Category Archives: Lost Cause

What Is This Thing Called the “Lost Cause”?

Dimitri Rotov recently blogged about R.E. Lee Symposium and the reactions to it that I assume he found around the blogosphere.  His position is very clear:

I myself am a "Lost Cause" skeptic being underwhelmed by the quality of historians trying to play at historiography here. The idea that there is an identifiable "Lost Cause" school of thought among post-war history writers is a proposition that needs arguments and proofs, not a grab bag of self-serving snippets from selected writings.
It’s not clear whether the "historians" he has in question are those in the blogosphere or those who have spent considerable time publishing studies about the Lost Cause.  Dimitri suggests that the Lost Cause is really nothing more than a construct that has as much epistemological weight as any other set of ideas packed together and labeled:
Through a careful editing of materials we can as easily construct a "Lost Cause" mythology as we can a "Lincoln’s Virtues" mythology in which a school of history is assembled from Unionist writings that argue Lincoln’s virtues were decisive in winning the war for the North.
I assume that Dimitri is correct that we could indeed construct a "Lincoln’s Virtues" mythology and perhaps we have already done so, but this statement has nothing at all to do with the efficacy of claims concerning the so-called Lost Cause.  The problem as I see it with Dimitri’s characterization is with his referencing of a "school of thought."  It’s unclear what he means by this.  If Dimitri means something along the lines of what historiographers of American history have described as the Progressive, Whig, or Imperialist schools of thought than he simply does not understand or has not bothered to read the relevant literature on the Lost Cause.  No one has ever suggested that Lost Cause writers were formally trained or were given formal instructions.  In fact, there is a great deal of disagreement among historians about how to understand the Lost Cause.  Gaines Foster has argued persuasively that the Lost Cause can be found in a wide spectrum of civic events following the war while Charles R. Wilson has focused attention on religious ceremonies. 

Studies of the way in which Americans celebrated and recorded their memories and impression of the war have increased significantly over the past decade.  To suggest that they are inventing a "school of thought" is to completely miss the point of these studies.

I think the problem that many people have with historians who study the postwar scene is that they do not want to be reminded that history was up for grabs. In the introduction to his biography, The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson (Harvard University Press, 1974), Bernard Bailyn attempted to explain how distance from the historical event shapes the interpretation. According to Bailyn, early histories "that follow a great and controversial event are still a significant part of the event itself." For the historian, "the outcome [of the event] is still in question," according to Bailyn, and "emotions are still deeply engaged." This emotional attachment to the event by historians "especially those involved in the event in question" leaves wide open issues relating to how the event will be explained, what aspects of it will be remembered, and which participants will be included and why. Throughout this early stage of historical interpretation assumptions and conclusions remain in flux. Only later is the historian able to see clearly from a more detached perspective where "earlier assumptions of relevance, partisan in their nature, seem crude, and fall away." Bailyn’s characterization can easily be mapped onto Civil War historiography.

I don’t see the Lost Cause as a "school of thought" but I do read printed materials and interpret other events as an attempt to understand the past in light of the present.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that those sources have little or no value as critical histories, but that often they tell the historian as much about the authors or those taking part in ceremonies as they do about a past they purport to describe and understand.  What most historians mean when they reference the "Lost Cause" is a set of assumptions that emerged following the war in both the North and South and that could be seen in a wide range of political, social, religious, and cultural acts. 

There is nothing conspiratorial about this, in fact, each of us can appreciate the assumptions that drive historians of the Lost Cause and memory more generally.  Consider the following passage from the philosopher Daniel Dennett:

We, in contrast, are almost constantly engaged in presenting ourselves to others, and to ourselves, and hence representing ourselves–in language and gesture, external and internal.  The most obvious difference in our environment that would explain this difference in our behavior is the behaviour itself.  Our human environment contains not just food and shelter, enemies to fight or flee, and conspecifics with whom to mate, but words, words, words.  These words are potent elements of our environment that we readily incorporate, ingesting and extruding them, weaving them like spiderwebs into self-protective strings of narrative.  Indeed. . . when we let in these words, these meme-vehicles, they tend to take over, creating us out of the raw materials they find in our brains.  (Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained 1991)

As the passage above suggests, we distinguish ourselves from external objects by spinning a different kind of web involving words which are stringed together to construct stories.  And much of that self-narrative is historical.  We constantly revise our own story about ourselves.  This is one of the reasons I am so interested in how Americans remember their collective past.  It is reasonable to suggest that some of the same factors that shape our collective memories are responsible for the continual revision of our own pasts.  You can see this specifically in the context of those more traumatic moments in our lives that involve great sadness.  What we believe to be the case in the immediate aftermath of such events looks very different further down the road.  We gain perspective, forget certain facts, and even invent new ones.

