Coming to the realization that the Lost Cause narrative is false has been one of the hardest changes in my thinking. No matter how much I wanted to believe in the romantic notions of Southern pride, family honor, and antebellum glory, I simply could not overlook the facts presented by the primary source documents of American history.
This is the first post in a four part series.
From Southern Pride…
I grew up in a Southern home. My mother was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. She was recruited by my great-aunt who was a genealogist long before there was an Ancestry.com. My great aunt made regular trips to cemeteries around the region and traced our family history back to our Western-European roots. During her research, she also became aware of several family members who were Civil War veterans. Her research gave me a nearly-direct link to my Confederate ancestors.
For years, I proudly wore the Confederate flag on clothing, belt buckles, and especially hats. I even wore a Confederate infantry cap replica for a time in my early teens. My personal story and sense of family history was solidly based in the Lost Cause narrative. Through family stories and Sunday afternoon movies on the old UHF channels in Nashville, I drew upon the mythology of Birth of a Nation (1916) and Gone with the Wind (1939). I also picked out the ex-Confederate soldier turned gunslinger for some of my heroes, including turns by Clint Eastwood, Gary Cooper, and even John Carradine in Stagecoach (1939).I was able to justify, to myself if no one else, that the Civil War had not been about slavery. And then I started to read for myself. Click To Tweet
Like many folks in the southern U.S. who flew the stars and bars, I was confronted from time to time about the association with the Ku Klux Klan. Of course, I knew that the Klan was bad. I knew that Forrest was one of the founders, but I also knew he had changed his ways. I could justify his place in history by his recovery from the ills of racism and bigotry. And I was able to justify, to myself if no one else, that the Civil War had not been about slavery. The South fought for States Rights. Those leaders on the battlefield fought for their families, their land, their states, and their sense of honor. American by birth; Southern by the Grace of God. I had that hat, too.
And then, I started to read things for myself.
A Discernable Shift in Tone
In school, I remember studying the history of the United States. The chapters on the early 1800s are very clear. The history books spend several chapters on the events leading up to the war. Slavery was a very prominent topic in those pages on the early 1800s. I remember studying the legislation, court decisions, and the many, many compromises that were reached to keep the leaders from slave states happy. Those compromises usually had everything to do with maintaining a balance of slave-holding states and free-states to prevent the abolition of slavery. Maybe you remember them, too.
Slavery, Front and Center
The Missouri Compromise (1820) allowed states to enter the Union if they were below a parallel, but not if they were above it. The argument was about slavery. The Fugitive Slave Act was designed to return escaped slaves to their owners. It was a part of the Compromise of 1850. The Compromise actually created a series of resolutions that allowed California to enter the Union as a free state even though it would upset the balance of free and slave states. Again, this balance was needed by slave-holding states to prevent abolition from coming to pass.
The Wilmot Proviso would have upset that balance further. It was presented to prevent the territories gained in the Mexican War from becoming slave-holding states. This would upset the balance. Again, the argument was clearly about slavery.
The Kansas Nebraska Act repealed the Missouri Compromise and moved the nation towards local sovereignty on the matter of slavery. The issues was states rights, but the rights in question focused entirely upon slavery. The Dred Scott decision in the Supreme Court made the matter worse. Instead of ruling on the issue of slavery in a particular time and place, the Supreme Court rendered a decision that no person descended from an American slave had ever been a citizen for Article III purposes. This introduces the question of citizenship, but also sought to justify the enslavement of Africans on the grounds that they were not worthy of citizenship.
In the lead up to the Civil War, there was the Crittendon Compromise. These resolutions, which ultimately failed, sought to restore the balance that had been upset by the Kansas Nebraska Act and the Dred Scott decision. All of the concessions revolved around slavery and the states’ rights to hold slaves.
And that’s just the ones I distinctly remember. There are literally dozens of congressional documents from 1800 to 1860 that hinge on slavery and, for a time, determined whether the Union would persist.
From One Chapter to the Next, a Sudden Change
But when I turned the page to read about the war itself, something seemed to change. Slavery was mentioned less frequently. Quotes from generals and Confederate statesmen focused on “northern aggression” and “defending their soil.” I didn’t note the contrast at first. After all, this fit my understanding of the narrative. “Lee was a great general who was conflicted by his oath to the Union and his southern roots.” “He was a reluctant combatant.” And, by association, so were tens of thousands of other confederate troops. I had seen the first evidence of the Lost Cause narrative. I didn’t know what I was looking at. But I could tell that something had shifted in the conversation about slavery.How did we turn on a dime in this history to go from a national debate about slavery to open warfare over the broader category of States' Rights? Click To Tweet
How did we turn on a dime in this history to go from a national debate about slavery to open warfare over the broader category of States’ Rights? The books recount all of the slavery debate of the 1800s, but then suddenly turn to “states rights” when 1860 rolls around. That revisionist history, I found out later, was known as The Lost Cause. And it was a rewrite that was pushed by both the losing side and the winning side to help bring the nation together again, and to help the South find themselves “on the right side of history” after the fact.
