The Lost Cause is Not Fake History

The video below featuring historian Eric Foner accompanied a recent piece on CNN’s website that offered some observations about the attempt to distance race from the 2016 election and the Lost Cause narrative of the Civil War. The article itself is not very helpful. The author attempts to make way too many points across too broad a period of time. None of them is explored in sufficient detail. More below on this.

However, the video should work well in a classroom setting to generate discussion about the notion of an ‘Exceptional America’ and the challenges that this nation has always faced when it comes to acknowledging the tough questions surrounding slavery and race.

As I am currently writing about the Lost Cause in connection with veterans’ accounts of camp slaves, I found the author’s interpretation to be weak at best:

The Lost Cause campaign offers the definitive example of racial self-deception. Before there was fake news, the Lost Cause propagandists were creating fake history. Their timing was audacious. They didn’t wait years to claim the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery. They started making those claims immediately after the war ended, when the physical and psychological wounds were still raw.

Confederate veterans’ groups started to spread the myth at reunions. So did storytellers. The Lost Cause was recycled in early 20th century films like D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation,” “Gone with the Wind” and Walt Disney’s “Song of the South.” All recast the antebellum South as a moonlight and magnolia paradise of happy slaves, affectionate slave owners and villainous Yankees.

Why would so many Southerners embrace such a big lie? Part of it was embarrassment. They had to decontaminate history by recasting what they did as a noble cause, historians say.

No, the Lost Cause is not an example of fake history. Postwar accounts of loyal slaves and benevolent slaveowners were quite consistent with pre-war accounts. The Lost Cause was not a collective act of self deception or even primarily an attempt to deceive others. It was an organic process of reflection and memory that directly engaged the most pressing challenges of the immediate postwar period, including defeat, emancipation, black mobility and black political action to name just a few.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

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28 comments… add one
  • Andrew Foster Williams Jan 2, 2017 @ 9:30

    Hi Kevin,

    I think I understand the point that you are trying to make in your short response piece to the CNN article. But, I think you are missing the mark, or maybe the point of the article. The “Lost Cause” myth is not about a collection of facts ot lies about what slavery was like. It is about a fundamental remixing/erasing of the primary reason why the South seceded and why the Civil War was fought. So, to say that pre- and post-war accounts of slave/master relations are consistent is not relevant. Your response calls the CNN piece “weak,” but your response does nothing to show why you dont think the main thesis is accurate or well-supported. The CNN article draws critical and accurate parallel between the.narrative around WHY people voted for Trump and WHY whites in the south committed treason and attempted to secede from the union. We are already witnessing millions of people refusing to acknowledge the role of racism in this election, which is scary. I would hate for my grandchildren’s textbook to explain the 2016 Election through a post-racial lens, because that, like the Lost Cause narrative, would be mythical and inaccurate.
    – Your friend,
    Andrew Foster Williams

    • Kevin Levin Jan 2, 2017 @ 15:24

      My problem with the CNN piece is that it draws too many parallels, but fails to sufficiently probe each period in any detail.

      The CNN article draws critical and accurate parallel between the.narrative around WHY people voted for Trump and WHY whites in the south committed treason and attempted to secede from the union.

      With all due respect, this statement makes very little sense to me.

      We are already witnessing millions of people refusing to acknowledge the role of racism in this election, which is scary.

      I can cite numerous elections in which race played just as important a role as it did in 2016. The Lost Cause is largely irrelevant to what I take to be your concerns. Thanks for the comment, Andrew.

      • Dudley Bokoski Jan 3, 2017 @ 7:01

        The parallel which stands out for me between the period before the Civil War and the current political climate is the intensity of feeling and decrease in dialogue between two groups which fundamentally don’t trust the other’s vision of what the country should be.

        I don’t believe we talk enough about the role of anger in the Civil War. Perhaps the best example is the western border states in which they had moved long before the war far past thinking about discussion or persuasion and were happy to see war come. In the east it might have been couched in more detailed rhetorical justification but if you were in South Carolina you couldn’t fathom what people in Massachusetts believed and the same held true in the other direction. We now see something like that in our politics with a left and right that can’t begin to understand why the other thinks like they do and not too many people in the middle.

