Katy Shively on the Lost Cause and Civil War Memory

The Civil War Institute has been knocking it out of the park with their regular series of interviews with Civil War historians. This week’s interview with historian Katy Shively is no exception. Katy is currently working on a biography of Jubal Early. I’ve known about this project for quite some time, but only after listening to this interview do I now have a sense of the direction it is going. I can’t wait to read it.

I highly recommend listening to the entire interview, but for now I want to highlight a point that Katy emphasized early on about the Lost Cause and Civil War memory. Katy believes that Jubal Early should be understood as a historian rather than someone who was narrowly focused on establishing the early Lost Cause narrative. This is a provocative point given our tendency to see Early as one of the central architects of the Lost Cause—a narrative that is all too often reduced to mythmaking.

In fact, Katy views Early as having embraced many of the tenets of an emerging ‘scientific history’ that was only beginning to emerge toward the end of the nineteenth century. Early’s methods included an emphasis on numbers, the gathering of primary sources, the use of peer review, and objective tone in language (at least during Lee’s lifetime). Ultimately, Early helped to shape many of the assumptions that professional historians embraced about the military history of the Civil War up to just a few decades ago.

This is not to suggest that Early was not committed to vindicating the Confederacy, but what Katy wants us to understand is that the line between history and memory is never fully transparent and that it includes a good deal of overlap. She suggests that our tendency to draw sharp distinctions between the two is often a reflection of our need to create ‘comfortable borders’ or an attempt to place ourselves at a distance from which it is safe to be critical or dismissive of the Lost Cause narrative.

I think this last point is crucial. All too often the Lost Cause, in our popular discourse and debate about monuments, is reduced to a conscious attempt on the part of defeated Confederates and white southerners at mythmaking. Sometimes we hear that they intentionally “lied” about the war for the purposes of self vindication and/or to reestablish white political control. We fail to see the many ways in which the evolution of the early Lost Cause narrative was part of an honest attempt to understand the profound transformations that occurred during the war and why it ended in defeat.

The failure to step back reduces these people to one-dimensional caricatures and implies that we somehow occupy a superior space or perspective that is grounded in history and not myth or memory. In fact, as Katy reminds us, we occupy all of these spaces.

2 comments… add one
  • Josh Mar 30, 2021 @ 4:50

    A biography of Early sounds interesting, both for his role during the war and after it.

    I think Early was biased but sincere, in contrast to someone like William Randolph Hearst or many modern political talking heads are deliberately dishonest because they’re trying to sell something (Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones, etc).

    It’s certainly possible to do good research with bad intentions, or at least bias that clouds your interpretation of your research. Going in with a predetermined conclusion, rather than questions, usually leads to distorted results. If you have two historians using the exact same evidence, but if one starts their research with the thesis “Lee was a great general so why did the Confederacy lose?” while the other starts with the thesis “The Confederacy lost. Was that in spite of Lee being a great general, or because he wasn’t one?” then you are going to end up with very different books.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 30, 2021 @ 4:58

      Fair enough, but I think Shively is arguing that Early needs to be understood as a historian beyond the narrow question of Lee’s battlefield performance.

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