Civil War Lost Cause Essay Introduction

The Lost Cause1

The LostCause is the name commonly given to a literary and intellectual movement that sought to reconcile the traditional Southern white society to the defeat of the Confederate States of America in the Civil War. White Southerners sought consolation in attributing their loss to factors beyond their control and to betrayals of their heroes and cause.  Those who contributed to the movement tended to portray the Confederacy's cause as noble and most of the Confederacy's leaders as exemplars of old-fashioned chivalry, defeated by the Union armies not through superior military skill, but by overwhelming force. They also tended to condemn Reconstruction.

The term Lost Cause first appeared in the title of an 1866 book by the historian Edward A. Pollard, The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates. However, it was the articles written for the Southern Historical Society by Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early in the 1870s that established the Lost Cause as a long-lasting literary and cultural phenomenon.

Early's original inspiration for his views may have come from General Robert E. Lee.  In his farewell order to the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee spoke of the "overwhelming resources and numbers" that the Confederate army fought against.

The Lost Cause theme was taken up by memorial associations such as the United Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The Lost Cause helped Southerners to cope with the social, political, and economic changes after the Civil War especially in the oppressive Reconstruction era.

Some of the main tenets of the Lost Cause movement were that:

  • Confederate generals such as Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson represented the virtues of Southern nobility. This nobility was contrast most significantly in comparisons between U.S. Grant and Lee. The Northern generals, were characterized as men with low moral standards who engaged in vicious campaigns against Southern civilians such as Sherman's March to the Sea and Philip Sheridan's burning of the Shenandoah Valley in the Valley Campaigns of 1864.
  • Losses on the battlefield were inevitable and were blamed on Northern superiority in resources and manpower.
  • Losses were also the result of betrayal and incompetence on the part of certain subordinates of General Lee, such as General James Longstreet.  Longstreet was the object of blame because of his association with Grant, conversion to the Republican Party, and other actions during Reconstruction.
  • While states' rights was not emphasized in the declarations of secession, the Lost Cause focused on the defense of states' rights, rather than preservation of slavery as the primary cause that led eleven Southern states to secede.
  • Secession was seen as a justifiable constitutional response to Northern cultural and economic aggressions against the Southern way of life.
  • Slavery was fictionally presented as a benign institution, and the slaves were treated well and cared for and loyal and faithful to their benevolent masters.

The most powerful images and symbols of the Lost Cause were Robert E. Lee and Pickett's Charge. Following the war Lee acquired a god-like persona. He was deified as a leader whose soldiers would loyally follow him into every fight no matter how desperate. Thus he became the figure head of the Lost Cause.  He was cast as the ideal of the antebellum Southern gentleman, an honorable and pious man who selflessly served Virginia and the Confederacy. Lee's military brilliance at Second Bull Run and Chancellorsville took on legendary status. In a position of such honor, Lee was not subject to criticism by veterans and historians.

Although Lee accepted responsibility for the defeat at Gettysburg, Southerners refused to blame him. Seeking a scapegoat for the pivotal defeat,  Jubal Early blamed Lt. Gen. James Longstreet. Early's accused Longstreet of failing to attack early in the morning of July 2, 1863, as instructed by Lee.  Lee never expressed dissatisfaction with the second-day actions of his "Old War Horse."

Grant rejected the Lost Cause argument that the South had simply been overwhelmed by numbers. Grant argued, “This is the way public opinion was made during the war and this is the way history is made now. We never overwhelmed the South ... What we won from the South we won by hard fighting.”

In the annotated bibliography of Douglas Southall Freeman's definitive four-volume biography of Lee, published in 1934, Freeman acknowledged his debt to the Southern Historical Society Papers and Early by stating that they contain "more valuable, unused data than any other unofficial repository of source material on the War Between the States."  Lee's subordinates were primarily to blame for errors that lost battles. While Longstreet was the most common target of such attacks, others were criticized as well. Richard Ewell, Jubal Early, J.E.B. Stuart, A.P. Hill, George Pickett, and many others were frequently attacked and blamed by Southerners in an attempt to deflect criticism from Lee. While others refused to blame, Lee, in keeping with his nobility, accepted total responsibility for his defeats and never blamed any of his subordinates.

The Lost Cause view of the Civil War also influenced the 1936 novel Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell and the 1939 film of the same name. There Southerners were portrayed as noble, heroic figures, living in a romantic and conservative society, who tragically succumbed to an unstoppable, destructive force. Another prominent use of the Lost Cause perspective was in Thomas F. Dixon, Jr.'s 1905 book The Clansman, later adapted to the screen by D.W. Griffith in his controversial movie Birth of a Nation in 1915.  In both the book and the movie, the Ku Klux Klan is portrayed as continuing the noble traditions of the South and the CSA soldier by defending Southern culture in general and Southern womanhood in particular against alleged depredations and exploitation at the hands of the Freedmen and Yankee carpetbaggers during Reconstruction.

Today, historians are reviewing and reinterpreting both Lee and other aspects of the Lost Cause. 

References


1Much of the material comes from Lost Cause of the Confederacy. We have added some editorial comments to this material.


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Revised 02/09/2018

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

1. Secession, not slavery, .

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.

Lost Cause proponents have stressed the primacy of states' rights and the constitutionality of secession, and have cited the secession crisis—along with political squabbles such as tariff disputes and broad claims about the evolution of different societies in the North and South—as the cause of the war instead of slavery. At the same time, Northern abolitionists have been portrayed as provocateurs and slavery as justified in part as an institution that eventually would have died of its own accord. The historian Alan T. Nolan has called this reading of history "outrageous and disingenuous," suggesting that it was the dispute over slavery that actually caused the secession crisis. Nolan and other historians have further noted that many Southern politicians viewed slavery to be, in the words of Confederate vice president Alexander H. Stephens, the "foundation" and "cornerstone" of the Confederacy.

