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.
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.
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.
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.
Origins of the Lost Cause
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 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
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.
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
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
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 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.
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 - Ladies' Memorial Associations form throughout Virginia and the former Confederacy to provide "proper" burials and Memorial Day services for the Confederate dead.
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.
January 26, 1870 - An act of Congress ends Reconstruction in Virginia, readmitting Virginia into the United States of America and restoring civilian rule.
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).
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Janney, C. E. The Lost Cause. (2015, June 26). 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, 26 Jun. 2015. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: July 9, 2009 | Last modified: June 26, 2015
Contributed by Caroline E. Janney, an assistant professor of history at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.