Origin and Tenets of the Lost Cause Myth

“The South was not only…conquered, it was utterly destroyed…More than half [of] the farm machinery was ruined, and…Southern wealth decreased by 60 percent,”

~James M. McPherson.

There are six main parts of the Lost Cause myth, the first and most important of which is that secession had little or nothing to do with the institution of slavery.  Southern states seceded to protect their rights, their homes, and to throw off the shackles of a tyrannical government. To the proponents of the Lost Cause, secession was constitutional, and the Confederacy was the natural heir to the American Revolution. Because secession was constitutional, those who fought for the Confederacy were not traitors. Northerners, specifically Northern abolitionists, caused the war with their fiery rhetoric and agitating, even though slavery was on its way to gradually dying a natural death. They also argued secession was a way to preserve the Southern agrarian way of life in the face of encroaching Northern industrialism.

Second, slavery was portrayed as a positive good; submissive, happy, and faithful slaves were better off in the system of chattel slavery which offered them protection. Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens declared in 1861 “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” After the war, these formerly enslaved people were now said to be unprepared for freedom, which was an argument against Reconstruction and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments of the Constitution.

The third tenet states that the Confederacy was only defeated because of the Northern states’ numerical advantage in both men and resources. The Confederate Army was less defeated than overwhelmed, as their lesser resources. Former Confederate officer Jubal A. Early justified the Southern defeat by stating that the North “finally outproduced that exhaustion of our army and resources, and that accumulation of numbers on the other side which wrought our final disaster.” Early went on to say that the South “had been gradually worn down by combined agencies of numbers, steam-power, railroads, mechanism.” The lack of southern manufacturing and the outnumbered population doomed it to failure from the start. Thus, the “Lost Cause.”

“If the soldiers, according to the Lost Cause tradition, fought like hell but with honor, then the Confederate generals were gods. The greatest star in the Confederate constellation, the Christlike Lee, was without fault, without sin, a wholly perfect deity the likes of which no one had seen, ever. If the soldiers fought with honor, led by saints, the women of the South remained devoted to the cause to the very end—and beyond.”

~Ty Seidule

Fourth, Confederate soldiers are portrayed as heroic, gallant, and saintly. Even after the surrender, they retained their honor. At one reunion oration, Confederate General Thomas R. R. Cobb, who was killed at the Battle of Fredericksburg, was compared to “Joshua in his courage,…St. Paul in the logic of his eloquence and St. Stephen in the triumph of his martyrdom.”

Fifth, Robert E. Lee emerged as the most sanctified figure in Lost Cause lore, especially after his death in 1870. Lee himself became a symbol for the Lost Cause, and a “Cult of Lee” revered the Virginian as the ultimate Christian soldier who took up arms for his state. He was even called the second Washington. Lee was the most successful of all Confederate Army commanders, and after the war, Jubal Early and many former Southern officers placed Lee upon a pedestal. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson became a martyr, wounded by his men while defending the Lost Cause. Even the office building where Jackson died bore the name “The Stonewall Jackson Shrine” for decades. On the other hand, James Longstreet became a villain to Lee and Jackson’s heroes, blamed for the loss at Gettysburg and vilified for his newfound Republican affiliation and the temerity to question Lee’s wartime decisions. Even former Confederate President Jefferson Davis became a reverential figure, seen as the personification of states’ rights.

Finally, Southern women also steadfastly supported the cause, sacrificing their men, time, and resources more than their Northern counterparts. The idealized image of a pure, saintly, white Southern woman emerged as well.

Southern women played a large role in perpetuating the Lost Cause. They converted their wartime soldiers’ aid organizations into memorial organizations, to commemorate their male counterparts who fell during the war. Because women were seen as inherently nonpolitical, and memorializing was not seen as political, they were able to take the lead in memorializing the Southern cause. Ladies’ Memorial Associations were formed all across the South to dedicate Confederate cemeteries and organized Memorial Days for fallen Confederates. They would eventually unite in 1900 to become the Confederated Southern Memorial Association, and by then, their goals had expanded beyond just remembering their dead. Now, they collected Confederate relics and instilled veneration for the Southern cause in the younger generation through textbooks and educational outreach efforts.

The Lost Cause myth held that Reconstruction was an abject failure. After the secessionists’ defeat and occupation by the U.S. Army, southern states had to “reconstruct.” Ashley Wilkes says, “Reconstruction is worse than death.” 

The Reconstruction-as-failure myth held that African Americans weren’t ready for freedom, the vote, or holding high office. Black citizenship proved a costly failure. In reality, African Americans served with distinction in high office. By 1877, about two thousand Black men in the former Confederate states held elected office at the local, state, and federal levels.

The Lost Cause narrative featured a racist fear of African Americans, combined with hatred for carpetbaggers and scalawags. A carpetbagger came to the South from the North with his suitcase, a carpetbag, ready to exploit the South. “Carpetbaggers will steal anything that isn’t red hot or nailed down.” In reality, most northerners who came south often tried to help African Americans, or they brought capital to an impoverished people and wrecked economy. In the postwar South, there really wasn’t much to steal.

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