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.

Fall of Fort Sumter and Reaction

The federal government had a number of forts and military installation in the South. As Southern states seceded, many of them were quickly turned over by state forces. One of the major exceptions was the federal facilities in and around Charleston. 

Federal troops there were concentrated in Fort Moultrie. In the middle of Charleston harbor sat Fort Sumter, unoccupied and still under construction. On November 15th Major Robert Anderson was named commander of Federal troops in Charleston. He quickly came to the conclusion that Fort Moultrie was not defensible. The unoccupied Fort Sumter was defensible as it was situated in the middle of the harbor surrounding by deep water.

On the night of December 26th Major Anderson, mustered his command and moved in the stealth of night to Fort Sumter. The Southerner felt betrayed. They believed that they had an understanding with Anderson to maintain the status quo.

When Lincoln took office the issue of Ft Sumter arose and he was forced to come to grips with the problem. On one hand reinforcing the fort seemed increasingly difficult. Lincoln was afraid of using force, since this might sway those Southern states such as Virginia that had not yet seceded to secede. On the other hand Major Anderson was becoming a hero in the North.

Finally after receiving varied advise from his advisors Lincoln decided to resupply the fort.

The Confederate government under Davis felt that they could not allow the fort to be resupplied, and Davis despite opposition from the Confederate Secretary of State Robert Toombs – he stated “Mr. president at this time it is suicide, murder, and will lose every friend at the North. You will wantonly strike a hornets nest which extends from mountains to ocean, and legions now quiet will swarm our and sting us to death. It is unnecessary; it put us in the wrong it is fatal.”

On the afternoon of April 11th, General Beaulegrad issued a formal demand of surrender to Major Anderson. When major Anderson received it he refused it, however he stated to the Confederate representatives, that if they had only waited another few day the fort would be forced to surrender, as it would be without food. Colonel Chesnut one of the Confederate representatives asked if he could include that in his report. Anderson assented. 

Beauregard then asked for direction from President Davis. Davis agreed to call off the bombardment if he could get a firm commitment as to the time of the surrender from Anderson. At midnight on the 12th Confederate representatives again demanded the surrender of the garrison. Anderson answered that they would surrender by the 15th, but with an important proviso, that only if the fort was not resupplied. This was not considered a sufficient answer for the Confederates. As the confederates began to leave, Anderson stated” If we never meet in this world again, God grant that we may meet in the next.”

Thus at 4:30 AM confederate batteries began their bombardment of Fort Sumter. The confederate bombing was effective, and included a floating battery, in a makeshift boat. Anderson’s counter fire was limited by the his lack of munitions and by his limited number of soldiers. Finally 34 hours after the bombardment began, Anderson surrendered.

Reaction:

Sumter had fallen- now it was Lincoln’s turn to respond. He did so by a call for troops: Lincoln stated, “Now I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, in virtue of the power in me vested by the constitution, and the laws, have thought fit to call forth, and hereby do call forth, the militia of several States of the Union, to aggregate number of seventy thousand.

The nation responded by a series of meetings in every part of the North. Thousands came forth with enthusiasm. A New York mother of five sons who enlisted stated:” I was startled by the news referring to our boys, and, for the moment felt as if a ball had pierced my own heart. For the first time I was obliged to look things full in the face. But although I have always loved my children with a love that none but a mother can know, yet when I look upon the state of my country, I cannot withhold them; and in the name of their god and their mothers god, and their country’s god I bid them to go. If I had ten sons instead of five I would give them all sooner than have our country rent in fragments.”

While the call for militia succeeded in raising an army, it was the final blow in the attempts to keep the Virginia and other wavering states in the Union. The Border states and the states of the Upper South all responded with words similar to those of Kentucky: “Kentucky will furnish no troops for the wicked purpose of subduing her sister southern states.”

Virginia was the first Southern state to secede, and with her the man who was to become the South leading General – Robert E. Lee. Lee was a reluctant sessionist, he had stated two months earlier “I fear the liberties of our country will in the tomb of the great nation. If Virginia stands by the old Union so will I. But if she secedes ( though I do not believe in secession as a constitutional right, nor that there is sufficient cause for revolution) then I will sill follow my native State with my sword, and if need be, with my life.”

