Has the “Lost Cause” Lost?

Last month I was honored to be asked by an editor at the Wilson Quarterly to respond to an essay by Christopher Clausen.  I was given roughly a 300-400 word limit, which didn’t give me room to go into much detail so I decided to offer a few words about one particular passage that I thought was worth a response.  Regular readers of this blog probably will not see much of anything that is new in terms of my own thinking about this subject.  You can now read Clausen’s essay on the WQ website.  Here is my response, which will appear in the next issue:

Christopher Clausen’s article [America’s Changeable Civil War,” Spring 2010] offers a helpful overview of the influence that the Lost Cause and the broader trend of national reunion exercised on the nation’s collective memory through the Civil Rights Movement.  Few will deny that the tendency to ignore the role of slavery and emancipation as crucial aspects of Civil War history and public remembrance were exposed as Americans were confronted with images of bus boycotts, “Freedom Rides,” and marches.  While the nation confronted its “most ignominious legacy” through legislation it did not significantly alter the nation’s Civil War memory.  However, much has changed over the past forty years, which may give us pause in accepting Clausen’s assumption that “what was actually won and lost [in the Civil War] is less settled than you might expect after 150 years.”

The election of Barack Obama has opened up numerous opportunities to discuss the history and legacy of slavery and race and our understanding of the Civil War specifically.  In 2009 the president was petitioned to discontinue sending a wreath to the Confederate monument at Arlington National Cemetery – a monument that glorifies the Lost Cause with images of “loyal slaves” and an emphasis on states rights.  Rather than incite further controversy, President Obama chose to send an additional wreath to the African American Soldier’s Memorial, which celebrates the history of United States Colored Troops.  Those states that have organized Civil War Sesquicentennial commissions are choosing to emphasize the “Emancipationist Legacy” of the Civil War, including Virginia, which will hold a day-long symposium in September 2010 on slavery and emancipation.

Finally, the recent controversy surrounding Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell’s Confederate History Month proclamation (sponsored by the Sons of Confederate Veterans) is arguably the clearest indication that we may be witnessing a shift in our collective memory of the war and its legacy.  The debate, which ensued and his eventual revision, suggests that a commemoration of Confederate history without any mention of slavery is now seen by a growing number of Americans as a gross distortion of the past.  While it is too early to tell, the interpretation of the war that takes hold publicly by 2015 may be unrecognizable to Edward A. Pollard and other Confederate apologists.

Like I said it isn’t much of a response.  I’m just pleased to have been asked to contribute.  Hopefully, it will bring in some new readers and possibly an opportunity to write a more substantial essay in the future.

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7 comments… add one

  • James F. Epperson May 23, 2010

    Uh, I hate to be picky, but the word you want in the 2nd para is “incite,” not “insight.”

    • Kevin Levin May 23, 2010

      Oops. Hopefully the editors picked up on that.

  • Harry May 23, 2010

    “The debate, which ensued and his eventual revision”

    I think the construction of the above somewhat distorts events. The governor’s “revision”, I suspect much to the chagrin of some, came too quickly to infer that it was a result of “the debate”. I’m not suggesting the governor became aware of his mistake on his own, but rather that his revision was more of a result of the initial, visceral reaction than to any debate. In the end, I was more disappointed in the debate than I was in the proclamation, because the loudest debaters on both sides chose to politicize their arguments and generally ignore the greater historical issue, namely the diversity of the antebellum and wartime populations of Virginia, the “South” and the country in general.

    • Kevin Levin May 23, 2010

      Hi Harry,

      You make an excellent point. If I had more time I probably would have tried to spell this out in more detail. You are correct that the governor’s revision did not come on the heels of what we can properly call a debate. I suspect that the governor was worried about protecting his political hide. Still, I think my broader point holds. That the governor had to deal with a reaction (and heated one at that) suggests that perceptions may be shifting. Like I said, it is too early to draw any firm conclusions, but the signs are there. Finally, I agree that we lost another golden opportunity to have a serious discussion: http://cwmemory.com/2010/04/12/mainstream-media-tackles-confederate-history-month-fail/

      Thanks again for the comment.

  • Lane Kiffin May 24, 2010

    The Lost Cause will held on to by many until the Generation that were alive in the early 1960’s is died off. It seems to be losing strength outside of SCV UDC circles with each passing decade. What will replace it I don’t know. I hope it is an honest balance look at all the players in this stage of history,

    • Kevin Levin May 24, 2010

      Lane,

      No doubt. Mildred Rutherford of the UDC would be horrified to find what most students are learning in their history classes these days. If you want an SCV-Lost Cause version of the Civil War and Reconstruction you are going to have to home school your kids.

  • Paul Thornton Jun 29, 2010

    Hello Kevin,

    I’m planning an essay on the contemporary state of the Lost Cause myth for my MA dissertation to be completed in 2011. If it is at all possible to contact you with regard to this obective, please let me know. Thank you.

    Paul

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