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.
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 and 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,” saying 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 was considered 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 enslaved people were desperate to escape their often harsh conditions both before and during the war. In fact, enslaved laborers who escaped 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 officeholders, disenfranchise African American men, forestall Black economic advancement, and institute state-sanctioned segregation, often under the threat of violence.
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 the “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 Cold Harbor 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 such a broad brush obscures a more complicated historical reality. Desertion rates were high among both sides during the Civil War and slightly higher for Confederate forces—totaling between 10 and 15 percent of Confederate soldiers. 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—both the North and South—were executed for lawlessnessthan during the Civil War 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 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 among Confederate generals, 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.”
Origins of the Lost Cause
The term “Lost Cause” is not a product of today’s historians; rather, it appears to have been coined by Edward A. Pollard, an influential wartime editor of the Richmond Examiner. In 1866 Pollard published The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates, a justification of the Confederate war effort, prompting the popular use of the term.
Even though the phrase “Lost Cause” would not emerge until one year after the war ended, the reverent mythologizing of the Confederate cause began immediately after the war. In 1865 and 1866, Confederate women transformed their wartime soldiers’ aid associations into organizations bent on memorializing their Lost Cause. Asserting their identiy as wives, mothers, and daughters in mourning, Southern white women of the Ladies’ Memorial Associations organized cemeteries for the more than 200,000 Confederate soldiers that remained in unidentified graves on the battlefields and established the annual tradition of Memorial Days—occasions on which thousands of ex-Confederates would gather publicly to eulogize their fallen soldiers and celebrate their failed cause. Relying on the mid-nineteenth-century assumption that women were naturally non-political, ex-Confederate men recognized that women might be best suited to take the lead in memorializing the Confederate cause.
In 1867, one of the first Lost Cause periodicals emerged, a new weekly Richmond newspaper called the Southern Opinion. Established only three months after the federal Reconstruction Act by the avowed secessionist H. Rives Pollard, brother of Edward A. Pollard and also a wartime editor of the Richmond Examiner, the paper’s expressed purpose was to foster a distinctive Southern culture. Echoing much of the Ladies’ Memorial Associations’ sentiment, he repeatedly encouraged former Confederates to “foster in the hearts of our children the memories of a century of political and mental triumphs” and preserve the heroism and endurance of their cause. By 1868, Pollard’s paper had become a mouthpiece for continued Confederate memorial efforts, especially by the Ladies’ Memorial Associations.
In the spring of 1869, a handful of former Confederate military leaders issued a call for a meeting to discuss the establishment of a Confederate historical society to shape how future generations would understand the war. Dabney H. Maury, Richard Taylor, Braxton Bragg, and several others formally organized the Southern Historical Society (SHS) late in April 1869. The men appointed Benjamin Morgan Palmer president and Dr. Joseph Jones secretary-treasurer and selected other prominent Confederates as vice presidents of each Southern state. Although the SHS had a regional scope, Virginia was a powerful base, as a substantial number of the members hailed from the state—including Maury, Governor John Letcher, General Fitzhugh Lee, General Thomas T. Munford, Reverend J. William Jones, and General Early. Although the SHS mailed 6,000 circulars across the South, it gained little support and by early 1870 only 44 members had contributed dues. Despite the struggle to obtain members, in 1876 it began to publish the Southern Historical Society Papers in which the SHS defended nearly every aspect of Confederate action, addressing topics such as secession, battlefield performance, and the treatment of prisoners of war.
From 1866 until 1872, Early was especially influential in establishing many of the arguments that have since become Lost Cause dogma. He presented a series of lectures and articles in the Southern Historical Society Papers that simultaneously defended his hero Lee from accusations that he had blundered at Gettysburg and attacked Longstreet, Lee’s chief lieutenant for much of the war. In addition to lionizing Lee and dismissing Longstreet, Early argued that the war was more important in Virginia than in other theaters.
Following Lee’s Death
In 1870 two pivotal events shaped the way the Lost Cause would evolve in the coming decades. First, after five years of military occupation, on January 26, 1870, the commonwealth of Virginia was readmitted to the United States of America and American troops were withdrawn from the state. Second, the death of Robert E. Lee on October 12, 1870, ignited an outpouring of Confederate sentiment among many of the state’s elite. Two competing men’s organizations formed to eulogize Lee: the Lee Memorial Association of Lexington and the Lee Monument Association, initiated by Early and based in Richmond. Early likewise started an organization for veterans, the Association of the Army of Northern Virginia.