        War came like a boiler bursting in 1861 and let off the pressure with the destruction that normally comes from that sort of physics. But here’s where the parallel branches off in 2017. We’re not going to go to war with each other. So, what then? Well, one of the few explanations for the far fetched idea of electing Donald Trump president is that it was, for one of the two angry halves of the country a sort of firing on Fort Sumter. “We’ve taken all of this we’re going to take and here is our response….”

        I don’t know, and wish someone did, how we can take the two angry halves of this country and bring them closer together, replacing insults with dialogue. My suspicion is that demographics will shift to the point where politics changes apace. But I don’t know that life will be better for anyone as a result because we may just be replacing anger with a stubborn orthodoxy and history shows that doesn’t end well.

        But your original point is true, I think. The Lost Cause, as it might have been understood by southerners after the war wasn’t fake news. It was a multi-faceted coping with a level of death and destruction we can hardly imagine now. And maybe The Lost Cause is too broad a term because the whole idea changed over time and was different things to different people throughout. What it was used for, especially in more recent times, changed as well.

        I think it would be interesting to go back and look at how the two regions commemorated the war from 1866-1890 (while many of the participants were still alive and active) and see what the differences were. Maybe a lot of what we call “The Lost Cause” was just the sort of things people of that era did after a war. In any case, it is one more interesting aspect of the war to go back and research and learn more about.

      • Andrew Jan 3, 2017 @ 11:44


        You are right that race plays a critical role in all of our elections. I just recently got to listen to a presentation by Ian Haney Lopez, author of Dog Whistle Politics, where he did a brilliant job of laying this out. As someone that has dedicated so much energy to studying the Lost Cause, you clearly are concerned with people oversimplifying it. Still, I dont think its realistic or fair to write off the CNN article simply because it “doesn’t sufficiently probe each period in detail.” It was a short editorial, not an academic journal article or book. Did it make any claims that were false, or do you just feel like didnt give the Lost Cause myth the full nuanced treatment that you feel it deserves. I cant help but feeling that you have rushed to defend the perpetuators of that myth, despite your follow up posts to clarify.

        • Kevin Levin Jan 3, 2017 @ 11:48

          Hi Andrew,

          I don’t know really what else to say. Again, to suggest that the Lost Cause is nothing more than an example of fake history and that its most vocal spokesmen were engaged in little more than self deception offers little understanding about the period and the issues involved.

          I cant help but feeling that you have rushed to defend the perpetuators of that myth, despite your follow up posts to clarify.

          Such a judgment is entirely yours to make.

  • Rob Baker Jan 1, 2017 @ 9:57

    I’m trying to find a good place to integrate this video into a U.S. History class. I’m thinking turn of the 20th century, during explanations about Jim Crow and lynchings; sort of a precursor to the Civil Rights Movement. What do you think?

    • Kevin Levin Jan 1, 2017 @ 11:08

      That’s the obvious place to use it. You might want to show it alongside one of Frederick Douglass’s speeches about the war and emancipation or even W.E.B. DuBois on Reconstruction.

      • Rob Baker Jan 1, 2017 @ 11:51

        Integrating it in with DuBois is a good idea, his name always coincides with the standard on the emergence of the NAACP.

  • EricWSteagall18 Dec 30, 2016 @ 11:08

    It’s also important to understand the role gender played in constructing the Lost Cause. I highly recommend LeeAnn Whites’ book, “The Civil War as a Crisis in Gender: Augusta, Georgia, 1860-1890.” Great discussion!

  • gdbrasher Dec 30, 2016 @ 10:32

    Kevin, your point about race is well taken, but I think it is important that we acknowledge that what southerners said about the cause and purpose of the war WAS inconsistent with what they said before the war. I’m sure you’d agree.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 30, 2016 @ 10:34

      There is absolutely no disagreement here. Again, all I am suggesting is that the rush to reduce early Lost Cause history and culture to conscious deception misses a great deal about what it tells us about how very real people struggled to cope with a world that few could have anticipated.

