Debunking the myth of the Lost Cause: A lie embedded in American history – Karen L. Cox

Examine the myth of the Lost Cause: a campaign created by pro-Confederates after the Civil War to promote the lie that they seceded for state’s rights.

In the 1860’s, 11 southern states withdrew from the United States and formed the Confederacy. They seceded in response to the growing movement for the nationwide abolition of slavery. Yet barely a year after the Civil War ended, southern sources began claiming the conflict was about state’s rights. How did this revisionist history come about? Karen L. Cox examines the cultural myth of the Lost Cause.

Lesson by Karen L. Cox, directed by Anton Bogaty.

Trump’s New Civil Religion: The New “Lost Cause”

The storming of the Capitol is a creation myth for a political movement.

Image Credit… Mike Theiler/Reuters

Since the presidential election was called for Joe Biden on Nov. 7, President Trump has cultivated the myth that the election was stolen. Despite his claims of voter fraud and election mismanagement after dozens of courtroom losses, it’s become clear over the past few months that there is no real legal basis for contesting the election results.

But myths are often invulnerable to reality. As the “Stop the Steal” mantra spread from the White House to the mouths of conservative members of Congress and the halls of Republican-controlled state houses, and throughout conservative social media, something insidious and predictable happened: Senators such as Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley announced they would object to the results of the election on Jan. 6 because so many Americans doubted the validity of its outcome. The myth became the basis for contesting the facts.

A myth becomes reality through ritual, when its story is dramatized and its adherents brought to collective participation in it. When Trump supporters took hold of the Capitol, temporarily halting the counting of the Electoral College votes, they brought the fiction down upon the levers of government through temporary mob rule.

It is tempting to think of this insurrection as akin to Pearl Harbor or Sept. 11, but doing so places an act of domestic terrorism in the historical lineage of attacks from external actors. If we are going to reckon with the import and legacy of Jan. 6, we must look inward.

After the Civil War, Reconstruction saw the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, which abolished slavery and granted equal citizenship to Black Americans. In the years after the war, the nation witnessed Black Americans’ integration into Southern political life. Local chapters of the Union League and other organizations mobilized Black voters and fostered Black candidates for local and state elections. In 1868 South Carolina had a Black-majority state legislature; in 1870 Hiram Revels of Mississippi became the first Black American to serve in the United States Senate. For a short while, it seemed that liberty and justice for all was an attainable legal goal.

However, in the late 1860s and early 1870s, white Southerners developed the notion of the Confederacy as the Lost Cause in order to combat the radical changes taking root in Dixie. The Lost Cause is sometimes referred to as revisionist history, but I would call it something else: collective memory in the form of Confederate civil religion.

According to proponents of the Lost Cause, the South was the victim of an invasion by “Yankee vandals,” as Caroline Janney, a University of Virginia historian, phrases it. In response, they framed themselves as occupying the moral high ground in the conflict — a class of honorable and loyal families who defended their soil and way of life in the face of undue Northern aggression. To make their case, they had to argue that slavery was not the real issue of the war, but rather a pretext for a political and economic power grab.

Like the myth of the stolen election, these claims are historically untenable. But the historical realities are less important to the myth than the narrative, rituals and symbols that developed in conjunction with the Lost Cause.

As Charles Reagan Wilson, a Southern historian, has shown, Lost Cause mythology was enacted through the rituals of Confederate civil religion: the funerals of Confederate soldiers, the celebration of Confederate Memorial Day, the pilgrimages made to the hundreds of Confederate monuments that had been erected by the dawn of World War I. The rituals and symbols instilled in the younger generation the nobility of the Confederacy and the moral vacancy of its enemies. Together, they supported a religious myth that for many Southerners supplanted the historical record. The men who died in battle became its martyrs. The generals became its patron saints.

The civil components of the Lost Cause were combined with Christian mythology. The South played the part of Christ in the Christian drama — crucified, yet unrisen. The saints in this Lost Cause theology were the heroes of the Confederacy — most notably Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. A scholar of Southern religion, Paul Harvey, put it this way: “Key to this mythology was the exalting of southern war heroes as Christian evangelical gentlemen. Evangelists of the New South era immortalized the Christian heroism of the Confederate leaders and soldiers and dovetailed them into revivals of the era.” No matter one’s denominational affiliation, it offered a story and a set of high holy days every white Southerner could celebrate.