The simple fact is that many Americans felt it was necessary to rewrite history so that the country could heal the wounds of the Civil War. Many people felt that wasn’t going to happen so long as the defeated enemy was excoriated for the ills of slavery. And so, the history was modified. In some cases, the good was emphasized and the evil was buried. In other cases, the omissions were so vast as to be a complete lie. Ultimately, this would eventually mean betraying African Americans by ignoring the deepest evils of slavery; evils that had torn the nation apart.
Jubal Early and the Lost Cause
Some of the earliest writings of the Lost Cause movement were simple notations of the odds against which the confederates fought. Generals Lee and Early both have extensive documentation of the troop disbursement, munitions and ammunition holdings, and the like. Unlike Lee, Early wrote in the 1870s for the Southern Historical Society articles that firmly established the Lost Cause as a long-lasting literary and cultural phenomenon. Early’s contributions to the Lost Cause narrative in those articles overshadowed his deeply held convictions.
The Creator of the Universe had stamped them, indelibly, with a different color and an inferior physical and mental organization. He had not done this from mere caprice or whim, but for wise purposes. An amalgamation of the races was in contravention of His designs or He would not have made them so different. This immense number of people could not have been transported back to the wilds from which their ancestors were taken, or, if they could have been, it would have resulted in their relapse into barbarism. Reason, common sense, true humanity to the black, as well as the safety of the white race, required that the inferior race should be kept in a state of subordination. The conditions of domestic slavery, as it existed in the South, had not only resulted in a great improvement in the moral and physical condition of the negro race, but had furnished a class of laborers as happy and contented as any in the world.
When your convictions about slavery and white supremacy are this deeply held, the nobility of the South’s cause would be easy to grasp. His words elsewhere come across as patriotic and even wistful. His deep-seated desire to preserve the history of the South was what connected him to the efforts of the Southern Historical Society. He obviously needed a place to voice his views. They needed primary documents. The executive committee of the Southern Historical Society had this to say about the lack of primary documents.
Few Societies have been organised, either State or local : and though a vigorous correspondence has been kept up for this end, we have succeeded as yet in collecting but little original matter for the future Historian. This collection of
the raw material of History was the first object had in view: which, as rapidly as gathered, should be collated and digested, and which should form the basis of a thorough, truthful, and, as far as possible, a documentary History of our people and of our times. Having so far failed in achieving these important ends, it is difficult to determine what measures
next to pursue. The work itself is too noble, too patriotic, too necessary to be abandoned : and the thought is intolerable of leaving the vindication of our principles and of our brave and martyred Dead to the honesty of some chance antiquarian of the future ; who may mourn over the loss of records which it should be our business to preserve. In this extremity the Southern Historical Society has issued the call for this Convention; with the double hope of awakening the zeal and enthusiasm of our people, and of developing some more efficient method of securing the objects at
which it has vainly toiled.
This lamentation is odd simply because the raw materials were readily available for those who took the time to discover them, as I would soon discover. But they were correct in assuming that the history was still raw. The need to recast the events of the War was pressing. And many rose to the challenge.
The Daughters of the Confederacy and the Lost Cause
The effort was led by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Each chapter had a Historical Committee dedicated to changing the way people remembered the Civil War. I didn’t read about them until my children were learning about history. I also realized that I had family members who had been a part of these organizations. Most of the ones that I knew were only guilty of maintaining the narrative of the Lost Cause. That was because the Historical Committees had long since declared their mission accomplished. They were done by 1910, a time when many Civil War veterans were still around.
To give you a sense of Jim Crow laws in 1910, only 730 blacks were registered to vote in Louisiana, less than 0.5% of eligible black men. That was a significant reduction from 1900, when black voters numbered 5,320 on the rolls, although they comprised the majority of the state’s population. According to Richard Pildes, Jim Crow was appallingly effective. 1910 was very near the height of Jim Crow — and the height of success in the revision of the history of the Civil War.
And I had to come to terms with the fact that my family was a part of the rewriting campaign.
This is the first post in a four part series.
Author: Joey Reed
Joey is married to his best friend and they live in Kentucky. Joey serves Mayfield First United Methodist Church, the Purchase District, the Memphis Annual Conference, and the world is his parish.