Perhaps one way to think about the study of the Lost Cause is to understand it as reflective of the of the psychological process that each of us engages in as a matter of basic survival.  History opens up a window into those moments where this process is manifest writ large.

What Is This Thing Called the “Lost Cause”?

Dimitri Rotov recently blogged about R.E. Lee Symposium and the reactions to it that I assume he found around the blogosphere.  His position is very clear:

I myself am a "Lost Cause" skeptic being underwhelmed by the quality of historians trying to play at historiography here. The idea that there is an identifiable "Lost Cause" school of thought among post-war history writers is a proposition that needs arguments and proofs, not a grab bag of self-serving snippets from selected writings.
It’s not clear whether the "historians" he has in question are those in the blogosphere or those who have spent considerable time publishing studies about the Lost Cause.  Dimitri suggests that the Lost Cause is really nothing more than a construct that has as much epistemological weight as any other set of ideas packed together and labeled:
Through a careful editing of materials we can as easily construct a "Lost Cause" mythology as we can a "Lincoln’s Virtues" mythology in which a school of history is assembled from Unionist writings that argue Lincoln’s virtues were decisive in winning the war for the North.
I assume that Dimitri is correct that we could indeed construct a "Lincoln’s Virtues" mythology and perhaps we have already done so, but this statement has nothing at all to do with the efficacy of claims concerning the so-called Lost Cause.  The problem as I see it with Dimitri’s characterization is with his referencing of a "school of thought."  It’s unclear what he means by this.  If Dimitri means something along the lines of what historiographers of American history have described as the Progressive, Whig, or Imperialist schools of thought than he simply does not understand or has not bothered to read the relevant literature on the Lost Cause.  No one has ever suggested that Lost Cause writers were formally trained or were given formal instructions.  In fact, there is a great deal of disagreement among historians about how to understand the Lost Cause.  Gaines Foster has argued persuasively that the Lost Cause can be found in a wide spectrum of civic events following the war while Charles R. Wilson has focused attention on religious ceremonies. 

Studies of the way in which Americans celebrated and recorded their memories and impression of the war have increased significantly over the past decade.  To suggest that they are inventing a "school of thought" is to completely miss the point of these studies.

I think the problem that many people have with historians who study the postwar scene is that they do not want to be reminded that history was up for grabs. In the introduction to his biography, The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson (Harvard University Press, 1974), Bernard Bailyn attempted to explain how distance from the historical event shapes the interpretation. According to Bailyn, early histories "that follow a great and controversial event are still a significant part of the event itself." For the historian, "the outcome [of the event] is still in question," according to Bailyn, and "emotions are still deeply engaged." This emotional attachment to the event by historians "especially those involved in the event in question" leaves wide open issues relating to how the event will be explained, what aspects of it will be remembered, and which participants will be included and why. Throughout this early stage of historical interpretation assumptions and conclusions remain in flux. Only later is the historian able to see clearly from a more detached perspective where "earlier assumptions of relevance, partisan in their nature, seem crude, and fall away." Bailyn’s characterization can easily be mapped onto Civil War historiography.

I don’t see the Lost Cause as a "school of thought" but I do read printed materials and interpret other events as an attempt to understand the past in light of the present.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that those sources have little or no value as critical histories, but that often they tell the historian as much about the authors or those taking part in ceremonies as they do about a past they purport to describe and understand.  What most historians mean when they reference the "Lost Cause" is a set of assumptions that emerged following the war in both the North and South and that could be seen in a wide range of political, social, religious, and cultural acts. 

