The Lost Cause myth helped Southern whites deal with the shattering reality of catastrophic defeat and impoverishment in a war they had been sure they would win. Having outfought the enemy, they were eventually ground down by “12 years of slave essay numbers and resources,” as Robert E. Lee told his grieving soldiers at Appomattox.
This theme was echoed down the years in Southern memoirs, at reunions of Confederate veterans, and by heritage groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Indiana University Press, 231 pp. University Press of Virginia, 124 pp. Louisiana State University Press,228 pp. The Confederate vice-president, Alexander H. The United States, said Stephens, had been founded in 1776 on the false idea that all men are created equal.
This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based on this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. Unlike Lincoln, Davis and Stephens survived the war to write their memoirs. By then, slavery was gone with the wind. To salvage as much honor and respectability as they could from their lost cause, they set to work to purge it of any association with the now dead and discredited institution of human bondage. In their postwar views, both Davis and Stephens hewed to the same line: Southern states had seceded not to protect slavery, but to vindicate state sovereignty. This theme became the virgin birth theory of secession: the Confederacy was conceived not by any worldly cause, but by divine principle. Union into which they had, as sovereign communities, voluntarily entered.
620,000 people was a difference of opinion about the Constitution. Thus the Civil War was not a war to preserve the nation and, ultimately, to abolish slavery, but instead a war of Northern aggression against Southern constitutional rights. Gary Gallagher and Alan Nolan, explores all aspects of this myth. Lee was the war’s foremost general, indeed the greatest commander in American history, while Ulysses S. Grant was a mere bludgeoner whose army overcame his more skilled and courageous enemy only because of those overwhelming numbers and resources. Slavery had nothing to do with it.
Think of it, soldiers of Lee! You were fighting, they say, for the privilege of holding your fellow man in bondage! Will you for one moment acknowledge the truth of that indictment? You could not have followed a banner that was not a banner of liberty! The theme of liberty, not slavery, as the cause for which the South fought became a mantra in the writings of old Confederates and has been taken up by neo-Confederates in our own time.
We lost the idea that the states were to stand against the federal government gaining too much power over our lives. The Lost Cause view of the origins of the Civil War entered the mainstream of historical writing in the first half of the twentieth century. In 1930 Frank Owsley, one of the foremost Southern historians of his generation, wrote that the Confederacy fought not only for the principles of states’ rights and self-government but also for the preservation of a stable, pastoral, agrarian civilization against the overbearing, acquisitive, aggressive ambitions of the urban-industrial Leviathan growing up in the North. North sought to advance their interests at the expense of Southern farmers and planters.
The revisionists denied that sectional conflicts between North and South were genuinely divisive. The differences between these regions, wrote Craven, were no greater than those existing at different times between East and West. Craven titled one of his books. The war was brought on not by genuine issues but by extremists on both sides, especially abolitionists and radical Republicans, who whipped up emotions and hatreds for their own self-serving partisan purposes. The passions they stirred up got out of hand in 1861 and erupted into a tragic, unnecessary war which accomplished nothing that could not have been achieved by negotiations and compromise. Any such compromise in 1861, of course, would have left slavery in place and would have reinforced the right of slave owners to take their property into the territories. Slavery would have died peacefully of natural causes in another generation or two had not fanatics forced the issue to armed conflict.
South into a defensive response that finally caused Southern states to secede to get free of the incessant pressure of these self-righteous Yankee zealots. Outside the universities, however, Lost Cause denial is still popular, especially among Southern heritage groups that insist the Confederate flag stands not for slavery but for a legacy of courage and honor in defense of principle. When Ken Burns’s PBS documentary on the Civil War portrayed slavery as the root cause of the conflict, the reaction among many Southern whites was hostile. This overemphasis on the slavery issue really rankles us.
God and man, provincialism, and romanticism. The states’-rights thesis has found its way into some odd corners of American culture. The Civil War was fought over what important issue? His ancestors on both sides fought for the Confederacy. His much-loved grandmother was a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. In his dorm room at prep school in Virginia he proudly hung a Confederate flag.
Anyone who thought differently was either deranged or a Yankee. Lincoln’s election in 1860 was, in fact, the dominant theme in secessionist rhetoric. Dew has produced an eye-opening study of the men appointed by seceding states as commissioners to visit other slave states—for example, Virginia and Kentucky—in order to persuade them also to leave the Union and join together to form the Confederacy. Those who do read the excerpts from speeches and letters quoted by Dew will find plenty of confirmation for this conclusion. South Carolina commissioner told Virginians in February 1861. The South cannot exist without African slavery. Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.
God and sanctioned by humanity. South will be entirely gone. And so on ad nauseam. The secession conventions and the commissioners grossly exaggerated the Republican threat to slavery in 1861. Lincoln had been elected on a platform of merely containing slavery’s future expansion. Republicans would not have a majority in Congress if the South stayed in the Union. But perhaps the commissioners deemed such exaggeration necessary to scare timid Southerners into support for disunion.