After a period of depressed interest, veterans in Virginia and other Southern states began to organize their own associations. In April 1883, the Lee Camp of Confederate Veterans established an independent, grassroots association at Richmond. Other camps soon organized throughout the state, including the Matthew F. Maury Camp (Fredericksburg, 1883) and the A. P. Hill Camp (Petersburg, ca. 1887). Their goals were to perpetuate the memories of their fallen comrades and to care for those who were permanently disabled in the service.
In February 1889, a committee of veterans in New Orleans called for a meeting to establish a regional Confederate veterans’ association. That June, veterans from Louisiana, Tennessee, and Mississippi met in the Crescent City, where they adopted a constitution and chose a name, the United Confederate Veterans (UCV). The Lee Camp joined the UCV the following year; by 1892, 188 camps had joined; by 1896, 850 camps claimed membership.
The United Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) formed in a similar fashion. (According to the historian Gaines Foster, “horrified that people might confuse the abbreviation on their badge, USCV, with United States Colored Volunteers, in 1908 the Sons dropped United from their name.”) In 1900, the Southern Memorial Association of Fayetteville, Arkansas, issued a call for all memorial associations to unite in one body called the Confederated Southern Memorial Association. This association sought to collect relics and preserve the history of the Confederacy, instill in the minds of children “a proper veneration for the spirit and glory that animated” Confederate soldiers, and continue to direct Memorial Day services. The group would meet each year at an annual meeting that coincided with the United Confederate Veterans.
The Confederate Veteran, established in 1893 by Sumner Archibald Cunningham, was contributor to the success of the UCV, and by 1894 was an official organ of that group and its various allies, including the UDC. Aimed at a mass audience, the monthly magazine featured articles on the war, monument dedications, textbook campaigns, obituaries of veterans, and devoted extensive space to the various Confederate organizations. Circulation peaked at more than 20,000 in the late 1890s and it remained a staple of the Lost Cause until it was discontinued in 1932.
Mainstreaming of the Lost Cause
The extolment of the Lost Cause did not come without protest. Many Unionists, Northern veterans, and African Americans were bitterly opposed to glorifying the Confederacy and soft-pedaling slavery. Most famously, the formerly enslaved abolitionist Frederick Douglass denounced a reconciliation that seemed to exclude those who had been most wronged. “Rebel graves were decked with loyal flowers,” he said, “though no loyal grave is ever adorned by rebel hands. Loyal men are building homes for rebel soldiers, but where is the home for Union veterans, builded by rebel hands?” Despite these objections, what seemed to matter most was the public’s hunger for a heroic view of the war, one that would help mend the wounds left by an estimated 620,000 men killed.
Perhaps the most widely consumed and powerful cultural product that succeeded in satiating this hunger was D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation. Based on Thomas Dixon’s best-selling novels, The Leopard’s Spots (1902) and The Clansman (1905), The Birth of a Nation sought to reconcil the fractures of Civil War and Reconstruction along racial lines. In portraying the emancipated African American as a threat to democracy and white womanhood, The Birth of a Nation manufactured a healed and united nation by glorifying white supremacy and white supremacy’s greatest champion, the Ku Klux Klan.
When The Birth of a Nation was first released, it was met with an immediate controversial reception. Led by Oswald Garrison Villard, the editor of the New York Evening Post, and Moorfield Storey, president of the American Bar Association, the six-year-old National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) tried to stop the film from being shown by initiating a nationwide boycott. Despite some success—a mass demonstration in Boston and the temporary banning of the film in a few states and cities—the sometimes overlapping messages of The Birth of a Nation and the Lost Cause were absorbed, for the most part unquestioningly, into American culture.
Until the middle of the twentieth century, and even longer in Virginia, textbooks presented a picture of the Civil War and race relations that owed much to Gone with the Wind. Only during and after the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s did some textbooks begin to state that slavery was the war’s most important cause. The Confederate battle flag was adopted as a symbol of “heritage.” In a study of Lost Cause art,
the historian Gary W. Gallagher has shown how the battle flag began to proliferate in art depicting Civil War battles as it gained status as a retroactive political and social symbol. It was not until the latter part of the twentieth century that the national conversation began to catch up to the complications of this symbol, especially where race is concerned.
In Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War (1998), the journalist Tony Horwitz convincingly demonstrated the various ways in which the Civil War continues to be controversial, both socially and politically. Other historians such as Bruce Catton argue that the Lost Cause “
elevated the entire conflict to the realm where it is no longer explosive” (Reflections on the Civil War, 1981).
The academy, meanwhile, has mostly turned against the Lost Cause, working to deconstruct its myths and create a more inclusive history. “The victim of the Lost Cause legend has been history,” Alan Nolan has written, “for which the legend has been substituted in the national memory.”
Today, the Lost Cause remains a part of Southern and American culture. Both the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy, as well as at least two Ladies’ Memorial Associations in Virginia, remain active in the twenty-first century.