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The Lost Cause

The Lost Cause is an interpretation of the American Civil War (1861–1865) that seeks to present the war, from the perspective of Confederates, in the best possible terms. Developed by white Southerners, many of them former Confederate generals, in a postwar climate of economic, racial, and gender uncertainty, the Lost Cause created and romanticized the "Old South" and the Confederate war effort, often distorting history in the process. For this reason, many historians have labeled the Lost Cause a myth or a legend. It is certainly an important example of public memory, one in which nostalgia for the Confederate past is accompanied by a collective forgetting of the horrors of slavery. Providing a sense of relief to white Southerners who feared being dishonored by defeat, the Lost Cause was largely accepted in the years following the war by white Americans who found it to be a useful tool in reconciling North and South. The Lost Cause has lost much of its academic support but continues to be an important part of how the Civil War is commemorated in the South and remembered in American popular culture. MORE...

 

Six Tenets

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

  • Secession, not slavery, caused the Civil War.
  • African Americans were "faithful slaves," loyal to their masters and the Confederate cause and unprepared for the responsibilities of freedom.
  • The Confederacy was defeated militarily only because of the Union's overwhelming advantages in men and resources.
  • Confederate soldiers were heroic and saintly.
  • The most heroic and saintly of all Confederates, perhaps of all Americans, was Robert E. Lee.
  • 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 (1865–1877). 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 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 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."

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. Claiming to be wives, mothers, and daughters in mourning, Southern white women of the Ladies' Memorial Associations (LMAs) 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 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 held 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 Jubal A. Early. Although the SHS mailed six thousand circulars across the South, during 1869 the society gained little support outside of New Orleans, Louisiana. After several months, fewer than a hundred members had joined, and by early in 1870 only forty-four members had contributed dues. Despite the struggle to attain membership, 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, and most important, the death of Robert E. Lee on October 12, 1870, ignited an outpouring of Confederate sentiment among many of the state's elite men. Two competing men's organizations formed to eulogize Lee: the Lee Memorial Association of Lexington and the Lee Monument Association initiated by Jubal Early and based in Richmond. Early likewise started an organization for veterans, the Association of the Army of Northern Virginia (AANVA).

After a period of depressed interest, the 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 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 LMAs to unite in one body called the Confederated Southern Memorial Association (CSMA). In keeping with the objectives of LMAs since the 1860s, the 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" the South's 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.

By the turn of the century, the Confederate Veteran served as the mouthpiece of the Lost Cause. Established in 1893 by Sumner Archibald Cunningham, it proved to be an early 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, and obituaries of veterans and devoted extensive space to the various Confederate organizations. By the end of the 1890s, circulation peaked at more than 20,000. The magazine remained a staple of the Lost Cause until it was discontinued in 1932.

Mainstreaming of the Lost Cause

This view of the Civil War and 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 former slave and 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 protests, 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 and mending these wounds 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 reconciled 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 and 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) planned 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," and, 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 only 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. Still, the Lost Cause's project of reconciliation largely has been successful. The scholar Stephen Cushman has argued that "a country in which there are two million copies of Killer Angels in print"—referring to the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel (1974) that was later turned into the feature film Gettysburg (1993)—" … is a country that feels stable enough to entertain itself … with a story of a battle that involved over fifty thousand killed, wounded, and missing people."

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." African American leaders have also spoken powerfully about what the absence of that "history" has meant in their fight against white supremacy. Still, in his 1981 essay collection, Reflections on the Civil War, the historian Bruce Catton provocatively suggested that, in the end, "the legend of the lost cause has served the entire country very well."

The things that were done during the Civil War have not been forgotten, of course, but we now see them through a veil. We have elevated the entire conflict to the realm where it is no longer explosive. It is a part of American legend, a part of American history, a part, if you will, of American romance. It moves men mightily, to this day, but it does not move them in the direction of picking up their guns and going at it again. We have had national peace since the war ended, and we will always have it, and I think the way Lee and his soldiers conducted themselves in the hours of surrender has a great deal to do with it.

Worthwhile or not, the Lost Cause remains an important 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 as of 2009.

Time Line

  • April 10, 1865 - Confederate general Robert E. Lee's General Orders No. 9, his farewell address to the Army of Northern Virginia, praises his troops' "unsurpassed courage and fortitude." He also tells them they had been "compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources." Both arguments become fixtures of the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War.
  • 1866 - Edward A. Pollard, an editor of the Richmond Examiner during the Civil War, coins the phrase "Lost Cause" when he publishes The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates.
  • 1867 - One of the first Lost Cause periodicals, a new weekly Richmond newspaper called Southern Opinion, begins publication. Edited by H. Rives Pollard, its purpose is to foster a distinctive Southern culture.
  • April 1869 - The Southern Historical Society is formed in New Orleans, Louisiana, with a powerful base of support in Virginia. The society initially finds little support or money. By early in 1870, only forty-four members will contribute dues.
  • October 12, 1870 - Robert E. Lee dies of a probable stroke at Lexington.
  • 1876 - The Southern Historical Society begins publication of the Southern Historical Society Papers in which the SHS defends nearly every aspect of Confederate action during the Civil War, addressing topics such as secession, battlefield performance, and the treatment of prisoners of war.
  • April 1883 - The Lee Camp of Confederate Veterans establishes an independent, grassroots association at Richmond. Other camps organize throughout the state, including the Matthew F. Maury Camp in Fredericksburg (1883) and the A. P. Hill Camp in Petersburg (ca. 1887).
  • June 1889 - The United Confederate Veterans are formed in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Richmond-based Lee Camp of Confederate Veterans will join the group in 1890.
  • 1893 - The Confederate Veteran, a magazine that serves as a Lost Cause mouthpiece, is established by Sumner Archibald Cunningham. In 1894, it will become the official organ of the United Confederate Veterans until ceasing publication in 1932.
  • 1894 - The United Daughters of the Confederacy forms.
  • 1900 - The Southern Memorial Association of Fayetteville, Arkansas, issues a call for all Ladies' Memorial Associations to unite in one body called the Confederated Southern Memorial Association (CSMA).
Further Reading
Blight, David W. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2001.
Connelly, Thomas L. The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977.
Cox, Karen L. Dixie's Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003.
Foster, Gaines M. Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Gallagher, Gary W. Lee and His Generals in War and Memory. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998.
Gallagher, Gary W. and Alan T. Nolan, eds. The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.
Janney, Caroline E. Burying the Dead but Not the Past: Ladies' Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Janney, C. E. The Lost Cause. (2014, June 24). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Lost_Cause_The.

  • MLA Citation:

    Janney, Caroline E. "The Lost Cause." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 24 Jun. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: July 9, 2009 | Last modified: June 24, 2014


Contributed by Caroline E. Janney, an assistant professor of history at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.