The causes behind the Civil War and the role of the Confederate States holds little debate among modern historians. However, after the end of hostilities in 1865 and continuing into the modern day, there has existed an alternate truth behind those two faculties. In reality, the unassailable evidence places Slavery as the cause behind the Civil War, with the role of the Southern states being perpetrators of innumerable human rights abuses set atop an ideological foundation of white supremacy. Yet, since the end of the 19thcentury and the succeeding 20thcentury, this was not the story.
Throughout the time period following the ‘War of Northern Aggression’ (as Confederate sympathizers came to identify it as) historians, public officials, and ordinary citizens promoted a narrative rationalizing the war from the southern perspective. “In the popular mind, the Lost Cause represents the national memory of the Civil War, it has been substituted for the historyof the war” (Gallagher and Nolan, The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History, 25). The extent of this subversion of history is pervasive, so much so that in reviewing this theme of Confederate Sympathy, it would not be surprising if the reader found themselves harboring beliefs in line with the myth.
The Lost Cause was a tragedy for the South. Slavery was not the cause of the war by any means. On the contrary, it was a mutually benefitting system for both parties, enabling the slaves to work and develop under the paternalistic oversight of the superior race, who in turn, unburdened from the need to labor could focus on loftier goals. Freedom, states’ rights, and independence were actually the principles behind secession. If it hadn’t been for the Abolitionists, who provoked confrontation, the southern states would likely have eliminated slavery all on their own in time. After all, the slaves were, “peaceful and contented laborers” (Jefferson Davis, message to the Confederate Congress in 1863) who enjoyed working for their masters. Indeed, who wouldn’t? The characteristics of the ‘Southern Gentleman’ are well known and the people of the South embody those trains in their intellect, gentle nature, honor, and chivalry. The outcome of the war was a terrible thing for all parties involved. If it hadn’t been for the devastating loss at Gettysburg, due to a critical error in judgement by General Longstreet, the South would surely have won. Up to that point the South had been winning, despite the fact that their army was made up of gentlemen and humble farmers. Those farmers however, were hardy men, brave and driven individuals who had answered the call to arms without hesitation in defense of their beliefs. While the North suffered continuing defeats and lackluster leadership, the South was being led by brilliant generals, such as Gen. Robert E. Lee, who’s abilities on the battlefield and personal integrity were unmatched. But for a few unlucky losses, the Confederacy would have been able to pursue the independence for its citizens that it wanted. (Gallagher and Nolan, The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History, 23-37)
That myth has been the central story of the Civil War for well over a century in America. Aggressively pursued by the leadership in the South, the narrative permeated throughout the US of a people whose good intentions, upstanding values and moral character, simple desire for freedom, and culture is defined by honor and high intellect. Figures such as former Confederate President Jefferson Davis, former Confederate General Jubal A. Early, and journalist Edward A. Pollard were all crucial in creating this image (Gallagher and Nolan, The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History, 23-37). Despite the direct contrast between the stances of these men and others before and after the war, people across the United States began supporting an alternative view of the South as soon as the war ended. The consequences of this were enormous.
In short time, most of the former Confederacy was back under the control of its wartime leaders. The Jim-Crow era was enabled by the continued believe in white racial superiority, a key element in the Lost Cause myth. Northern states as well regressed, introducing their own segregation, but more disastrously, buying into the stereotyped racism that the South produced. Additionally, the North accepted the idea that the South’s motivation for secession was not based on slavery, further enabling a set viewpoint that allowed the vestiges of personal freedom and power to be restricted from blacks (Gallagher and Nolan, The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History, 38-50).
The impact of the Lost Cause narrative continued to ripple throughout the 20thcentury. The activities of the Ku Klux Klan, the riots over school desegregation in Boston, and the messages in the 2003 movie “Gods and Generals” (Woodworth, Steven E. “Film Review: Gods and Generals”. Teaching History.) illustrate the range and depth of the influence this ideology has on American life. Today most historians agree on the cause of the Civil War. However, many aspects of the Lost Cause narrative remain in US society and while most Americans do not believe in the entire narrative, there still remain elements that are commonly held to be true (Gallagher and Nolan, The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History, 37-66). Therefore, let us look at the elements which helped to spread this myth so that we can understand their origin and correct our misunderstandings.
(Richardson, James D. “Constitution of the Confederate States; March 11, 1861.” Published on the Avalon Project, Yale University. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/csa_csa.asp)
Article 1, Section 9, Article 4 of the Confederate Constitution enshrines slavery in the newly created nation. From the very beginning of the Civil War, the Southern States made it expressly clear that slavery was an elemental and permanent fixture in their intended future. In addition to this, the Confederate Constitution also stipulated the express ability for Confederacy to expand slavery into any new territory it may acquire in Article 4, Section 3, Article 3. This directly contrasts with the Lost Cause argument which promotes the idea that the Southern states would have abolished slavery on their own in time.