Not So Far Removed from the Lost Cause

tomotley-plantation-oaksMuch of my writing about the Civil War 150th is framed around a sharp contrast with how Americans commemorated the war in the early 1960s, during the Centennial. There can be no doubt that we have witnessed significant shifts in how Americans remember and commemorate the war. The most significant shift has got to be in our willingness to deal directly with the tough questions of slavery and race from the Civil War era. But in going back 50 years I wonder if I have given short thrift to a more recent milestone.

I recently came across this brief documentary that was produced by WCVB-TV here in Boston to mark the 125th. There are a number of gems in these videos. For example, in the first segment below a black employee of the NPS at Fort Sumter resists sharing his own understanding of the war with the reporter.

I was struck by just how much Lost Cause imagery and references could still be found both in the subject matter and in the reporting itself. In the segment on the legacy of the war the narrator alludes to the “gross mistakes of Reconstruction that prolonged the epilogue of the war a full century.”

The videos left me thinking that we are not so far removed from the Lost Cause.

6 comments add yours

  1. Hard to believe that the report was made only 25 years ago! I felt as though I were back in elementary school waiting while the protector was being set up.

  2. I think that “our” (meaning the living) relationship with the Civil War will always be uncomfortable and difficult. The concept of the “lost cause” is justly, like many historical schools, limping toward the end of it’s time but the new-found bitterness (essentially a new form of bigotry) is not built upon a strong enough foundation to really take root. I am not talking about revisionism, all history is revision of the past, but about individual relationships to an event that shaped this country in so many ways.

    I imagine that by the 175th there will be almost no reenacting units around so the ability to pretend there is real conflict will be more difficult. I imagine that the issue of Confederate iconography will have found a peaceful, but very distant co-existence with the rest of history. Confederate Flag Day will be a thing of the past entirely and groups like the UDC or SCV will have either changed entirely or be lost forever. I also think there will be more monuments to mark the history of slavery in the South. The deepest argument will, I hate to say it, still be over the goal, impact, and results of Reconstruction. Indeed, I think it is a vast shame that the NPS didn’t prepare for a more robust remembrance of that crucial time.

    Still, the war occupies a fascinating place in our hearts. Although it seems a bit overwrought now (voices of politics vice voices of history) the real truth is that, with the exception of a few fading voices, the war is more like some antique sports history where two teams talk about old days we can no longer comprehend and shadows of victory or defeat. Those red and blue lines on the battle map will never go away and humans are always drawn to places of remarkable human conflict. In the end, it is clear that we are watching an historical paradigm fade away and it will be fun to watch a new one being built.

  3. Kevin,
    I think you can design an entire lesson plan based on these videos. I remember the mini-series “North and South” and at the time I thought that the production was good only because it raised awareness of the War and got people talking about it. Slavery was dealt with only as an afterthought.
    As you know the videos had numerous mistakes and full of “Lost Cause” symbolism, my personal favorite was the two Black servers at the Halloween party. Even Bob Krick made a slight error when he identified Oliver Wendell Holmes as a Chief Justice.

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