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The Lost Cause

Only at the moment when Lee handed Grant his sword was the Confederacy born; or to state matters another way, in the moment of death the Confederacy entered upon it immortality."
Robert Penn Warren "The Legacy of the Civil  War, 1961"

        The "Lost Cause," the title of Edward A. Pollards 1866 history of the Confederacy, first referred to the South's defeat in the Civil War, but in time it came to designate the regions memory of the war as well.
        Appomattox brought defeat, desolation, and despair to the white South. Almost at once, Southerners began to memorialize their failed cause, establishing Confederate Memorial Day and dedicating funeral monuments to the Confederate dead. These activities, usually held in cemeteries, evoked mourning and melancholy even as they honored the soldiers. They formed part of a larger process through which white Southerners assimilated defeat. Former Confederates reexamined their defense of slavery and decision to secede from the Union and judged both legal and moral. To explain their defeat, some Southerners pointed to the Confederates personal sins, such as drinking or swearing. But most Southerners proclaimed the South blameless, sought solace in biblical promises that God tested those whom he loved best, and concluded that God had chosen the South for some great destiny. Having decided God had not abandoned them, white Southerners sought other explanations for their defeat. A few leaders blamed each other; others questioned the unity, discipline, or commitment of the Southern people. Almost no one criticized the fighting mettle of Confederate soldiers; rather, their heroism was praised.
        In the 1870s the process of coming to terms with defeat entered a new phase. Jubal A. Early and a few other former Confederate leaders organized the Southern Historical Society (SHS), which, through its publications and the other Southern writings it endorsed, established certain "truths" about the Confederate cause: the South had not fought to preserve slavery; secession was a constitutional and justifiable response to Northern violations of the national compact; and Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. ("Stonewall") Jackson were perfect heroes whose very existence testified to Confederate nobility. When explaining Confederate defeat, Early and the SHS offered two not altogether consistent explanations: James Longstreet's tardiness at Gettysburg led to the loss of the war, and the Confederate armies succumbed only to overwhelming numbers and resources.
        Beginning in the late 1880s, the mourning and self-examination of the early postwar years gave way by the turn of the century to a popular celebration of the war Communities throughout the South dedicated Confederate monuments. A few of these statues memorialized generals or other leaders, but most honored the common soldiers and took the form of a lone soldier, often at rest, atop a tall shaft on the courthouse square or a central street. In 1889 the United Confederate Veterans formed and chose as its leader John B. Gordon, a Confederate general committed to a New South and reconciliation with the North. Within a decade, the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans organized. All three groups participated in annual reunions of Confederate veterans, which became regional festivals that drew huge crowds. Some scholars argue that this turn-of-the-century Confederate celebration expressed a civil religion that preserved a distinctive regional identity and Lost Cause mentality. It did indirectly foster white supremacy, state rights, and Democratic party solidarity, as well as incorporate most of the positions held by the SHS. But its rituals primarily celebrated the sacrifice and heroism of the soldiers and vindicated the honor of the South. The celebration thereby rendered the Lost Cause a glorious memory with much of the wars pain, passions, and such issues as slavery or independence expunged. In fact, it did little to revive wartime ideology or forge a distinctively regional identity, but instead reinforced Southerners deference to leaders and loyalty to country, now the reunited nation.
        In 1898 the Spanish-American War allowed the South to demonstrate its loyalty and honor under fire. In the wars wake, and amid a national resurgence of racism that rendered reconciliation among whites easier, most Northerners joined in the celebration of the Confederate soldiers. Robert E. Lee became a national hero, and Blue-Gray reunions demonstrated the Norths respect for its former foes. With Northern acknowledgment of Southern honor and with regional confidence restored, the Confederate celebration lost much of its intensity. As the twentieth century progressed, fewer Confederate monuments were erected. As the veteran generation died off Confederate reunions became less spectacular, and in 1932 the old soldiers held their last major review. Sons and daughters organizations persisted, but neither assumed the central role in Southern society the veterans had held. With this decline of the organizations and ceremonies of the Lost Cause, no one interpretation of the war dominated Southern culture as it once had.
