forced to yield to superior numbers and economic might.
These are four, but not all of the tenets of the Lost Cause. The name, the Lost Cause, was hatched as a way to build a positive mythological model of the Confederacy. This Myth of the Lost Cause has been wildly successful and has guided a majority of Civil War historical interpretations in the century and a half since Appomattox. Despite emerging from the crucible of war victorious, the Union perspective of the conflict has been overshadowed in word and deed by that of the defeated Confederate, to the point that Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee are often grouped as the conflict’s most popular figures.(44)
The reasons for how and why this is so are deconstructed by numerous historians in "The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History." Edited by Gary Gallagher and the late Alan Nolan, this collection of essays examines both the overall concepts related to the myth as well as specific aspects which shed light on how former Confederates worked to “fabricate a collective memory of the past” which existed so often at odds with objective fact. (5)
"The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History" fills a dual role in the ranks of Civil War literature by serving as both a history of memory as well as a historiographic work which traces the evolution and nature of the myth itself. The essay-centric formulation thus works well for the book, in that it allows for disparate foci and thesis without detracting from the integrity of a focused argument in a single-author work. By utilizing and organizing essays which take the reader from the general to the complex, the work serves as a fascinating and readable primer into the mythmaking undertaken by Southerners in the decades after the Civil War.
Alan Nolan’s work the Anatomy of the Myth serves as the introductory piece, setting the stage for further arguments to come; this is a sound decision, as the novice reader will need to understand what the Lost Cause myth is before understanding how it came to dominate Civil War historiography. Beginning with a striking description of the war in “carefully phrased, simple declarative statements” which describe the war in those few objective facts with which each antagonist could (and does) agree, Nolan immediately launches into a dissection of the myths which prevent a more encompassing and meaningful dialogue about the war from taking place. (11-12) This is done analytically, in which each topic about which the myth holds a claim is first related from the perspective of the myth, and then from the perspective of verifiable historical fact.
Nolan addresses each of these claims individually to demonstrate why they are ahistorical. He attacks one of the chief claims of Lost Casuasers that the Union was inevitable. victory ("If the Confederacy could not have won, somehow it did not lose"/"There was no magic or hocus-pocus in the Confederacy's military defeat." (17/22).
Next, the Lost Cause propagoters tried to eliminate the role of slavery in the secession crisis by removing slavery entirely from the list of sectional issues. Essentially, the Lost Cause adherents effectively "decontaminated it [the Confederate cause] and turned it into something they could cherish"/"The assertion by the Lost Cause spokesmen of the insignificance of slavery in the sectional conflict seems outrageous and disingenuous in the light of nineteenth-century political history, of which Southern spokesmen were and are well aware" (15/19)), the salient points of the myth are iterated and refuted until Nolan can claim " As has been said, the Lost Cause legacy to history is a caricature of the truth." (29) Following this synopsis, additional essays examine the birth and subsequent evolution of this caricature into an accepted part of the national consciousness.While myths can eventually become pervasive, they must start small, germinating from a single source. As Gary Gallagher explains, in the case of the Lost Cause that source was former Confederate General Jubal Early. Jubal A. Early, The Lost Cause, and Civil War History: A Persistent Legacy is Professor Gallagher's attempt to show the genesis of the Lost Cause in the 1880s and 90s.
"Early understood almost immediately after Appomattox that there would be a struggle to control the public memory of the war, worked hard to shape that memory, and ultimately enjoyed more success than he probably imagined possible," Gallagher writes. (36) Early's own words are used to illustrate his motives as well: "The most that are left to us is the history of our struggle ... We lost nearly everything but honor, and that should be religiously guarded." (39)
But how can one man leave such a lasting impact on the historiography of a conflict as epic in scope as the American Civil War? Gallagher shows how Early became a prolific writer and public speaker who often espoused Lost Cause ideals, finding traction with a Northern public that was both ready to move on from Reconstruction and willing to offer respect to former foes.
Early's use of the Southern Historical Society papers as an outlet for former Confederates to share their views on the war (and, of course, the sanctity of the Confederate cause) proved perhaps his most instrumental contribution to Civil War memory. It was through these papers the words of those that took part in the war served as first-person accounts of what - at least supposedly - occurred.
