There is a well worn axiom which states that the history of any war is written by the winner. Certainly, there is ample evidence to support this statement and, often, it takes decades before an honest, more clearly analytical view of a conflict begins to emerge, both in academia and society at large. In the case of the Civil War, the latter is certainly true. In fact, it was almost a century before the first fresh historical analyses began to appear and it took even longer for them to be accepted in popular culture. However, the history of the war, the way it was taught in our schools, and how it was portrayed in literature and even film defies the axiom I stated above.
In point of fact, you will often hear it said among historians that, while the South lost the war, they won the history. If you, like me, were taught in school that the war was really not caused by the issue of slavery, but, rather, it was fought over the issue of states’ rights, then you are living prove of the Confederacy’s victory in the history books. If you were instructed that the South outfought the North at every turn and was simply overwhelmed by Northern resources, then you too have experienced this unique aspect of the war’s legacy. Finally, if you were led to believe that the war was primarily a contest between the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac, and think that “Gone With the Wind” is an accurate depiction of antebellum Southern society, the war, and reconstruction, then you also have received exposure to American history as a product of what has come to be known as the “Lost Cause” movement.
The Lost Cause movement and the mythology it engendered was a phenomenon that began immediately after the war ended. Its roots were deeply psychological but it would manifest itself in ways that were real, tangible, and which would have had a lasting impact not only on Southern society, but on that of the entire nation as well. And, what is important to understand about this phenomenon is that the essence of Lost Cause was not the war itself, but the memory of the war as seen through a filter of guilt and the need for self-justification
The Lost Cause occurred in two phases, with the first beginning only months after Appomattox. As the North celebrated their victory and joyously welcomed their returning armies, the South was left trying to explain and, somehow, culturally and psychologically cope with their defeat. Southern authors, especially former generals, began to write and publish their accounts of the war. The most outlandish of these books and the one most popular was that written by Jubal Early. Early, who Lee referred to as “my bad old man,” was so bitter about the defeat at the hands of the Union that he initially left the country. But, spurred by his popularity and the clear need in the South for voices that refused to recognize defeat, Early returned to write, give speeches, and raise funds for the erection of monuments and statues, especially those that honored Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia.
At first, the predominant view Early and others promulgated was that, while their cause was just and their military abilities superior to those of the North, Confederate soldiers were simply overwhelmed by Northern resources. Additionally, there was also much written to tell the public that slavery had nothing to do with Southern secession. What is most fascinating and ironic about this aspect of the Lost Cause was that it involved men like the former Confederate Vice President, Alexander Stephens. In 1861, Stephens stated that the new Confederate government was, in fact, not founded on the idea that all men were created equal, but, rather, that it was “founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” Now, however, he would go on to publish a two-volume history of the Civil War in which he hardly mentioned slavery, insisting that the war was an attempt to preserve constitutional government from the tyranny of the majority.
There is no doubt that Southerners needed to hear the visions of Early, Stephens, and their cohorts. Theirs was the angry and romantic vision of the war, filled with intense self-justification. Those who had fought and lost portrayed themselves and their comrades as better men than their Northern opponents, “cavaliers” fighting to protect a noble way of life, who were only defeated in the end by superior resources. This drive to aggrandize the Southern cause was not caused by guilt over secession but guilt from having been defeated. Given both the American obsession with success and the belief that God would reward the cause of the righteous, defeat for the South had to be explained, to be rationalized. Therefore, the argument of a noble cause, overcome by Yankee hordes, but which still would be someday vindicated, was born. Their version of the war and its causes was eventually officially entered into school curricula in the South and special boards were created to ensure that the Lost Cause version of the war was the only one allowed in Southern schools and libraries.
The Lost Cause view of the war view would eventually lead to a second phase of the Lost Cause, one that viewed the South as romantic, brave, and tragic. The former posture of the Lost Cause might be seen as delaying the South’s assimilation into mainstream American culture, while the latter helped bring about a Southern renaissance and, ultimately, the blending of the South back into American society. However, it is important to understand that the Lost Cause not only created the Southern view of the war, many of its basic tenets would become the historical gospel in the North as well. This happened out of a desperate national need for reconciliation, albeit one felt only by white Americans. If the South was to be welcomed back into American society, then it would be helpful to not see them so much as an evil foe, but, rather, as brave, valiant, and, really, not so bad after all. Therefore, Robert E. Lee was elevated to sainthood in both regions, and the Southern cause and Southern secession would be whitewashed into something more palatable to everyone. As a result, the nation at large portrayed the war as one simply fought over things like tariffs, economics, and states’ rights—something as distasteful as slavery had nothing to do with it. Unfortunately, while all this may have helped spur reconciliation, it also required that Northerners and the Federal government turn their back and ignore things like the Jim Crow laws, which led to a century of officially sanctioned inequality and segregation.
This was all part of what some historians call the National Lost Cause, which started in the early 20th century and continued through the Southern renaissance of the 1930s and 1940s. The National Lost Cause, which actually overlapped the end of the first Lost Cause, was an effort to portray the South as not only being romantic and tragic, but also as being a separate, but unique part of the American culture. The cavalier nature of the Southern warrior was still present in this version of the Lost Cause, but the vindictive image of the Northern aggressors was softened. The defeated South was seen as embodying the best of the American spirit, but trapped in a national tragedy from which there was no escape. So, unlike its predecessor, this version of the Lost Cause aimed to assist in assimilating the South back into the American cultural mainstream. In a sense, therefore, it made the South appear to be less uniquely Southern and more Middle American.
For me, one of the most interesting things about both segments of the Lost Cause paradox and its resulting mythology is the place held in it by Virginia and, especially, Robert E. Lee. Virginia, the birthplace of so many presidents, was seen as a reluctant but valiant participant in the Lost Cause. Lee, on the other hand, came to be portrayed as a saintly warrior, pure of heart, who was a great military genius, and the very symbol of the Lost Cause—the cavalier gentleman, brave in war, gallant and noble in defeat. In the time of the first Lost Cause, there was a calculated campaign by Jubal Early, veteran’s groups, and Southern historical societies to elevate Lee to his position of virtual sainthood. No one dared to criticize him and those who did, such as James Longstreet, were ostracized from Southern society and shunned by all. Even as the Lost Cause moved to its next phase, Lee maintained a lofty status. He became the quintessential American hero, a tragic, reluctant secessionist, a military genius, and a great leader of men. Douglas Southall Freemen, whose literary works and lectures on Lee elevated the General even further, exemplified this portrayal of Lee best. Here was Lee as a gallant, brilliant, but still tragic figure. In many ways, the version of Lee that Freeman and others left to us is the embodiment of the Lost Cause.
In conclusion, let me say that I realize my views on this subject may anger some readers, but I am entitled to my opinion on the subject, as are you. However, I must add that I find it almost tragically humorous when I read statements that newer works on Civil War history are, at best, merely revisionist, or, worse, that they are simply “politically correct.” These statements are usually made by people who cling to the old Lost Cause versions of Civil War history. What they do not realize is that their version of the war is based on a myth and, more so, upon a myth that was carefully created by those who lost the war and was eventually accepted by those who won out of a need to reunify the nation. And, if you embrace the myth, it is you who actually believe in a “politically correct” version of the war, and one that was popularly accepted for over a century.