Next Arkansas joined the confederacy, they were followed in May by North Carolina and Tennessee.

Immediately following the riots secessionists in Baltimore destroyed the railroads bridges and the telegraph lines thus cutting off Washington. For days Washington was cut off, with no additional replacement troops coming. Panic reined in Washington- Lincoln looked out the White House windows wondering when reinforcements would show. Finally in April 25th the 8th Mass Infantry and the 7th New York Regiment, landed at Annapolis Maryland. The New York Regiment managed to repair a branch line of the B&O that had been sabotaged and soon they arrived in the capital, whose citizens breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Vice President of the Confederacy Cornerstone Speech

Alexander Stephens vice president of the Confederacy, a Georgian, stood about five feet six inches and tipping the scales at under a hundred pounds, Stephens impressed few with his skeletal presence, but he made up for his ghoulish appearance with keen intellect and oratorical flair. In March 1861, he made the infamous Cornerstone Speech that clearly marked the Confederate goals:

[The Confederacy’s] foundations are laid, its cornerstone 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. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

~ Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy

“Dixie” by Daniel Decatur Emmett (1859)

Dixie“, also known as “Dixie’s Land“, “I Wish I Was in Dixie“, and other titles, is a song about the Southern United States first made in 1859. It is one of the most distinctively Southern musical products of the 19th century. It was not a folk song at its creation, but it has since entered the American folk vernacular. The song likely cemented the word “Dixie” in the American vocabulary as a nickname for the Southern U.S.

Most sources credit Ohio-born Daniel Decatur Emmett with the song’s composition, although other people have claimed credit, even during Emmett’s lifetime. Compounding the problem are Emmett’s own confused accounts of its writing and his tardiness in registering its copyright.

“Dixie” originated in the minstrel shows of the 1850s and quickly became popular throughout the United States. During the American Civil War, it was adopted as a de facto national anthem of the Confederacy, along with “God Save the South”. New versions appeared at this time that more explicitly tied the song to the events of the Civil War.

The song was a favorite of President Abraham Lincoln (himself born in Kentucky); he had it played at some of his political rallies and at the announcement of General Robert E. Lee’s surrender. Early recordings of the song include band versions by Issler’s Orchestra (c. 1895), Gilmore’s Band (1896) and the Edison Grand Concert Band (1896) and a vocal version by George J. Gaskin (1896).

First verses:

I wish I was in the land of cotton,
Old times they are not forgotten;
Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land.
In Dixie Land where I was born,
Early on one frosty mornin,
Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land.

Then I wish I was in Dixie, hooray! hooray!
In Dixie Land I’ll take my stand to live and die in Dixie,
Away, away, away down South in Dixie,
Away, away, away down South in Dixie.

Mount Vernon: The Mansion

The building began as a one and one-half story house built in 1734 by George Washington’s father, Augustine Washington, and received its well-known name from his half-brother Lawrence Washington.

George Washington began running Mount Vernon in 1754, and over the next 45 years slowly enlarged the dwelling to create the 21-room residence we see today. Washington oversaw each renovation, advising on design, construction, and decoration, despite being away much of the time. Conscious that the world was watching, Washington selected architectural features that expressed his growing status as a Virginia gentleman and ultimately as the leader of a new nation.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin Published – 1852

In 1852, the novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was published. It is most likely the novel that had the greatest historic impact on American society. The novel depicted the plight of a slave family. It was written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, who was a mother of six. In the first year hundreds of thousands of copies were printed and ultimately millions of copies were sold. This helped solidify the opposition to slavery in the North. Its success in France and England served as a break in the inclination of the aristocracy in those countries to support the South during the war.

When Mrs. Stowe was introduced to President Lincoln, in 1862, he was heard to have said: “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.”

Mount Vernon: Gristmill

Augustine Washington, George Washington’s father, likely had an operating mill on his plantation (the future Mount Vernon) as early as the 1730s, but by the 1760s this dilapidated mill was in great need of a replacement. By 1769, George Washington had decided to create a new mill that would be located along Dogue Run, about a half-mile away from the old mill.