The Lost Cause is an example of how collective memory works. Collective memory is not concerned with historical accuracy; its preoccupation with the past is based on a desire to mobilize a vision for the present and create a prospect for the future. Heather Cox Richardson argues persuasively in her recent book “How the South Won the Civil War” that even though the Union defeated the Confederacy on the battlefield, the South won the war by creating a Southern identity that led to the emergence and re-emergence of the Ku Klux Klan and the institution of Jim Crow laws, and then spread west to provide fuel for the Chinese Exclusion Act and acts of violence against Native Americans — all on the basis of resentment, myth and symbol, rather than facts or truth.

Make America Great Again is a politics of grievance complete with its own myths and symbols. Mr. Trump’s rallies have been the ritual locus of his brand of nationalism. They create a collective effervescence in attendees that leaves them seething at their political enemies and ready to follow the president down any authoritarian road he takes them. Moreover, Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry have shown that Mr. Trump’s religious support comes from Christian nationalists who believe the United States was built for and by white Christians.

Like the Lost Cause, MAGAism is buttressed by religious narratives and imagery, and its gospel is spread through houses of worship every Sunday. For some evangelicals, Mr. Trump is a divinely ordained savior uniquely able to save the nation from ruin at the hands of godless socialists, Black Lives Matter activists and antifa. So it’s no surprise that as insurrectionists stormed the Capitol, they waved a mix of Confederate, Christian and Trump flags.

MAGAism also has an eschatology based on conspiracy. As Marc-André Argentino, who studies QAnon, told me by email, for many Trump supporters, including growing numbers of white evangelicals, Jan. 6 figures as “the start of the long awaited period of tribulation that will announce the arrival of the promised golden age.” In other words, Jan. 6 is both a beginning point and a sign of the end, a rebirth for the dangerous delusions of extremists who see violence as an appropriate means for finishing what they started in order to usher in a new world.

The lasting legacy of the Jan. 6 insurrection is the myth and symbol of Mr. Trump’s lost cause. He has successfully nurtured a feeling in the 74 million Americans who voted for him that they can trust neither their government nor the electoral process. By encouraging them to question the validity of votes in some of the Blackest cities in the country, such as Detroit, and stoking anger that such constituencies would have the power to swing an election, he convinced them that the process is rigged, thus giving his supporters the moral high ground. This creates the foundation for a collective memory based on a separate national identity held together by the tragic stealing of his presidency and the evil of his opponents.

The Lost Cause provides a blueprint for winning the war, even though Mr. Trump has lost this election. After Mr. Biden’s inauguration, if prominent Republican figures encourage their followers to accept the results, but not defeat; if they pick up Mr. Trump’s leadership mantle by fostering resentment and the desire for revenge through their Twitter feeds; if they perpetually call into question the legitimacy of the U.S. government through an army of evangelical pastors less concerned with reality than with disseminating the myths and symbols of Make America Great Again as a vehicle for Christian nationalism, it’s not hard to see how they will become heirs of the Lost Cause. That should frighten us all.


The Myth of the Lost Cause: Revealing the Truth About the Civil War

The Lost Cause of the Confederacy, or simply the Lost Cause, is an ideological movement that describes the Confederate cause as a heroic one against great odds despite its defeat. Read a book excerpt:

The ideology endorses the supposed virtues of the antebellum South, viewing the American Civil War as an honorable struggle for the Southern way of life[1] while minimizing or denying the central role of slavery.

The Lost Cause ideology synthesized numerous ideas. Lost Cause supporters argued that slavery was not the main cause of the Civil War, and claimed that few scholars saw it as such before the 1950s.[2] In order to reach this conclusion, they ignored the declarations of secession by the seceding states, the declarations of congressmen who left Congress to join the Confederacy, and the treatment of slavery in the Confederate constitution.[3] They also denied or minimized the wartime writings and speeches of Confederate leaders in favor of postwar views.[4] (See Cornerstone Speech.) Supporters often stressed the idea of secession as a defense against a Northern threat to their way of life and said that the threat violated the states’ rights guaranteed by the Constitution. They believed any state had the right to secede, a point strongly denied by the North. The Lost Cause portrayed the South as more adherent to Christian values than the allegedly greedy North. It portrayed slavery as more benevolent than cruel, alleging that it taught Christianity and “civilization”. Stories of “happy slaves” were often used as propaganda in an effort to defend slavery. These stories would be used to explain slavery to Northerners. Many times they also portrayed slave owners being kind to their slaves. In explaining Confederate defeat, the Lost Cause said that the main factor was not qualitative inferiority in leadership or fighting ability but the massive quantitative superiority of the Yankee industrial machine.[5] At the peak of troop strength in 1863, Union soldiers outnumbered Confederate soldiers by over two to one, and financially the Union had three times the bank deposits of the Confederacy.[6]

