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The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History

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Was the Confederacy doomed from the start in its struggle against the superior might of the Union? Did its forces fight heroically against all odds for the cause of states’ rights? In reality, these suggestions are an elaborate and intentional effort on the part of Southerners to rationalize the secession and the war itself. Unfortunately, skillful propagandists have been so successful in promoting this romanticized view that the Lost Cause has assumed a life of its own. Misrepresenting the war’s true origins and its actual course, the myth of the Lost Cause distorts our national memory. In The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History, nine historians describe and analyze the Lost Cause, identifying ways in which it falsifies history—creating a volume that makes a significant contribution to Civil War historiography.

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One: The Anatomy of the Myth

ePub

The Anatomy of the Myth

Alan T. Nolan

In the period 1861–65, there was a major war in the United States of America (USA). The antagonists were the “North,” that is, the United States except for eleven states, and the “South,” which claimed to have seceded, that is, withdrawn from the United States to form a new nation, the Confederate States of America (CSA). The citizens of both sides were of the same Caucasian race and national and ethnic origins. They were committed to democratic political principles and were blessed with an unusually rich geography. The Confederate states had an African-American slave labor system. Although it was racist, the North’s labor system was free, except in the border states of Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, and Delaware and in the District of Columbia. Northern people in the main were antagonistic to slavery. The two sides had been unable politically to resolve sectional disagreements.

The United States refused to recognize the existence of the Confederate States of America as a nation. The Confederate states promptly recruited armies and claimed as their own all property within their borders that had been the property of the United States of America; in many cases, the Confederate states seized that property by force. Ultimately, the United States refused to surrender Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. Thereupon Confederate and South Carolina forces attacked the fort and forced its surrender. Then, in President Abraham Lincoln’s words, the war came.

 

Two: Jubal A. Early, the Lost Cause, and Civil War History: A Persistent Legacy

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Jubal A. Early,
the Lost Cause, and
Civil War History

A Persistent Legacy

Gary W. Gallagher

Jubal Anderson Early understood the power of the printed word to influence perceptions of historical events. One of Robert E. Lee’s principal lieutenants during the Civil War, he sought to create a written record celebrating the Confederacy’s military resistance. Early hoped future generations would rely on this record, the essence of which can be distilled into a few sentences. Lee was a heroic soldier who led an outnumbered army of Confederate patriots against a powerful enemy. With “Stonewall” Jackson initially at his side, he faced Northern generals of minimal talent who later lied in print to explain their failures. Against these men and later against Ulysses S. Grant, a clumsy butcher who understood only that vast Northern resources of men and materiel must be expended freely, the Confederate commander worked his magic across a Virginia landscape that functioned as the cockpit of the war. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia set a standard of valor and accomplishment equal to anything in the military history of the Western world until finally, worn out but never defeated, they laid down their weapons at Appomattox. If the youth of the white South and succeeding generations of Americans and foreign readers accepted his version of the war, believed Early, ex-Confederates would have salvaged their honor from the wreck of seemingly all-encompassing defeat.

 

Three: “Is our Love for Wade Hampton Foolishness?”: South Carolina and the Lost Cause

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“Is Our Love for Wade
Hampton Foolishness?”

South Carolina and the Lost Cause

Charles J. Holden

In the early 1940s, John A. Rice recalled his childhood days at the turn of the century in Columbia, South Carolina, seeing on occasion an aged Wade Hampton. These chance meetings left a lasting impression on young Rice, who wrote later, “I wanted deep down in me to be like Wade Hampton, mutton-chop whiskers and all.” Rice imagined it would be a thrill to be looked upon by “ordinary folks” as “sometimes general, sometimes governor, sometimes senator, but always hero.”1 The different facets to Hampton’s career offered South Carolinians several avenues for admiration. Rice’s assumption that Wade Hampton was “always hero” reflects a common belief held by South Carolinians by the mid-twentieth century. Unquestioned adoration does not accurately tell the story of Hampton’s life in postwar South Carolina, however. The rise and fall and rise again of the Hampton legend after the Civil War paralleled the state’s bitter political struggles. While the rancor did not cease, a specific and politically charged image of Wade Hampton no longer figured in debates after the turn of the century. Instead, a range of interpretations opened up within the state’s numerous Lost Cause ceremonies that led Rice to assume by mid-century that all South Carolinians regarded the old general as having been “always hero.”2