Slavery, meanwhile, is sentimentalized in the context of the Lost Cause. Following the war, white Southerners told stories of the happy slave, the "Mammy" or "Uncle Tom" who appeared as part of the family. "Generally speaking, the negroes proved a harmless and affectionate race, easily governed, and happy in their condition," according to the 1908 edition of the textbook History of Virginia by Mary Tucker Magill. The 1964 edition of Virginia: History, Government, Geography by Francis Butler Simkins, Spotswood Hunnicutt Jones, and Sidman P. Poole was not much different. "A feeling of strong affection existed between masters and slaves in a majority of Virginia homes," the authors wrote. Such statements are not supported by modern scholarship, which suggests that many slaves were desperate to escape their often harsh conditions both before and during the war, when they became refugees. In fact, escaped slaves helped to precipitate national political crises such as the one surrounding the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

The image of African Americans who had been happy under slavery but were overwhelmed by the responsibilities of freedom became widespread and could be found in the fiction of Thomas Nelson Page and Margaret Mitchell, whose novel Gone with the Wind won the Pulitzer Prize in 1937. The image also proved particularly useful to white supremacists. In the 1880s and 1890s, white Southerners, decrying "Yankee aggression" and black "betrayal," embarked on an effort to reverse the policies of Reconstruction. They sought to remove black office holders, disenfranchise African American men, forestall black economic advancement, and institute state-sanctioned segregation.

Advocates of the Lost Cause further argue that Confederates were not defeated on the battlefield; rather, they were overwhelmed by massive Union resources and manpower. Under this presumption, the South was destined to lose from the beginning, hence "Lost Cause." Robert E. Lee said as much in General Orders No. 9, his famous farewell address to the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House on April 10, 1865, when he insisted that the army had been "compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources." While this is "a comforting conclusion and it is not without a substantial basis of fact," according to the historian Bell Irvin Wiley, it also understates the Union's military accomplishment, which involved actively subduing a vast and populous country. It also understates the Confederacy's wartime industrial capacity and its ability to field and supply large armies. Under the direction of its chief of ordnance, Josiah Gorgas, the Confederacy was self-sufficient in military hardware by 1863. In addition, the flip side of this argument, that Union generals were mere butchers, is grossly exaggerated. Casualty rates at were comparable to those during Pickett's Charge.

The Lost Cause further extols the gallantry of Confederate soldiers and insists that they had not forfeited their honor in losing to a vastly superior foe. The idealized "Johnny Reb" was heroic, unfaltering, and law-abiding. This, too, came in part from Lee's General Orders No. 9, in which he lauded the loyalty, valor, and "unsurpassed courage and fortitude" of "the brave survivors of so many hard-fought battles." While few dispute that most Confederate soldiers fought bravely, painting with a broad brush obscures a more complicated historical reality. Desertion rates were particularly high among both sides during the Civil War—totaling between 10 and 15 percent of Confederate soldiers—and in June 1862, Confederate general James Longstreet estimated that of the 32,000 Virginia soldiers under his command, fully 7,000 were absent without leave. More soldiers were executed for lawlessness—North and South—than in all other American wars combined.

The Lost Cause characterizes almost all Confederate military leaders as saintly, but Lee ranks first among heroes. Appearing almost Christ-like in subsequent Southern iconography, he found near-instant admiration among many Northern Democratic Party members following the surrender at Appomattox. Only four days after Lee accepted Ulysses S. Grant's terms, the New York Herald admitted that Lee was "generally well spoken of" in the North. His status in the South, meanwhile, only increased after his death in 1870, especially through the efforts of former Confederate general Jubal A. Early and the publication of the Southern Historical Society Papers. Early in the twentieth century, Douglas Southall Freeman, his sympathetic, Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer, further enhanced this image.

In addition to Lee, Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson was also presented as a saintly and nearly flawless general immediately after his death following the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863. Lost Cause authors such as John Esten Cooke and Robert Lewis Dabney emphasized Jackson's deep religiosity and eccentric behavior. James Longstreet, however, long remained the exception, dogged by questions about his performance at the Battle of Gettysburg (1863), and vilified because of his postwar affiliation with the Republican Party. Revisionist biographies of Lee, such as Alan Nolan's Lee Considered (1991), and of Longstreet, such as William Garrett Piston's Lee's Tarnished Lieutenant (1987), have challenged the idea that either general was a simple hero or villain.

Finally, according to the Lost Cause, Confederate women remained loyal and devoted supporters of the war effort. More so than their Northern counterparts, they willingly sacrificed their husbands, fathers, sons, and neighbors while simultaneously giving their time and resources for the cause. This tenet also implies that Confederates remained unified throughout the conflict. This was largely true, especially among wealthy white Southern women. In recent years scholars have argued that most working-class and poor white women did not support the Confederacy or withdrew their support during the war. On several occasions poor white women did engage in violent displays of retaliation for their perceived economic injustices—such as the Richmond Bread Riot in 1863—however, according to the historian Jacqueline Glass Campbell these women did not consider themselves disloyal to the Confederate government. The historian William Blair has shown, throughout the state of Virginia, "it was possible to be discouraged by one's government, and mad at the rich, while still pulling for the Confederacy."

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