Washington’s resolve to improve and expand his Gristmill enterprise marked a significant turning point in the management of his plantation. During the 1760s Washington moved away from tobacco cultivation and began to plant more grains, primarily wheat and corn. This transition gave Washington a dependable cash crop that was not dependent upon markets in England. With an expanded and more efficient Gristmill, Washington could turn his crops into flour and cornmeal. The Gristmill could also bring in revenue by charging neighboring farmers a fee to grind their grain.

In 1783, Washington described the mill in one of his letters, “two pair of Stones, one pair of which are French-burr, employed in the merchant business. The Mill house is of Stone, large and commodious, the dwelling house, which is convenient, is within 30 yards of it; and has a garden enclosed adjoining. A Cooper’s Shop is also near, and the whole convenient to tide water.”

Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad was started in order to provide a means for escaped slaves to be safely spirited through the north until they reached sanctuary in Canada. The railroads borrowed heavily from the vocabulary of standard railroads, thus those who helped guide the slaves were conductors, and the places that they hid along the way stations. Between 1850-1860 1,000 slaves a year made use of the Underground Railroad to escape to Canada and freedom.

Most of the enslaved people helped by the Underground Railroad escaped border states such as Kentucky, Virginia and Maryland.

In the deep South, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 made capturing escaped enslaved people a lucrative business, and there were fewer hiding places for them. Fugitive enslaved people were typically on their own until they got to certain points farther north.

People known as “conductors” guided the fugitive enslaved people. Hiding places included private homes, churches and schoolhouses. These were called “stations,” “safe houses,” and “depots.” The people operating them were called “stationmasters.”

There were many well-used routes stretching west through Ohio to Indiana and Iowa. Others headed north through Pennsylvania and into New England or through Detroit on their way to Canada.

Sojourner Truth’s Northern Speaking Tour

Historians believe that Sojourner Truth was born in 1797 in Ulster County, New York. Although born into slavery, she was freed from slavery by the New York State Emancipation Act of 1827.

She retained her former master’s surname, Van Wagener. However, after settling in New York City for some time, she found that she was disillusioned with her life there. In 1843, she adopted a new name, Sojourner Truth, a name she felt God had given her. Her mission in life, decided, was to travel across the country and spread “the truth.” She felt compelled to go on lecture tours, explaining: “The Lord has made me a sign unto this nation, and I go round a-testifying and showinng them the sins against my people.”

Large crowds gathered to hear her; and her usual opening, “Children, I talk to God and God talks to me!” had an electric effect on her audiences in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Kansas. Many felt she possessed “mystical gifts” as well as great powers of oratory.

With much passion, she fought against slavery and for woman suffrage, becoming friendly with some of the leading white abolitionists of her time, including James and Lucretia Mott and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Helping blacks who had managed to escape North find work and a place to live also gave her deep satisfaction during these years; later, in 1864, she was appointed counselor with the National Freedmens Relief Association.

Compromise of 1850

Due to this compromise, civil war was avoided or at least delayed. Under the terms of the compromise, California was admitted to the Union as a free state. Residents of the Other territories acquired from Mexico were to decide for themselves whether to be free or slave states. The Fugitive Slave Act was passed requiring the return of slaves. Slave trade was outlawed in the District of Columbia, and Texas’ national debt was paid off.

The Compromise of 1850 held the Union together for another difficult ten years. The dispute was over the admittance of additional states into the Union, while maintaining the balance between free and slave states.

The immediate question was the clamoring of California to be admitted to the Union as a free state. The debate was begun by a frail Senator Henry Clay, who called for a compromise between the North and South. Senator John C. Calhoun, who was dying of tuberculosis, gave his last speech in the Senate; in which he once again championed the cause of the South, yet called for compromise.

Finally, Daniel Webster, who had been a leading spokesmen for Northern interests, made a plea for compromise in order to preserve the Union. It was Webster who tilted the balance, as his call for compromise convinced many Northerners to agree to the concessions, primarily the Fugitive Slave Law, that allowed the Senate to pass the compromise.

President Taylor opposed the compromise, but after his untimely death, his successor supported these bills, and thus the compromise was sealed.