The Lost Cause is the name commonly given to a literary and intellectual movement that sought to reconcile the traditional white society of the Southern United States to the defeat of the Confederate States of America in the Civil War of 1861–1865. Those who contributed to the movement tended to portray the Confederacy's cause as noble and most of the Confederacy's leaders as examplars of old-fashioned chivalry, defeated by the Union armies not through superior military skill, but by overwhelming force. They also tended to condemn Reconstruction.
The term Lost Cause first appeared as the title of an 1866 book by historian Edward A. Pollard, The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates. However, it was the articles written for the Southern Historical Society by Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early in the 1870s that established the Lost Cause as a long-lasting literary and cultural phenomenon.
Early's original inspiration for his views may have come from General Robert E. Lee himself. When he published his farewell order to the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee spoke of the "overwhelming resources and numbers" that the Confederate army fought against. In a letter to Early, Lee requested information about enemy strengths from May 1864 to April 1865, the period in which his army was engaged against Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant (the Overland Campaign and the Siege of Petersburg). Lee wrote, "My only object is to transmit, if possible, the truth to posterity, and do justice to our brave Soldiers." In another letter, Lee wanted all "statistics as regards numbers, destruction of private property by the Federal troops, &c." because he intended to demonstrate the discrepancy in strength between the two armies and believed it would "be difficult to get the world to understand the odds against which we fought." Referring to newspaper accounts that accused him of culpability in the loss, he wrote, "I have not thought proper to notice, or even to correct misrepresentations of my words & acts. We shall have to be patient, & suffer for awhile at least. ... At present the public mind is not prepared to receive the truth." All of these were themes that Early and the Lost Cause writers "gained wide currency in the nineteenth century and remain remarkably persistent today.
Lost Cause themes were taken up by memorial associations such as the United Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy, helping in some degree the Southerners to cope with the dramatic social, political, and economic changes in the postbellum era, including Reconstruction.
The most powerful images and symbols of the Lost Cause were Robert E. Lee and Pickett's Charge. David Ulbrich wrote, "Already revered during the war, Robert E. Lee acquired a divine mystique within Southern culture after it. Remembered as a leader whose soldiers would loyally follow him into every fight no matter how desperate, Lee emerged from the conflict to become an icon of the Lost Cause and the ideal of the antebellum Southern gentleman, an honorable and pious man who selflessly served Virginia and the Confederacy. Lee's tactical brilliance at Second Bull Run and Chancellorsville took on legendary status, and despite his accepting full responsibility for the defeat at Gettysburg, Lee remained largely infallible for Southerners and was spared criticism even from historians until recent times."
In terms of Lee's subordinates, the key villain in Jubal Early's view was Lt. Gen. James Longstreet. Early's writings place the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg squarely on Longstreet's shoulders, accusing him of failing to attack early in the morning of July 2, 1863, as instructed by Lee. In fact, however, Lee never expressed dissatisfaction with the second-day actions of his "Old War Horse." Longstreet was widely disparaged by Southern veterans because of his post-war cooperation with President Ulysses S. Grant and for joining the Republican Party. Grant, in rejecting the Lost Cause arguments, said in an 1878 interview that he rejected the notion that the South had simply been overwhelmed by numbers. Grant argued, “This is the way public opinion was made during the war and this is the way history is made now. We never overwhelmed the South ... What we won from the South we won by hard fighting.” He further noted that when comparing resources the “4,000,000” of negroes [sic]” who “kept the farms, protected the families, supported the armies, and were really a reserve force” were not treated as a southern asset.