Critics of the ideology have stated that white supremacy is a key characteristic of the Lost Cause narrative.[7] Supporters typically portray the Confederacy’s cause as noble and its leadership as exemplars of old-fashioned chivalry and honor, defeated by the Union armies through numerical and industrial force that overwhelmed the South’s superior military skill and courage. Proponents of the Lost Cause movement also condemned the Reconstruction that followed the Civil War, claiming that it had been a deliberate attempt by Northern politicians and speculators to destroy the traditional Southern way of life. In recent decades Lost Cause themes have been widely promoted by the Neo-Confederate movement in books and op-eds, and especially in one of the movement’s magazines, the Southern Partisan. The Lost Cause theme has been a major element in defining gender roles in the white South, in terms of honor, tradition, and family roles.[8] The Lost Cause has inspired many prominent Southern memorials and even religious attitudes.

How Southern socialites rewrote Civil War history

The United Daughters of the Confederacy was a significant leader of the “Lost Cause,” an intellectual movement that revised history to look more favorably on the South after the American Civil War. They were women from elite antebellum families that used their social and political clout to fundraise and pressure local governments to erect monuments that memorialized Confederate heroes. They also formed textbook review committees that monitored what Southern schoolchildren learned about the war. Their influential work with children created a lasting memory of the Confederate cause, and those generations grew up to be the segregationists of the Jim Crow Era in the South.

The Myth of the Kindly General Lee

The legend of the Confederate leader’s heroism and decency is based in the fiction of a person who never existed.

The strangest part about the continued personality cult of Robert E. Lee is how few of the qualities his admirers profess to see in him he actually possessed.

.. The myth of Lee goes something like this: He was a brilliant strategist and devoted Christian man who abhorred slavery and labored tirelessly after the war to bring the country back together.

There is little truth in this. Lee was a devout Christian, and historians regard him as an accomplished tactician. But despite his ability to win individual battles, his decision to fight a conventional war against the more densely populated and industrialized North is considered by many historians to have been a fatal strategic error.
 But even if one conceded Lee’s military prowess, he would still be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans in defense of the South’s authority to own millions of human beings as property because they are black.
.. Then there are those whose reverence for Lee relies on replacing the actual Lee with a mythical figure who never truly existed.
..  Jack Kerwick concluded that Lee was “among the finest human beings that has ever walked the Earth.” John Daniel Davidson, in an essay for The Federalistopposed the removal of the Lee statute in part on the grounds that Lee “arguably did more than anyone to unite the country after the war and bind up its wounds.”
.. In the letter, he describes slavery as “a moral & political evil,” but goes on to explain that:

I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild & melting influence of Christianity, than the storms & tempests of fiery Controversy.

.. emancipation must wait for divine intervention.  That black people might not want to be slaves does not enter into the equation; their opinion on the subject of their own bondage is not even an afterthought to Lee.

.. “Lee ruptured the Washington and Custis tradition of respecting slave families,” by hiring them off to other plantations, and that “by 1860 he had broken up every family but one on the estate, some of whom had been together since Mount Vernon days.” The separation of slave families was one of the most unfathomably devastating aspects of slavery, and Pryor wrote that Lee’s slaves regarded him as “the worst man I ever see.”

.. “in their eyes, the work of emancipation was incomplete until the families which had been dispersed by slavery were reunited.”

.. Lee’s heavy hand on the Arlington plantation, Pryor writes, nearly led to a slave revolt, in part because the enslaved had been expected to be freed upon their previous master’s death, and Lee had engaged in a dubious legal interpretation of his will in order to keep them as his property

.. When two of his slaves escaped and were recaptured, Lee either beat them himself or ordered the overseer to “lay it on well.” Wesley Norris, one of the slaves who was whipped, recalled that “not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done.”