 

Four: “These few Gray-Haired, Battle-Scarred Veterans”: Confederate Army Reunions in Georgia, 1885-95

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“These Few Gray-Haired,
Battle-Scarred Veterans”

Confederate Army Reunions in
Georgia, 1885–95

Keith S. Bohannon

The 1880s and 1890s witnessed large numbers of white Southerners participating in public ceremonies honoring the memory of the Confederacy. Some of the most ubiquitous activities were the reunions held for Confederate army veterans, events that fulfilled multiple needs in a region beset with political unrest and economic change. The social aspect of these gatherings was important; the old soldiers “delighted to meet in annual reunion to perpetuate the memory of their dead comrades, and to feel the kindly grasp of the hand of those who fought shoulder to shoulder with them.” Reunions also helped communities preserve a collective memory of the past, honor local veterans, and teach postwar generations about Confederate history and the sacrifices of their elders.1

Remembering and celebrating the Civil War was the major theme at Confederate reunions, but not the only one. Politicians frequently spoke at reunions to gain favor with voters and promote the “New South” ideal of a bustling and wealthy region based on commerce, industry, and scientific agriculture. Although the majority of reunion speakers supported the racial and political orthodoxy of the post-Civil War South, evidence indicates that spokesmen from the Farmer’s Alliance or Populist Party were sometimes present to articulate their goals of political and economic change.

 

Five: New South Visionaries: Virginia’s Last Generation of Slaveholders, the Gospel of Progress, and the Lost Cause

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New South Visionaries

Virginia’s Last Generation of
Slaveholders, the Gospel of Progress,
and the Lost Cause

Peter S. Carmichael

During the last week of May 1890, more than a hundred thousand Southerners congregated in Richmond, Virginia, to unveil a statue of Robert E. Lee. The city had not welcomed so many dignitaries and visitors since Jefferson Davis’s arrival as the Confederacy’s president in 1861. Just as Davis had made the symbolic connection between the Confederacy to the revolutionary past by speaking under the equestrian statue of George Washington, the 1890 celebration also evoked a similar historical message. Pictures of Lee and Washington decorated the city’s streets with hundreds of Confederate and Union flags draped from the buildings. Bands played patriotic music and other tunes that stirred memories of the war. On May 29, after an extensive parade of some four miles, the assembly gathered at the Lee monument where Archer Anderson delivered the keynote address. Anderson, a veteran of the Army of Northern Virginia who worked for his father in the famous Tredegar Iron Works, paid tribute to Lee in classic Lost Cause fashion. He defended the Southern crusade as a righteous one, supremely led but defeated by superior numbers and technology. Anderson saw in the commanding general the rare combination of Christian virtues and the bravery of old Roman manhood. But he was not content to focus on the heroic nature of Lee and the Confederacy. Like many spokesmen for the Lost Cause, Anderson moved beyond a narrow justification of the South’s actions during the war. He portrayed Lee as a man of action, intelligence, and vigor who offered a model of behavior for Southerners trying to adapt to the realities of the New South.1

 

Six: James Longstreet and the Lost Cause

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James Longstreet and
the Lost Cause

Jeffry D. Wert

Richmond, Virginia, resonated with the sights and sounds of the past during the final week of May 1890. The thousands of spectators and participants who thronged into the city received a warm welcome and encountered buildings festooned with the symbols of Richmond’s days as capital of the Confederacy. A “frenzy of Southern feeling,” in the words of a newspaperman, gripped the residents and visitors.

The decorations, the crowds, and this rekindled “frenzy of Southern feeling” resulted from the planned unveiling of a monument to Robert E. Lee, sculpted by J. A. C. Mercie. A committee of distinguished Southerners, including a number of Lee’s former lieutenants, had commissioned the sculptor, extended invitations to veterans of the Confederate armies, and prepared a program of speeches and a parade. To the organizers, the ceremonies would be an affirmation of the justness of the Lost Cause and the greatness of Lee’s genius as a military chieftain. The sacrfices of the Southern people during four years of civil war would be praised in flowery words and carved stone.