While the Lost Cause is rife with accusations of inferiority and moral turpitude toward Union leadership, perhaps no single individual suffered as much or so deeply as former Confederate General James Longstreet. Longstreet, a corps commander in the Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee, had the misfortune to oppose Lee's aggressive tactics at the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg.For Lost Cause warriors to whom no man could equal the genius or prowess of Lee, this was unsettling indeed and proved the basis by which a campaign would be waged against Longstreet, scapegoating him and him alone for the Confederate defeat in Pennsylvania. Jeffery Wert illustrates this in his James Longstreet and the Lost Cause:
"Lee's defeat at Gettysburg, in the words of two modern historians, 'threatened the entire rationale' of the Lost Cause argument. Lee's performance and responsibility for the battle's outcome required explanation and a defense ... [Lost Cause adherents] needed a scapegoat, a subordinate officier whose conduct had been so egregious as to bring defeat to the great Lee and the Confederate cause." (130)
By tracing the various popular arguments made against Longstreet by Jubal Early and others, Wert shows how the message was espoused time and again as to how Longstreet disobeyed orders (which had not actually been issued) and ultimately bore the responsibility for losing the battle - a fight which became known as the "High Water Mark of the Confederacy." (130-132) The seriousness of this charge and Longstreet's post-war acceptance of the Republican Party condemned him in the eyes of many Southerners. His testy and sometimes ill-founded defense of his Gettysburg conduct) resulted in Longstreet's near-exclusion from Confederate commemorative activities in the years prior to his death. Upon his death, "numerous camps of the United Confederate Veterans refused either to send a delegation or to offer resolutions of condolences." (132)
Wert proceeds to show how modern historiography has been kinder to Longstreet in the light of modern scholarship and also presents a timeline of events that show Longstreet's actual actions and inactions at Gettysburg. If there is to be a weakness in his argument, it would be that Wert relies heavily on Longstreet's writings to validate his timeline, despite having shown earlier that many of these writings have a dubious claim to truthfulness. Also, much of this essay cites Wert's earlier biographical work on Longstreet, raising questions as to the originality of this particular line of thinking.
If a cause has a pantheon of heroes, it also has its fair share of villains. In addition to Longstreet, Union General Ulysses S. Grant found himself and his actions a linchpin of the Lost Cause argument, mainly through a line of his own writing in 1864 in which he planned "'to hammer continuously against the armed force of the enemy and his resources, until by mere attrition, if in no other way,' the Confederacy would collapse." (156)
In Continuous Hammering and Mere Attrition: Lost Cause Critics and the Military Reputation of Ulysses S. Grant, Brooks Simpson traces the de-contextualized use of this line by Lost Cause advocates to give weight to their argument that Grant was an outmatched, outfoxed commander. They claim that he only defeated Lee's better-trained, better-led army through his unfair access to the Union's superior resources and material.
The reasoning, as Brooks explains, proceeded from the belief that "if the quest for Southern independence could have succeeded, then one had to account for why it fell short - and that in turn meant either making a begrudging admission about the quality of the foe or searching for scapegoats or other answers." (148) The Lost Cause mythology does not allow for grudging admissions about the Union foe. Therefore the alternative course was a foregone conclusion.
Through a prolific series of writings and memoirs, Southerners sought to show how Grant blundered his way through the war, succeeding only by luck or the ineptitude of those Confederate commanders whom he had opposed before facing Lee in 1864. The crux of their arguments stemmed from both Grant's own "mere attrition" quote (a line taken from an overarching plan which called for strategic attrition along the entire Confederate front, not tactical attrition against a single army).
The work of William Swinton, whose 1866 work "The Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac" paints Grant in a negative light, largely due to Grant's snubbing of the author during the war in Virginia. These ideas were seized upon and oft-repeated by neo-Confederate defenders who refused to accept that Lee had been beaten by another man and not a confluence of national supply and poor luck.
Their goal was nothing short of destruction: as Simpson writes, Lost Cause contenders "sought to achieve in print what they could never accomplish on the battlefield: the defeat of the Union's foremost commander." (167) That Grant is today rarely acknowledged with the same reverence and respect shown to Lee is indicative of how useful, far-reaching, and long-lasting the claims of his opponents were.
Additional essays make up the remainder of "The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History." An examination of the post-war rise of former Confederate General Wade Hampton, a statistical analysis at Confederate Veterans Reunions in Georgia, and a lengthy and vivid comparison of the Lost Cause mythology to that of a regional religion are among the highlights, though all of the contributions are worthy entries into the scholarship surrounding the Lost Cause. These essays, while well-argued, are not without flaws.
As noted earlier, Wert's reliance on his own earlier research renders the historian's inquiry into source material somewhat difficult. In addition, while Brooks Simpson argued at great lengths as to the poor quality of William Swinton's 1866 history of the war in the East, Wert described Swinton's work as "a popular history, heavily researched, and written by a skillful author" and "praised in both sections as fair and balanced." (128) Wert does not indicate whether this is his assessment of Swinton or his perception by his contemporary audience.
However, the contrary positions are at least striking and at most confusing; Gallagher and Nolan, in their roles as editors, would have done well to rectify this. Lastly, while the book examines the principles behind and the rise of the Lost Cause as a medium of memory, it admits to leaving the questions of why the ideas behind the myth became to accepted unanswered. As noted by Gallagher, the answer to that question would require a "far longer" essay, though the reader would do well to note the tone of challenge in that statement. (53)
The Lost Cause is a myth that shows no signs of disappearing. However, modern events have shown it to be weakening. Recent arguments against Confederate iconography provide evidence that the public majority perception of the defeated Confederacy has turned its back on the glorification of Lee and Jackson and embraces the Union restored. The case for studying the Lost Cause remains a strong one, however, and this work provides a solid footing for any future attempts at understanding this fascinating American phenomenon.