        Southern academics and other intellectuals developed independent, conflicting interpretations of the war. In their 1930 manifesto, "Ill Take My Stand", the Nashville agrarians sought to counter both New South commercialism and the ills of modern industrial society by promoting an image of an agrarian South, although one that all but ignored the existence of slavery. Thereafter a few conservative Southern intellectuals similarly evoked the memory of the Old South and the Confederacy in opposition to modern developments they disdained. A larger number of Southern intellectuals, however, rethought their society's celebration of the Confederacy Novelist William Faulkner, journalist W. J. Cash, historian C. Vann Woodward, and others saw slavery as central to the sectional confrontation, stressed the Civil Wars devastating effects on the South, and claimed that defeat helped create a distinctive regional mentality characterized by guilt and an appreciation for human limitations. By the 1960s, a few historians influenced by this tradition even attributed Confederate defeat to guilt over slavery which had led to a failure of Confederate nationalism. Not all historians embraced such explanations; over the course of the century scholars attributed the war to a conflict of civilizations, a blundering generation, the collapse of the political party system, and a host of other factors. They offered myriad explanations of Confederate defeat, although perhaps the overwhelming-numbers-and-resources argument remained preeminent. Most Southern historians and intellectuals, though, emphasized the importance of slavery to the conflict and viewed the war as more tragic than did the Confederate celebration or twentieth-century popular culture.
        A few scholars find popular acceptance of failure, guilt, and human limits, which they label the Lost Cause mentality, in twentieth-century country music. Such sentiments appeared in many country songs, but that probably reflected the hard realities of Southern rural and lower-class life rather than any influence of the Lost Cause. The popular memory of the Civil War more often took heroic form. Novels and films-- especially the silent classic Birth of a Nation and one of the most popular movies of all time --Gone with the Wind--portrayed the Old South as a conservative but romantic place that suffered a terrible defeat. Yet in most, as in Gone with the Wind, Confederates appeared as heroic figures who survived, if not triumphed, in the end, and slavery seemed a benign if not beneficial institution. Once again, an absence of concern about the plight of African Americans made it easier for both Northern and Southern whites to honor the heroes of the Southern cause. With twentieth-century popular cultures glorification of the Confederacy, following its celebration at the turn of the century, many white Southerners even joked that the South had not actually lost the war, which suggested that the heritage of defeat had ceased to be very important to or even very real for them. Rather than displaying some special caution or wisdom rooted in defeat, white Southerners became among the most patriotic of Americans; the Lost Cause had primarily fostered respect for the military and unquestioning patriotism.
        The Civil War Centennial, more a Northern than a Southern celebration, did little to reverse the decline of interest in the Lost Cause or to reshape its definition. Rather, the centennial further demonstrated the increasing commercialization and trivialization of the memory of the war. During the civil rights revolt of the l950s and l960s, many white Southerners did revive the use of Confederate symbols, especially the Confederate flag and "Dixie," in behalf of segregation and white supremacy. They thereby did much to reverse what the turn-of-the-century Confederate celebration had done to render them symbols of honor and loyalty to country. In the 1980s continued display of the Confederate flag exacerbated tensions between white and black Southerners. By then blacks who objected to Confederate symbols as an assertion of white supremacy probably reacted more to the battles of the l960s than to those of the 1860s. But with few exceptions, black Southerners had never participated in or embraced the Lost Cause. For them the Civil War brought not defeat but deliverance from slavery They gloried not in Confederate legions but in their ancestors participation in a Union army that brought emancipation, which many black communities after the war, and into the present, celebrated on January 1, June 19, or various other dates.
        These conflicts over Confederate symbols exposed, more than anything else, the nations failure to establish a biracial society after it emancipated the slaves, but they also revealed that the Civil War remained important for some Southerners. Even in the 1970s and 1980s, many people, not just Southerners, reenacted Civil War battles. The Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans persisted; many of their members continued to interpret the war much as the SHS had. But only a small minority of Southerners participated in reenactments or descendants organizations; for the majority, Confederate symbols and evocations of the Lost Cause had little fixed meaning and little clear relationship to the issues that motivated Confederates from 1861 through 1865. When a neoconservative Harvard student flew the Confederate flag out her window to challenge liberal calls for cultural diversity on campus; when a country-music singer bragged that if the South had won the war, murderers would be hanged and the day Elvis Presley died would be a national holiday; and when an advertisement for an Atlanta hotel featured William Tecumseh Sherman's picture and told patrons "Say Sherman sent you" to receive a discount, then defining any specific ideological or cultural content to the Lost Cause became difficult, if not futile.
        Moreover, in the 1980s most white Southerners displayed limited knowledge of or interest in the history of the Civil War. One survey found that just 39 percent of white Southerners claimed to have had an ancestor in the Confederate army; another 37 percent did not know if their ancestors had fought or not. Only 30 percent of the same respondents admitted they had a great deal of interest in the Southern history, though another 51 percent claimed to have some interest.
        By the 1990s the memory of the Civil War had not totally disappeared from Southern culture, but certainly the specificity and power of the Lost Cause had dramatically declined.
Source:  Encyclopedia of the Confederacy, volume 3, article by Gaines M. Foster

This Page last updated 02/24/02


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