The Lost Cause view of the Civil War also influenced the 1936 novel Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell and the 1939 film of the same name. There Southerners were portrayed as noble, heroic figures, living in a romantic and conservative society, who tragically succumbed to an unstoppable, destructive force. Another prominent use of the Lost Cause perspective was in Thomas F. Dixon, Jr.'s 1905 book The Clansman, later adapted to the screen by D.W. Griffith in his highly-successful movie Birth of a Nation in 1915. In both the book and the movie, the Ku Klux Klan is portrayed as continuing the noble traditions of the South and the CSA soldier by defending Southern culture in general and Southern womanhood in particular against alleged depredations and exploitation at the hands of the Freedmen and Yankee carpetbaggers during Reconstruction. A more recent treatment appeared in the 2003 film adaptation of Jeff Shaara's Gods and Generals.
Basic assumptions of the Lost Cause have proved durable for many in the modern South. Lost Cause tenets are frequently voiced during controversies surrounding public display of the Confederate flags and various state flags. Historian John Coski noted that the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the “most visible, active, and effective defender of the flag”, “carried forward into the twenty-first century, virtually unchanged, the ‘Lost Cause’ historical interpretations and ideological vision formulated at the turn of the twentieth.” Coski wrote concerning “the flag wars of the late twentieth century”:
The Confederate States of America used several flags during its existence from 1861 to 1865. Since the end of the American Civil War, personal and official use of Confederate flags, and of flags derived from these, has continued under considerable controversy. Currently the state flags of Mississippi and Georgia draw heavily upon Confederate flag designs, and those of Arkansas, Alabama, Florida, North Carolina and Tennessee arguably incorporate certain elements from these designs. Lost Cause beliefs were encouraged by the neo-Confederate movement of the late 20th century, especially in the magazine Southern Partisan.
Contemporary historians are largely unsympathetic to arguments that secession was not motivated by slave ownership. Historian Kenneth M. Stampp claimed that each side supported states' rights or federal power only when it was convenient to do so. Stampp also cited Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens' A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States as an example of a Southern leader who said that slavery was the "cornerstone of the Confederacy" when the war began and then said that the war was not about slavery but states' rights after Southern defeat. According to Stampp, Stephens became one of the most ardent defenders of the 'Lost Cause' theory.
Similarly, historian William C. Davis explained the Confederate Constitution's protection of slavery at the national level as follows:
To the old Union they had said that the Federal power had no authority to interfere with slavery issues in a state. To their new nation they would declare that the state had no power to interfere with a federal protection of slavery. Of all the many testimonials to the fact that slavery, and not states rights, really lay at the heart of their movement, this was the most eloquent of all.
Davis further notes that, “Causes and effects of the war have been manipulated and mythologized to suit political and social agendas, past and present. Historian David Blight says that “its use of white supremacy as both means and ends” has been a key characteristic of the Lost Cause. Historian Allan Nolan writes:
...the Lost Cause legacy to history is a caricature of the truth. The caricature wholly misrepresents and distorts the facts of the matter. Surely it is time to start again in our understanding of this decisive element of our past and to do so from the premises of history unadulterated by the distortions, falsehoods, and romantic sentimentality of the Myth of the Lost Cause.
There are modern Lost Cause writers of history such as James Ronald Kennedy and his twin brother Walter Donald Kennedy (founders of The League of the South and author of “The South Was Right!” and “Jefferson Davis Was Right!”) who downplay slavery as a cause in favor of Southern Nationalism. The Kennedys describe “the terrorist methods” and “heinous crimes” committed by the Union during the war and then in a chapter titled “The Yankee Campaign of Cultural Genocide” state that they will show “from the United States government’s own official records that the primary motivating factor was a desire of those in power to punish and to exterminate the Southern nation and in many cases to procure the extermination of the Southern people.
In arguing why the theme of this book is important to contemporary Southerners, the Kennedys write in the conclusion of their work:
Historian David Goldfield characterizes books “such as ‘The South Was Right’” as:
Historian William C. Davis labels many of the myths surrounding the war as "frivolous" and included attempts to rename the war by "Confederate partisans" which continue to this day. In attempting to deny that the Civil War was an actual civil war, preferred names include War of Northern Aggression and the expression coined by Alexander Stephens, War Between the States.
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