The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History | Book Review


After Charlottesville, I have spent a fair bit of time on Facebook arguing about the Confederacy, the Civil War, and statues of Confederate heroes such as Robert E. Lee. My position is that the Confederacy was incorrigibly racist, that it started the war to defend slavery, and that its “heroes” should not be given statues because they were traitors. I am a conservative Republican and evangelical Christian, so my opposition to Confederate statues comes from the Right, not the Left, which always seems to catch people off guard.

I mention this because I have been surpised by the defense of Confederate statues by my fellow conservatives and Christians. Not all of them, of course, but enough of them to disappoint me. Most of them defend these statues on slippery-slope grounds—e.g., if Lee today, then why not Washington and Jefferson tomorrow? They worry that taking down statues equates to erasing history. But as the conversation continues, someone else will join in with a rosy view of the Confederacy as a redoubt of state’s rights and small government in which slavery was an unfortunate but historically ancillary problem. (Talk about the erasure of history!)

Historians term this point of view the myth of Lost Cause. It is an interpretation of the war that arose in the immediate aftermath of the Confederacy’s defeat in order to explain away that defeat away while simultaneously justifying the antebellum South’s way of life. It is a tendentious way of reading history, one that downplays the central role of slavery in both secession and the Confederacy, and romanticizes the valor of the Southern warfighter, who fell victim to the superior manpower and materiel—though not martial skill—of Northern forces.

Unfortunately, writes Alan T. Nolan in his sketch of the Lost Cause interpretation, “The victim of the Lost Cause legend has been history, for which the legend has been substituted in the national memory.” The goal of this volume, as the editors put it, is “to build on previous literature by engaging various aspects of the white South’s response to defeat, efforts to create a suitable memory of the war, and uses of the Confederate past.”

Nine authors examine various topics. Alan T. Nolan describes the contours of the Lost Cause interpretation (Chapter One). Gary W. Gallagher highlights the crucial role of Jubal A. Early in promulgating the myth (Chapter Two), while Lesley J. Gordon does the same for LaSalle Corbell Pickett, the wife of Major General George Pickett of “Pickett’s Charge” fame (Chapter Eight).

Three authors examine how Lost Cause mythology was put to use in as many states: Charles J. Holden on South Carolina (Chapter Three), Keith S. Bohannon on Georgia (Chapter Four), and Peter S. Carmichael on Virginia (Chapter Five). Chapters Six by Jeffry D. Wert and Chapter Seven by Brooks D. Simpson examine how the Lost Cause interpreted the martial skill of James Longstreet and Ulysses S. Grant, leading Confederate and Union generals, respectively. Longstreet became the “Judas Iscariot” of the Confederacy, blamed for losing Gettysburg by Jubal A. Early, and reviled for working with Republicans during Reconstruction. Lost Cause historians gave (and give) Grant little credit as a leader for defeating Lee, attributing his success to his willingness to hammer Confederate forces into attrition by means of sheer numbers and mechanized weaponry. This allows Lost Cause historians to valorize—if not apotheosize—Confederate leaders like Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

Finally, Chapter Nine by Lloyd A. Hunger looks at “Lost Cause Religion,” namely, the entanglement of Protestant religion with the Confederate cause, so that the symbols of one became symbols of the other. As an evangelical Christian and a minister of the gospel, I read this chapter in particular as a warning to the present of the way that the gospel can be used and abused in support of self-interested ideology.

The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History is an excellent book, but it is probably not the best book to read if you are unfamiliar with Civil War history generally or Lost Cause mythology specifically. It assumes a lot of background knowledge, and its assortment of essays do not make for a unified look at the topic. Historian John Fea has put together a list of essential readings on the Lost Cause, and this book makes the list, however. For that reason, and because it was so informative, I nonetheless recommend it highly to anyone with a decent background knowledge of the issues.

 

Book Reviewed:
Gary W. Gallagher and Alan T. Nolan, The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2000).

P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review.

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