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.