 

Seven: Continuous Hammering and Mere Attrition: Lost Cause Critics and the Military Reputation of Ulysses S. Grant

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Continuous Hammering
and Mere Attrition

Lost Cause Critics and the Military
Reputation of Ulysses S. Grant

Brooks D. Simpson

On April 10, 1865, less than twenty-four hours after he had surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Robert E. Lee commenced a new conflict, one featuring rival explanations for defeat. To Lee it was all quite simple: although his men had displayed “unsurpassed courage and fortitude,” they had been “compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources.”1 Perhaps he could not have said anything else. He refrained from mentioning his concern about popular support for the Confederate war effort or errors committed by the Confederate civil and military hierarchy; it was not the time to say anything about the performance of the generals and armies that had prevailed. It was a time to commiserate and console; later generations might take a more dispassionate view. Yet that is not quite what happened: the Lee paradigm remains vibrant and robust as an explanation for the outcome of the American Civil War.

 

Eight: “Let the People see the Old Life as it was”: LaSalle Corbell Pickett and the Myth of the Lost Cause

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“Let the People See the
Old Life as It Was”

LaSalle Corbell Pickett and the Myth
of the Lost Cause

Lesley J. Gordon

In her 1916 book Across My Path, LaSalle Corbell Pickett recounted meeting Julia Ward Howe, the noted abolitionist, suffragist, and author of the decidedly Northern song “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Pickett remarked to Howe how much she admired the wartime tune. Howe was taken aback. “I should not think that you would like the Battle Hymn,” she said.

“Why not?” Pickett responded. “Do not you like ‘Maryland, my Maryland’?”

“No; I do not,” Howe answered, adding that she thought the pro-Confederate song was flat and lacked expression.

Later during the interview Pickett praised Howe for her refusal to dwell on the past. “She treasured the lessons of the past,” Pickett wrote, “but never for a moment of her long life did she live in the past.”1

The irony of this exchange is striking. LaSalle Corbell Pickett was the widow of famed Confederate general George E. Pickett. She outlived him by fifty years and spent most of that time publicly fostering an idealized and romanticized image of him, herself, and the Old South. Her short stories, fiction, poems, lectures, “official histories,” and interviews with famous contemporaries all promoted the basic tenets of the Lost Cause myth. Her published writings and lectures repeatedly stressed the South’s right of secession, the righteousness of the “cause,” the valor of Confederate soldiers, the devotion of Southern women, and the loyalty of the childlike slaves. She participated in veterans’ reunions, monument dedications, parades, and other rituals important to the Lost Cause faithful. In 1900 she wrote: “The oft repeated phrase ‘Before the war’ brings back pictures far brighter, than any which the newer time has ever hung upon the walls of memory. The reminiscence of the faraway life lingers with us like the fragrance of the snowy magnolias.”2 Unlike Julia Ward Howe, LaSalle Pickett seemed to dwell exclusively in the past, although admittedly not always in the actual one she lived. She consciously devoted most of her postwar years promoting the Lost Cause not only as the official history of the Confederate South, but as part of her own personal life story.3

 

Nine: The Immortal Confederacy: Another Look at Lost Cause Religion

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The Immortal Confederacy

Another Look at Lost Cause Religion

Lloyd A. Hunter

In September 1906, Lawrence M. Griffith of Bates County, Missouri, addressed the tenth annual reunion of the state division of the United Confederate Veterans (UCV) at the Club Theater in Joplin. As a representative of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), he delivered a routine speech—a denial that Confederate soldiers were traitors and, of course, a roll call of the great heroes of the gray. But there was one paragraph that contained more truth than even Griffith may have realized:

And when the ragged remains of an army of six hundred thousand Confederate patriots returned from a four years’ fight with two million seven hundred thousand invaders, to find their homes despoiled, their families hungry, and their estates dissipated, there was born in the South a new religion. They did not think it wrong to worship those ragged idols, and with almost religious zeal they have given from their scanty stores to raise monuments to their defenders; striving by word, pen and printing press to make the world listen to the truths and learn both sides of that conflict.1

 

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