What was the ‘Lost Cause’ of the American Confederacy?

Statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee
Statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee

As some US monuments and flags come down across America, we hear a lot about the Lost Cause of the Southern Confederacy.  But what exactly was it?  Today, we can see historical threads of it in the defense of displaying the Confederate Battle Flag, the so called “Stars and Bars,” as well as opposing the removal of statues of Confederate generals throughout the South.  The Lost Cause was a post-U.S. Civil War Southern movement meant both to redefine the South’s reasons for Secession, as well as reconcile their untimely defeat.  It said the Confederacy was forced to surrender to the Union, not due to any lack of will, skill or right, but simply because they were outnumbered in the end.

The Lost Cause spoke of  the ‘chivalrous’ Confederate leaders and ‘noble’ soldiers in grey, defending state’s rights and the very Southern way of life, against the cruel industrial North – much like the Founding Fathers did against the British during the American Revolution. They claimed the plantation economy and the inherent necessity for black slavery factored little into their reasoning.  This is at odds with history, since when the 11 Southern states seceded in 1861, they were very clear about why.

In each Confederate state’s declaration of secession, they explicitly stated the need to deny abolition and preserve slavery. 

The Lost Cause argued they fought solely for state’s sovereignty, rights, and independence.  They were fighting to hold back the industrialization of the North, and preserve their Southern agrarian economy.  So as you can imagine, the Lost Cause also became a fight over who wrote the Confederate history. The true causes of the American Civil War, has been contested for decades ever since … even to this day.

Although Confederate General Robert E Lee accepted full responsibility for his defeats, Southern leaders refused to blame him. When General Lee died 5 years after the war, a Lee Legend was created. It promoted him as a Christian soldier who fought to preserve the Confederate States of America, rather than slavery.  The Lost Cause even gave Lee a scapegoat: former General James Longstreet. According to this new narrative, Lee lost the Battle of Gettysburg because Longstreet had betrayed him during the conflict.

Northern leaders argued the Confederate generals were all traitors to America. Robert E Lee, a West Point graduate, betrayed his oath to “defend the Constitution of the United States.”  Southern leaders countered that during the Revolution, the British considered Washington and Jefferson traitors as well.  So from this new, reimagined point of view, seceding from the US was staying true to the Founding Fathers’ vision of liberty.

This linkage to the Founders was an essential part of the Lost Cause new narrative. Confederate President Jefferson Davis proclaimed that the Confederacy had ‘perpetuated the principles of our Revolutionary forefathers.’  The Founders had left slavery intact in the Declaration of Independence, so he said it was Abraham Lincoln’s Party that had in fact betrayed the US Constitution!

Lee, Jefferson Davis and General Stonewall Jackson became knight-like heroes in the decades after the war.

Just look at the Stone Mountain, Georgia carving for one very large example.  They were contrasted with the ‘low moral standards’ of Union generals like Grant and Sheridan who had engaged in vicious campaigns against Southern cities.  Ulysses S Grant, now President, weighed in and rejected the Lost Cause argument.

The term Lost Cause first appeared in articles written by Lt. General Jubal Early in the 1870’s for the Southern Historical Society.  The Lost Cause ideal was then taken up in the 1890’s by groups like the Sons of Conferate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy.  It helped Southern leaders rationalize their defeat and cope with forced Reconstruction. And with the slaves now freed – it defended a repressive political and economic system against negroes, known as Jim Crow.  Decades after the war, statues of Confederate Generals (and slave owners) conspicuously began appearing in town squares across the South, sending a clear message to blacks.

When evil of slavery was brought up to Southern leaders, they pointed out that Washington and Jefferson were ‘benevolent slave owners’ and they were two of America’s greatest Founding Fathers.   However, in setting apart some people as “good” slavemasters and others as a few “bad apple” slavemasters, they conveniently leave out the inherent evil of owning another human being.

Following Reconstruction, came decades of Southern systemic racism known as Jim Crow.

What exactly was it?   Jim Crow was a series of state and local laws in the South that basically legalized racial discrimination.  Jim Crow was never a real person, but rather a comic, black minstrel show character.  These laws marginalized freed slaves and their descendants by denying them jobs, loans, land, education, medical care and the right to vote. Those blacks who dared defy Jim Crow were terrorized, jailed, and all too often lynched from the nearest tree, even if that tree was outside their own church.

By the 1890’s, the Lost Cause had evolved into a racial justification for white supremacy. Southern leaders defended slavery as a ‘gentile institution’ that benefitted the slaves, who’d been well cared for by their ‘compassionate masters.’  They claimed emancipated blacks, on the other hand, were incapable of handling their own freedom, leading to negative black stereotypes that still persist over a century later.

As the South replaced Reconstruction policies with Jim Crow laws, the narrative stopped being about loss of the war, but rather a victory over reform.  They’d defeated the North’s Reconstruction, and along with it – black rights.  Southern leaders made sure Southern textbooks portrayed the Confederacy’s goal as righteous and noble. It worked so well, the strategy influences US education to this very day in many Southern school districts.

By the turn of the century, most Americans wanted to put the past behind them. For white northerners, this meant abandoning the federal enforcement of freed blacks’ rights — ceding politics back to white, southern leaders, who then erected Jim Crow laws.  Many white Americans felt it necessary to leave the Civil War to history and reunify the nation — even if it meant leaving systemic racism intact and the rights of African Americans forgotten.  

So a reunified, segregated nation, that failed to address the legacy of slavery, was only justifiable if the War Between the States (in which of thousands of brothers had killed brothers), had not been about slavery in the first place.   So successful was this rewriting of history that we still experience its ripple effects, over a century later, in today’s defense of Confederate statues and the Stars and Bars Battle Flag.

In the 20th century, the Lost Cause was helped by Gone with the Wind, the famous 1939 novel and film.

Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson on Stone Mountain, GA
Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson on Stone Mountain, GA

Southerners were portrayed as noble heroes, in a highly civilized society, who tragically succumbed to the destructive forces of the Union. Another Lost Cause use was in D.W. Griffith’s controversial movie Birth of a Nation in 1915.  In it, the Confederacy is seen as defending Southern culture against the exploitation of Yankee Reconstruction. The new Ku Klux Klan fraternity is a shown a part of the noble traditions of the South; rather than the violent, white supremacist hate group that it was and is.

‘Separate but Equal’ became the new mantra in the early1900’s.  Segregation could be found in schools, housing, churches, hospitals, hotels, sports, even the military.  The problem was, segregation was anything but equal.  It marginalized and discriminated against family after family of African Americans for decades.  These various state laws existed for almost 100 years, all the way up to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement.  Only the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and subsequent ones, put them largely to an end.

So in this reimagining of history, Southern leaders, with slavery blinders firmly in place, could justifiably celebrate the service of former Confederate generals and white Southern soldiers with large monuments.  100 years later, the true reason for them has been blurred into protecting Southern heritage.  This is why those who wish to take down those statues today have had such a hard time.  Opponents to their removal argue that opponents of the statues are trying to rewrite history … but you see it already has been done, over a century earlier, in the Lost Cause.

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LOST IN HISTORY Blog/Podcast about key forgotten history still relevant in today's world. Paul Andrews also has 5 historical adventure novels, all available on Amazon.

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