  • Kristoffer Dec 30, 2016 @ 7:28

    Even the title of the video itself likely engages in racial amnesia regarding the election, considering this:

    “Shortly after setting a giant cross on fire with dozens of other members of various white nationalist groups in Georgia on Saturday, Will Quigg, a Grand Dragon in a California branch of the KKK, sat down with Vocativ—which was there for a larger reporting trip about the modern state of the hate group—to talk about the 2016 election. According to Quigg, “For the KKK, Clinton is our choice.”
    “She is friends with the Klan,” Quigg said. “A lot of people don’t realize that. She’s friends with Senator Byrd. He’s been an Exulted Cyclops in the Klan. He’s been King Kleagle.” (King Kleagle is another KKK title for the leader of an entire “realm,” or state. Quigg is the King Kleagle for California.) Quigg was referring to the late U.S. senator Robert Byrd from West Virginia, who organized and served as the leader of a West Virginia Klan chapter in the 1940s. In 2005, Byrd publicly disavowed the Klan and called his involvement “wrong.” Upon the senator’s death in 2010, Hillary Clinton called Byrd a “friend and mentor.”
    Quigg said that he and other Klan members have raised more than $20,000 for the Clinton campaign and donated it anonymously.

    The endorsement seems a clear attempt to mar Clinton’s reputation—or perhaps a backhanded way to push voters towards Donald Trump, the GOP frontrunner whose stance on issues like illegal immigration falls more in line with the KKK’s. But Quigg denies this. Trump “couldn’t run this country more than he could run a county,” he says. “He knows nothing about politics, or about foreign affairs. He went to Israel and almost got thrown out.”
    Former Klan leader David Duke previously endorsed Trump in the 2016 presidential campaign—an endorsement Trump didn’t immediately disavow. Duke, however, does not speak for the Klan, according to Quigg.
    As for Clinton, “All the stuff she’s saying now, she’s saying so she can get into office, okay? She doesn’t care about illegal immigrants—she’s acting like she does so she can get into office. Once she’s in office, then she’ll implement her policies. She’s a Democrat. The Klan has always been a Democratic organization,” Quigg said.”

  • Forester Dec 30, 2016 @ 6:59

    I used to think we were living in a period where Civil War politics still influenced our world today, but the Trump election changed my mind. I posted on Facebook about how the election map was basically the Union and Confederacy ….. and then a day later I saw that Trump won the rust belt and West Virginia, while the Old Dominion went for Hillary. So much for that Civil War analogy.

  • Sandi Saunders Dec 30, 2016 @ 5:40

    In fact, I think it DOES tell us a lot about “how people attempted to cope” with their own actions and their place going forward. They sought to retell the narrative in a softer, kinder light than the history allowed then or now. They wanted us to collectively forget the atrocity (and treason), come together with their interpretation (and they did well with it as people still fight to keep their memorials) and it is a remarkable parallel to the Trump narrative now asking us all to “come together” and forget the idiocy we just lived through. I will have to agree to disagree with you Professor Levin. The video and the article referenced were spot on to me.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 30, 2016 @ 6:49

      Thanks for the comment, Sandi. I find the connections between the two to be incredibly weak resulting in little understanding of either period of time. FYI, I am not a professor. 🙂

      • Sandi Saunders Dec 30, 2016 @ 6:53

        Sorry, I just assumed you were a professor somewhere. Thanks for allowing the discussion. I do not see the connection as week, but then, I have lived in the South all my life so jaded is my anatomy.

  • Kevin Dally Dec 30, 2016 @ 4:53

    I have posted this before, but even Gen. George H. Thomas complained of the “Lost Cause” after the Civil War: “the greatest efforts made by the defeated insurgents since the close of the war have been to promulgate the idea that the cause of liberty, justice, humanity, equality, and all the calendar of the virtues of freedom, suffered violence and wrong when the effort for southern independence failed. This is, of course, intended as a species of political cant, whereby the crime of treason might be covered with a counterfeit varnish of patriotism, so that the precipitators of the rebellion might go down in history hand in hand with the defenders of the government, thus wiping out with their own hands their own stains; a species of self-forgiveness amazing in its effrontery, when it is considered that life and property—justly forfeited by the laws of the country, of war, and of nations, through the magnanimity of the government and people—was not exacted from them.”

