Tuesday, June 15, 2004

More Cogitations on "The Lost Cause" Understanding of the Civil War

In response to my "Unrepentant Yankee" post of 06/11/04, Topher asked for a short statement regarding what is meant by "The Lost Cause". The short answer is taken from a Claremont Institute article titled The 'Lost Cause' In Retreat"

"There are two parts to this (Lost Cause)interpretation (of the Civil War). The first is political, insisting that the cause of the war was not slavery but the oppressive power of the central government, which longed to tyrannize over the Southern states. The South desired merely to exercise its constitutional right to secede, but was thwarted by a power-hungry Lincoln. The second part is military: the noblest soldier of the war was Robert E. Lee. For three years, he and his army proved the backbone of the Confederate cause, fighting in Virginia, the most important theater of the war. But though his adversaries were far less skillful, they were able to bring to bear superior resources, ultimately overwhelming the Confederacy. "

In another Claremont Institute article, How the Confederates Won, Mackubin Thomas Owens reviews David Blight's book, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. This extended quote from that review sheds more light on the issues of the "Lost Cause" interpretation of the Civil War.

"According to Blight, the post-war era engendered three competing memories of the conflict. One, arising out of the Emancipation Proclamation and Lincoln's Second Inaugural, remembered the war as a struggle for freedom, a rebirth of the Republic that led to the liberation of blacks and their elevation to citizenship and constitutional equality.

A second, the "Blue-Gray reconciliationist" view, developed out of the necessity for both sides to deal with so many battlefields and so many dead. It focused almost exclusively on the sacrifices of the soldiers, avoiding questions of culpability or the right and wrong of the causes. In this view, the war was the nation's test of manhood. There was nobility on both sides. The essence of this view was captured by Lew Wallace, a Union general who wrote Ben Hur: "Remembrance! Of what? Not the cause, but the heroism it evoked."

The reminiscences of the soldiers who fought the war lay at the heart of this view. Most symbolic of this memory were the Blue-Gray reunions in which soldiers of both sides gathered for "fraternalism and forgetfulness." The soldiers, writes Blight, sought to "reassemble the chaos and loss inherent to war into an order they could now control. While doing so, they cleaned up the battles and campaigns of the real war, rendered it exciting and normal all at once, and made it difficult to face the extended political meanings of the war."

The third memory was the white supremacist vision arising in part from the Democratic Party's counterrevolution against radical Reconstruction. The South may have lost the war, according to this view, but it triumphed over Reconstruction and the radical Republican legacy of corrupt, carpetbagger government and the anarchy of Negro rule. It restored labor discipline and economic dependency among blacks, thereby saving white civilization.

The white supremacist view was reinforced by the "Lost Cause" account of the Civil War. As Edward A. Pollard wrote in the 1867 book that gave this interpretation its name, "all that is left the South is the war of ideas." The essence of the Lost Cause thesis was (and remains) that the war was not about slavery, but "states' rights." It is neatly summarized in an 1893 speech by a former Confederate officer, Col. Richard Henry Lee. "As a Confederate soldier and as a Virginian, I deny the charge [that the Confederates were rebels] and denounce it as a calumny. We were not rebels, we did not fight to perpetuate human slavery, but for our rights and privileges under a government established over us by our fathers and in defense of our homes."

The Lost Cause interpretation of the war was the South's response to physical destruction and the psychological trauma of defeat. In this view, the Old South was a racial utopia, an organic society composed of loyal slaves and benevolent masters. The war pitted this "slave democracy" against the "free mobocracy" of the North, and the noble side lost. The matchless bravery of the Confederate soldier succumbed to the "juggernaut of superior numbers and merciless power." As Robert Penn Warren once wrote, "in the moment of its death, the Confederacy entered upon its immortality."

[Full disclosure requires me to disclose that before David Blight became Dr. David Blight, the Amherst College professor of history, he and I were roommates for one and a half of our undergraduate years at Michigan State University. It was Dave who introduced me to the Civil War battlefields when we took a couple summer trips together for that purpose.]

Owens again describes the "Lost Cause" perspective in another article, The Case Against Secession:

"It was an article of faith among advocates of the "Lost Cause" school of Civil War history that Southern secession was a legitimate act and that the North had no right to prevent the South from leaving the Union. The view that the South should have been permitted to depart peacefully resonates today among several disparate groups on the political right: the "neo-Confederates," the heirs of the Lost Cause school, who see the South as the exemplar of everything decent in Western civilization; some Christians, who see the supposed virtues of the ante-bellum South as preferable to the crass materialism of the commercial society they believe was created by the Union victory in the Civil War; and libertarians, who, lament the growth of the federal government and its incursions into the private sphere.

For many such conservatives, Abraham Lincoln, far from being a great statesman who re-founded America on the basis of the original principles of the American Revolution, is a villain. By using force to prevent the peaceful exodus of the Southern states, Lincoln caused a bloody and unnecessary war. While might was on the side of the North, right was on the side of those who wished to secede.

But this is bad history that lends itself to worse constitutional theory. When the Neo-Confederates and their libertarian friends make Lincoln out to be a scoundrel who plunged America into an avoidable war, they ignore the fact that his views on Union and the nature of republican government differed not at all from those of such luminaries as Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Andrew Jackson, and Daniel Webster. They also ignore the practical reasons why the president of the United States could not permit the Union to be torn asunder. Far from avoiding war, the breakup of the Union would have meant perpetual conflict on the North American continent."

The issue at stake in this for Christians is a truthful accounting of history. I have seen more then a few conservative Christians embrace a romantic view of the "Lost Cause" based on the obvious Christian character of men such as R. E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. What is not remembered is that these men, as good as they were, were still imperfect men and still influenced by their times. If we want to know what succession was about, we need to look to the acts of succession, and the speeches and rehtoric of those advocating succession. That I will save for a latter time. In the meantime, I remain the "Unrepentant Yankee"...

~ The Billy Goat ~

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