Every state that seceded mentioned slavery as the cause in their declarations of secession. Lee’s beloved Virginia was no different, accusing the federal government of “perverting” its powers “not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern Slaveholding States.” Lee’s decision to fight for the South can only be described as a choice to fight for the continued existence of human bondage in America—even though for the Union, it was not at first a war for emancipation.

.. During his invasion of Pennsylvania, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia enslaved free blacks and brought them back to the South as property. Pryor writes that “evidence links virtually every infantry and cavalry unit in Lee’s army” with the abduction of free black Americans, “with the activity under the supervision of senior officers.”

.. Soldiers under Lee’s command at the Battle of the Crater in 1864 massacred black Union soldiers who tried to surrender.

.. The presence of black soldiers on the field of battle shattered every myth the South’s slave empire was built on: the happy docility of slaves, their intellectual inferiority, their cowardice, their inability to compete with whites. As Pryor writes, “fighting against brave and competent African Americans challenged every underlying tenet of southern society.” The Confederate response to this challenge was to visit every possible atrocity and cruelty upon black soldiers whenever possible, from enslavement to execution.

.. Nor did Lee’s defeat lead to an embrace of racial egalitarianism. The war was not about slavery, Lee insisted later, but if it was about slavery, it was only out of Christian devotion that white southerners fought to keep blacks enslaved.

.. that unless some humane course is adopted, based on wisdom and Christian principles you do a gross wrong and injustice to the whole negro race in setting them free.

.. Lee had beaten or ordered his own slaves to be beaten for the crime of wanting to be free, he fought for the preservation of slavery, his army kidnapped free blacks at gunpoint and made them unfree—but all of this, he insisted, had occurred only because of the great Christian love the South held for blacks. Here we truly understand Frederick Douglass’s admonition that “between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference.”

..Lee told Congress that blacks lacked the intellectual capacity of whites and “could not vote intelligently,”
..To the extent that Lee believed in reconciliation, it was between white people, and only on the precondition that black people would be denied political power and therefore the ability to shape their own fate.
.. his life as president of Washington College (later Washington and Lee) is tainted as well. According to Pryor, students at Washington formed their own chapter of the KKK, and were known by the local Freedmen’s Bureau to attempt to abduct and rape black schoolgirls from the nearby black schools.
.. There were at least two attempted lynchings by Washington students during Lee’s tenure, and Pryor writes that “the number of accusations against Washington College boys indicates that he either punished the racial harassment more laxly than other misdemeanors, or turned a blind eye to it,” adding that he “did not exercise the near imperial control he had at the school, as he did for more trivial matters, such as when the boys threatened to take unofficial Christmas holidays.” In short, Lee was as indifferent to crimes of violence toward blacks carried out by his students as he was when they were carried out by his soldiers.
.. The Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1866; there is no evidence Lee ever spoke up against it.
.. The most fitting monument to Lee is the national military cemetery the federal government placed on the grounds of his former home in Arlington.
.. There are former Confederates who sought to redeem themselves—one thinks of James Longstreet, wrongly blamed by Lost Causers for Lee’s disastrous defeat at Gettysburg, who went from fighting the Union army to leading New Orleans’s integrated police force in battle against white supremacist paramilitaries.
.. But there are no statues of Longstreet in New Orleans.
.. Lee was devoted to defending the principle of white supremacy; Longstreet was not. This, perhaps, is why Lee was placed atop the largest Confederate monument at Gettysburg in 1917,  but the 6-foot-2-inch Longstreet had to wait until 1998 to receive a smaller-scale statue hidden in the woods that makes him look like a hobbit riding a donkey. It’s why Lee is remembered as a hero, and Longstreet is remembered as a disgrace.
.. The white supremacists who have protested on Lee’s behalf are not betraying his legacy. In fact, they have every reason to admire him. Lee, whose devotion to white supremacy outshone his loyalty to his country, is the embodiment of everything they stand for. Tribe and race over country is the core of white nationalism, and racists can embrace Lee in good conscience.

The question is why anyone else would.