    GEO. H. THOMAS, Major General U. S. A., Commanding

    • Kevin Levin Dec 30, 2016 @ 5:00

      Let me be clear that I am not suggesting that postwar accounts by ex-Confederates and others were not, in part, an attempt to cast the defeated Confederacy in the best possible light, but that we should not simply reduce it to that alone. White southerners sense of their past and future was up in the air in the immediate postwar period. Commemorating the fallen, celebrating military leaders, and waxing poetic about former slaves was also a predictable and perhaps necessary step to building a new foundation. To cast it as simple deception or an attempt to engage in “fake history” tells us next to nothing about how people attempted to cope at a time that few of us today can possibly imagine.

      • Stephen Stilwell Dec 30, 2016 @ 6:15

        Its seems like you’re splitting hairs Kevin, but I agree that the “Lost Cause” is not “fake history” as this historical interpretation of a period of time certainly did exist and is therefore “real.” But your assertion–“White southerners sense of their past and future was up in the air in the immediate postwar period” seems overly broad. I’m sure that SOME southerners could reflect that “openness” but what evidence points to a significant (or even bare) majority of them being open to a “non Lost cause” interpretation?

        • Kevin Levin Dec 30, 2016 @ 6:25

          Hi Stephen,

          Certainly I am not suggesting that all white southerners viewed their future in the same way. Much depended on their location and wartime experience.

          I’m sure that SOME southerners could reflect that “openness” but what evidence points to a significant (or even bare) majority of them being open to a “non Lost cause” interpretation?

          Not sure I understand what you are asking here. Thanks.

          • Stephen Stilwell Dec 30, 2016 @ 7:03

            well I took your assertion that I cited above as meaning that you felt “most” Southerners after the war were open to a non Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War. I see in your reply you say you didn’t suggest “all” but do you believe there is evidence that at some point after the war a majority of white southerners were open to a sense of their past and future different from the Lost Cause interpretation? My understanding is that a clear majority of white Southerners immediately after the war DID believe in the Lost Cause and their sense of their past at least, was NOT “up in the air.” So I was interested in seeing some references that would back up your assertion…perhaps I misunderstood your reply to Mr. Dally?

            • Kevin Levin Dec 30, 2016 @ 8:03

              Thanks for the follow up. As we all know there was no official playbook called “The Lost Cause History of the War”. Certain narrative threads, however, did emerge and you can find them expressed in any number of institutions, histories, literature, personal accounts and cultural acts. At the same time I think the generation that lived through the war tried to understand the past from many perspectives.

              Again, my main point in the post and in response to the CNN piece is that what we understand as the Lost Cause (in all of its complexity) cannot simply be reduced to a conscious effort to deceive.

    • Sandi Saunders Dec 30, 2016 @ 5:52

      Kevin Dally, thank you for that excellent read!!

    • Forester Dec 30, 2016 @ 8:03

      That quote from Thomas is problematic in itself however, as the North decrying “treason” is rather hypocritical given the revolutionary origins of America (especially in the North). The US was founded on treason against Britain, after all.

      “Loyalty” was the North’s own version of the Lost Cause, downplaying the uncomfortable facts that both slavery and rebellion were woven into the fabric of the United States, and that the Confederacy was a logical consequence of the Revolution and constitutional compromises on slavery.

      • Jacksonian Dec 31, 2016 @ 11:57

        Sorry, how many American-born heads of state and members of Parliament were there in London in the 80-odd years before 1775? How many southrons were there of both in Washington in the eight decades or so before 1861?

        Conflating the two is a lazy pro-confederate argument… you get an F.

    • Harold Mullins Jul 24, 2017 @ 14:12

      This fake history deceived the vanquished traitorous South. It allowed her citizens to buy into the apartheid system that kept them backwards for more than a hundred years. Rather than accept defeat and move on, they wasted time and resources.

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