There is nothing conspiratorial about this, in fact, each of us can appreciate the assumptions that drive historians of the Lost Cause and memory more generally.  Consider the following passage from the philosopher Daniel Dennett:

We, in contrast, are almost constantly engaged in presenting ourselves to others, and to ourselves, and hence representing ourselves–in language and gesture, external and internal.  The most obvious difference in our environment that would explain this difference in our behavior is the behaviour itself.  Our human environment contains not just food and shelter, enemies to fight or flee, and conspecifics with whom to mate, but words, words, words.  These words are potent elements of our environment that we readily incorporate, ingesting and extruding them, weaving them like spiderwebs into self-protective strings of narrative.  Indeed. . . when we let in these words, these meme-vehicles, they tend to take over, creating us out of the raw materials they find in our brains.  (Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained 1991)

As the passage above suggests, we distinguish ourselves from external objects by spinning a different kind of web involving words which are stringed together to construct stories.  And much of that self-narrative is historical.  We constantly revise our own story about ourselves.  This is one of the reasons I am so interested in how Americans remember their collective past.  It is reasonable to suggest that some of the same factors that shape our collective memories are responsible for the continual revision of our own pasts.  You can see this specifically in the context of those more traumatic moments in our lives that involve great sadness.  What we believe to be the case in the immediate aftermath of such events looks very different further down the road.  We gain perspective, forget certain facts, and even invent new ones.

Perhaps one way to think about the study of the Lost Cause is to understand it as reflective of the of the psychological process that each of us engages in as a matter of basic survival.  History opens up a window into those moments where this process is manifest writ large.

Robert E. Lee, the Historical Jesus, and the Lost Cause

Reading reactions to my post on this past weekend’s Lee conference reminded me of a couple of entries from last spring.  Given the number of new readers I thought it might be worthwhile to post them again.

April 15, 2006

I’ve been reading with interest about the recent “discovery” of the so-called Gospel of Judas, which some scholars believe sheds new light on the story of Jesus and his death. I should say upfront that I am not a Christian; that said, I am very interested in the debates surrounding the interpretation and understanding of the historical Jesus. In other words, I am interested in better understanding the life of an incredibly important man. Of course, there is a deep-rooted tension here between what we can know historically about this individual and what many claim to “understand” through faith. If we are interested in the historical Jesus than the rules of historical inquiry seem to apply, but this is controversial as anyone who examines the historical data knows that it is problematic. Much of our information about the historical Jesus comes from the gospels contained in the New Testament; however, the earliest gospels are estimated to have been written anywhere between 70 and 120 years after the death of Jesus. This gap raises a number of difficult problems for the historian, including the question of authorship and motivation. A number of scholars have raised the possibilities that later gospels were either copied directly or paraphrased from the earlier texts. What this means, of course, is that the New Testament gospels do not necessarily provide independent confirmation of the subject in question. This gap also suggests that the earliest gospel was not written by someone who knew Jesus personally. Finally, even if we could confirm that the words attributed to Jesus in the gospels were his own, we would still have the challenge of interpreting what he meant by what he said. And as any historian knows this can be extremely difficult if the questions of when, where, and why the words were spoken are unknown.

Getting back to the gap between the life of Jesus and the estimates of when the first accounts were written, imagine that the earliest documents we have of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were dated to the late 19th century and penned by people born after the event. How much of the motivation of the Founders could we uncover? Given the difficulties of interpreting the Constitution today even with a rich history of what they said and why, how far could we go in my imaginative scenario? I have to admit that I don’t know much about this new Judas document, but I welcome any new piece of information that may help peel back the layers of this intriguing individual and the life of Jesus. From what I’ve read the document is dated to the 4th century, which places it at a point later than the gospels. The dating of the document, however, does not seems to render it otiose. It’s been interesting reading reactions from individuals who relish the additional information as opposed to those who almost instinctively resist any challenge to their preferred interpretation. I suspect that part of the reason involves the faith that people exercise in reference to the life and resurrection of Jesus. But this raises the interesting question of the role – if at all – historical sources should play in one’s overall view. Should a believer be concerned about the history and/or historical inquiry that many scholars are presently engaged in surrounding the life of Jesus? If one’s belief in a certain interpretation of the life and death of Jesus is based entirely on faith are there any constraints on such a view; in other words, can I believe anything about Jesus on faith. If there are interpretve constrainsts, what exactly are they and who gets to exercise the authority? And if some historical content that is based on a close reading of a wide range of texts is necessary, how much and who gets to decide and why?

