Why the Lost Cause is Not Fake History

I want to try to clarify a point about the Lost Cause narrative of the Civil War that I tried to make in yesterday’s post. My comment came in response to a piece in CNN that suggested a connection between the attempt today to ignore the role of race in the recent presidential election and the turn away from slavery by former Confederates as a primary cause of the Civil War during the postwar period.

According to the author:

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.

I suspect that for many people the Lost Cause is defined by a small number of former Confederates, including Jefferson Davis, Alexander Stephens, and Jubal Early who clearly intended in their postwar writings to re-write the history of the Civil War and justify the cause for which they sacrificed so much. For an even better example I would suggest looking at the UDC’s attempts to regulate history books throughout the South by the early twentieth century. If our definition includes the intention to deceive, this is probably the closest you will get to making the claim that the Lost Cause is fake history stick.

The problem, in my view, is that this comprises an incredibly small corner of what we should try to understand about the Lost Cause. Unfortunately, the author appears only to be familiar with Alan Nolan’s edited volume on the Lost Cause. As much as I admire his work on the Iron Brigade, his understanding of the Lost Cause fails to crack the surface of how many white Southerners struggled to come to terms with defeat, emancipation, black mobility and political action.

If we attempt to enter their world under the working assumption that they were engaged primarily in acts of “self-deception” than we fail to take them seriously as historical agents and we run the risk of engaging in mere presentism. I am going to assume that such an approach does not make me a slavery apologist.

The women that historian Caroline Janney explores in her wonderful book about the Ladies Memorial Association to identify Confederate dead and organize new cemeteries where they could be honored should be understood as a Lost Cause act, but I don’t believe it was done in the name of fake history or self-deception. There is much more to understand in what must have been an emotionally draining experience for many of these women.

Let’s also be clear that while Stephens and Davis certainly chose to re-interpret the period leading up to the war as motivated primarily by states’ rights as opposed to slavery, postwar writings about the South’s “peculiar institution” are remarkably consistent. Slaves remained as loyal and obedient in postwar writings as they had been going back to the 1830s and the shift inaugurated by John Calhoun and others who broke sharply with the past by maintaining that it was a “positive good.”

The Confederate veterans that I am currently working with continued to maintain that their former camp slaves remained steadfast in their devotion. You won’t find accounts of disobedience or camp slaves running away and joining the Yankees. On one level these accounts (some meant for publication, others not) appear to be self-serving and perhaps even engaged in a bit of self-deception. They certainly fit into the broader Lost Cause push to minimize emancipation and slaves’ desire for freedom, but if that is where we leave it, we have missed a great deal.

There are relatively few postwar accounts that place former camp slaves on the front lines with rifles. As in wartime accounts former Confederates remained ambivalent about their presence given their racialized assumptions about the battlefield. More common are accounts of camp slaves rescuing their master’s body in the heat of battle or after the fighting ended. I have little doubt that most of these men believed what they wrote about their former camp slaves. They were not engaged in self-deception or writing fake history. For those who struggled with the horrors of battle, I suspect that the memory of a familiar face from home may have rendered the very act of remembering more accessible.

Let me be clear that I am not in any way denying that what comprises the broad culture of the Lost Cause offers a flawed view of the history of the Civil War. What I am suggesting is that we should resist the urge to treat historical figures as one-dimensional or pluck them out of their historical setting in order to make vague connections with the present.

The author of the article that prompted this post believes that there is a conscious attempt to re-write race out of the 2016 presidential election. I suspect that on some level this is true, but I have seen a good deal of revisionism on a host of issues on both sides of the political aisle. We could chalk it all up to fake history and feel better about ourselves, but I suspect that much of this is a natural fallout of failing to understand the recent past as well as surprise, if not shock, at the outcome of this election.

I would suggest that rather than brush off certain post-election commentary as fake history that we understand it as part of the event itself. Many of us are trying to regain our bearings and turn confusion into understanding. We see a future that is uncertain and fraught with potential landmines. We move forward one step at a time by telling stories and engaging in acts that help to put the pieces back together.

Something to think about next time you delve into the Lost Cause.

4 thoughts on “Why the Lost Cause is Not Fake History

  1. Bryce Hartranft

    I am not quite convinced that southern whites were perfectly convinced of slave obedience. Before the war there were many slave codes (no guns, no reading/writing, etc.) that showed that there was ample fear of slave insurrection.

    I have also seen a number of accounts of southern whites during the war expressing anxiety about slaves rising up. Mary Chestnut said they had “Yankees in front and negroes in the rear.” William Lee, an Alabama planer, wrote Jefferson Davis saying “the Negroes is very Hiley Hope up that they will so Be Free so i think that you Had Better order out All the Negroe felers from 17 years oald up[.] Ether fort them up or put them in the army and Make them fite like good fells for wee ar in danger of our lives hear among them.”

    https://books.google.com/books?id=qfV83wysWTEC&lpg=PT34&ots=B6rfF5V53D&dq=mary%20chesnut%20with%20Yankees%20in%20front%20and%20negroes%20in%20the%20rear&pg=PT34#v=onepage&q=mary%20chesnut%20with%20Yankees%20in%20front%20and%20negroes%20in%20the%20rear&f=false

    http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/letters-president

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      I am not quite convinced that southern whites were perfectly convinced of slave obedience.

      Neither am I. They lived in a world full of contradictions. The coercive nature of slavery itself makes this perfectly clear, but they nevertheless managed to weave together a narrative over time that helped to explain the necessity of coercion as well as slave disobedience and uprisings. None of us lives in a consistent moral universe.

      Reply
  2. Patrick Jennings

    “…we should resist the urge to treat historical figures as one-dimensional or pluck them out of their historical setting in order to make vague connections with the present…”

    Great line. It should be on a banner welcoming all comers at the next AHA Annual Meeting.

    Reply

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