The Lost Cause

lost cause
The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War on the Confederates

~posted by Carl

The Confederacy and its long shadow has been in the news in 2015 following the Charleston church shootings and the subsequent removal of the Confederate battle flag from the state capitol building in Columbia, South Carolina. Is that flag a symbol of the honored heritage of valiant defenders of Southern soil, or one of the oppression of a people?

Locally, the Confederate flag is flying here, too, along I-5, as reported by The Seattle Times on June 23, 2015. Jefferson Davis Park near Vancouver, Washington, proudly flies it.

So, 150 years after the end of the war, what are the meanings of the symbols and the Confederacy? More generally, what is historical meaning and what is mythology?

Controversially, at the end of the Civil War, the rebel statesmen, such as the president and the vice president of the defeated Confederacy, began the process of rationalizing their defeat by redefining the reasons for both the war and the South’s loss.

At the beginning of the war, some of those same figures clearly stated that the reasons were the slave economy and racial determinants, as demonstrated in this statement issued by the Confederacy’s vice president, Alexander H. Stephens:

“Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”

Following the end of the war, these same statesmen moved to a theory called the “Lost Cause,” which is based on a reinterpretation of causes and reasons for defeat. Professor Caroline Janney of Purdue University explains:

“The Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War typically includes the following six assertions:

1. Secession, not slavery, caused the Civil War.
2. African Americans were “faithful slaves,” loyal to their masters and the Confederate cause and unprepared for the responsibilities of freedom.
3. The Confederacy was defeated militarily only because of the Union’s overwhelming advantages in men and resources.
4. Confederate soldiers were heroic and saintly.
5. The most heroic and saintly of all Confederates, perhaps of all Americans, was Robert E. Lee.
6. Southern women were loyal to the Confederate cause and sanctified by the sacrifice of their loved ones.

The historical consensus, however, presents a picture that is far more complicated, one in which some tenets of the Lost Cause are obviously false and some are at least partly true.”

The Seattle Public Library owns original editions of three of the foundational books of the Lost Cause.

In 1866, the year after the end of the war, the mythologizing spark was lit when Edward A. Pollard, editor of the Richmond Examiner during the Civil War, published The Lost Cause; A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates, launching the phrase and the concepts to the public.

In 1868, former Confederate vice president Stephens published a two-volume work on the same theme, A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States. Stephens’ tome was followed by an 1881 work by President Jefferson Davis, himself, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government.

These books, truly artifacts of a bygone age, are available to read in the History, Travel and Maps department of the Central Library on Level 9. Due to their age and rarity, they may not be borrowed.

At this writing, the battle of the Lost Cause is happening in Memphis, Tennessee, where a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest—a dynamic Confederate general but also a former slave trader and a founder of the Ku Klux Klan—has been the site of protests from both sides. How does someone with the background of General Forrest fit into the discussion of heritage versus oppression?

The clash between the meaning of heritage and the facts of history continues.


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