The tension between faith and a need to understand the past resonates in Civil War circles. There are those who have little patience with traditional views of the Confederacy and the Civil War which are rooted in the Lost Cause. Debate is difficult as both camps have divergent agendas. Lost Cause advocates seem more concerned with protecting a specific set of assumptions while historians with a more professional bent tend to find it easier to question deeply-rooted interpretations. I am fascinated by people who stick to their guns when it comes to defending a traditional interpretation of Lee, Jackson or even the “benevolent institution of slavery.” Notice that challenges are dealt with by utilizing the language of betrayal or sacrilege. Those who question “the faith” are called “northern liberals,” “communists,” “revisionists,” and yes, “academics.” For these people no amount of discussion, debate or even the introduction of new sources matters. (I should say that I’ve met some pretty stubborn/close-minded academics in my day. These are not mutually exclusive categories.) Their view is a matter of personal faith and not a function of serious historical inquiry. I am not necessarily judging such an approach, but it is clearly not an approach that I find productive in my own quest to better understand 19th century America. Of course there is a broad area in the middle where both camps merge in creative and at times confusing ways. It can be said that both sides are looking for some kind of meaning in the past, but the routes taken have little in common.

The Da Vinci Code and the Lost Cause

Historians, Revisionism, and Robert E. Lee

Looks like everyone who attended this weekend’s conference on Robert E. Lee sponsored by the Stephen D. Lee Institute had a grand old time.  I came across this short article in the Washington Times which focuses most of its attention on some of the comments by Robert Krick.  The conference is premised on the assumption that R. E. Lee is under attack by politically correct or so-called revisionist historians.  I tend to stay away from responding to these types of claims in large part because I don’t really understand what the criticisms imply.  Serious historians should address the relative merits of individual interpretations rather than hide behind vague generalizations. 

As evidence of this bias Krick claimed that the last few years has witnessed the publication of a "wretched flood of biographies."  He’s absolutely right about this and no doubt I have a couple of these titles on my shelf.  The counterfactual approach that Krick references can be seen clearly in Alan Nolan’s Lee Considered which was published about 15 years ago.  It has spawned a small cottage industry of imitators who tend to publish with small presses and whose authors include Bevin Alexander, Edward Bonekemper, and John D. McKenzie.   Most of these historians adopt Nolan’s assumptions and conclude that Lee lost the war with his overly aggressive strategy and/or conclude that Lee’s reputation was entirely the result of the postwar Lost Cause movement.  This latter argument was made forcefully by Thomas Connelly in his excellent book The Marble Man (1978).  I’ve never really thought of these studies as the result of some kind of personal attack; in the case of Alexander, Bonekemper, and McKenzie we are talking about bad history.  On the other hand, Connelly was a very serious historian and while I disagree with some of his arguments I’ve never been tempted to suggest that his conclusions were being driven by politics. 

Krick cites this postwar construction argument as evidence of revisionism, but is it?  Did Krick at any point in his presentation mention the incredible amount of scholarship published over the past decade that has worked to correct this assumption?  Gary Gallagher has spilled a great deal of ink in various essays arguing that Connelly’s assumptions are mistaken and that Lee’s reputation was solidified before the end of the war, and Krick has shown the same thing regarding "Stonewall" Jackson.  Even more historians have answered the Nolan-counterfactual approach by investigating the reasons why Lee engaged in an aggressive strategic and tactical approach throughout much of the war.  Based on this scholarship I surely do not interpret Lee’s reputation as simple postwar Lost Cause construction.  Of course, this does not imply that the postwar scene did not influence the way we remember the war and Lee specifically

While I admit that there is a great deal of bad history out there let’s keep things in perspective.  Is everything that challenges long-standing assumptions revisionism or politically correct?  I guess that’s what you get when you bring together a bunch of people who are all working under the same false assumptions that imply conspiracy and political motivation.  You end up reinforcing one another without spending time in critical analysis.

And in the end isn’t that what a conference is supposed to be all about?

“Lee at 200″

I know it is a bit early, but those of you in the Charlottesville area should mark your calendars for a series of talks that will take place on Wednesdays beginning on September 26 and ending on October 31.  The conference, which is being organized by the University of Virginia’s School of Continuing Education, will explore various themes connected to the history of Robert E. Lee.  Participants include Gary Gallagher, Robert Krick [check out Krick's article on Ralph Happel in the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star], Elizabeth Pryor [her new book on Lee is due out next week], Holt Merchant, and William Davis.  The final evening will be a roundtable discussion and I’ve been asked to prepare a brief presentation based around the session title, "The Relevance of Lee Today." 

I will pass on additional information as it becomes available.