Monday, April 18, 2005

Confederate "Heritage" Month - April 18: The real Civil War and the Lost Cause mythology

The Lost Cause mythology that grew up as the ideology of the postwar "Redeemer" movement that excluded black citizens from voting and most meaningful participation in the South is not restricted to the Civil War itself.  But there are particular Lost Cause dogmas about the war itself that are key parts of the myths.

The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History (2000), Gary Gallager and Alan Nolan, eds., contains a number of essays dealing with various aspects of the origin and perpetuation of the neo-Confederate/Lost Cause version of history. Nolan's contribution, "The Anatomy of the Myth," provides a valuable summary of the key elements of the fable.  He describes the Redeemer version as follows:

Despite the undisputed essentials, the war is surrounded by vast mythology. Indeed, it is fair to say that there are two independent versions of the war. On one hand there is the history of the war, the account of what in fact happened. On the other there is what Gaines Foster calls the "Southern interpretation" of the event. This account, "codified" according to Foster, is generally referred to by historians today as "the Lost Cause." This version, touching almost all aspects of the struggle, originated in Southern rationalizations of the war. Then it spread to the North and became a national phenomenon. In the popular mind, the Lost Cause represents the national memory of the Civil War; it has been substituted for the history of the war.

The Lost Cause is therefore an American legend, an American version of great sagas like Beowulf and the Song of Roland. Generally described, the legend tells us that the war was a mawkish and essentially heroic and romantic melodrama, an honorable sectional duel, a time of martial glory on both sides, and triumphant nationalism.

Nolan describes the major features of the prewar version of the Lost Cause fable as the following:  slavery was not the issue that caused the war; despite slavery having nothing to do with it, the wicked Yankee abolitionists stirred up a bunch of trouble unnecessarily; besides, heck, slavery would have quietly disappeared on its own if those meddling Yankees hadn't caused all these problems - not that slavery had anything to do with causing therewar, though; the slaves, by the way, were very well treated and were generally completely contented with their lot - not to suggest that slavery had any part in causing the war, though; and, there were cultural differences between the South and the North that led to all kinds of problems - none of those cultural differences having to do with slavery, of course.

The first two weeks' posts covered a lot of that ground, so I won't belabor it further here.

The favorite elements of the wartime part of the Lost Cause myth included, in Nolan's take on it: an idealized home front, where the happy slaves and kind masters tried valiantly to save their noble civilization from the wild and barbaric Yankees; Confederate soldiers that were models of courage and honor; the sanctity of the doctrine of secession - not that this sacred constitutional principle had been exercised on behalf of slavery, you understand; and, a Confederate military leadership made of the saintliest souls since Jesus' apostles.

Nolan offers an important reminder of why postwar Southerners felt the need to promote a  fantastic version of very recent events that must have been difficult for any sane person to pretend they believed, in the early postwar years especially.  The war had been an overwhelming disaster for the South - in human terms, in economic devastation, in the physical destruction of wealthy and property.  And the central economic institution of the South, slavery - which had nothing to do with causing the war, you see - was eliminated.  The Thirteenth Amendment freeing the slaves could be accurately seen as the largest uncompensated seizure of property in the history of the country.

The saintly, noble, honorable, brilliant leaders who had led the Confederate revolt - for reasons that had nothing to do with slavery, oh, certainly not - had brought an unprecedented failure and an astonishing harvest of death and destruction onto their people. Nolan writes:

Leaders of such a catastrophe must account for themselves. Justification is necessary. Those who followed their leaders into the catastrophe required similar rationalization. Clement A. Evans, a Georgia veteran who at one time commanded the United Confederate Veterans organization, said this: "If we cannot justify the South in the act of Secession, we will go down in History solely as a brave, impulsive but rash people who attempted in an illegal manner to overthrow the Union of our Country."

The claim about the Civil War itself partially have to do with specific military judgments.  A big element in the elevation of Robert E. Lee to godly status in the postwar legend involved blaming Gen. James Longstreet for the loss of the Battle of Gettysburg.

But a more general Lost Cause claim was that the Confederate didn't really lose militarily.  It was just that they were overwhelmed by the superior numbers and industrial strength of the North.  Union Gen. Ulysses Grant was charged with recklessly throwing large numbers of men into battle, careless of the human cost, to exploit the great manpower advantage of the North.  (It would be interesting to know what effect if any that this Lost Cause myth of the undefeated Confederacy had on the post-Vietnam War claim that the US never lost a battle against the Vietcong.)

This idea of the inevitable doom of the Confederate war effort really doesn't hold water, as Nolan explains.  He quotes Southern historian Bell Wiley from 1956, for instance:

In the years since Appomattox, millions of southerners have attributed Confederate defeat to the North's overpowering strength. This is a comforting conclusion and is not without a substantial basis of fact. . . . But the North also faced a greater task. In order to win the war, the North had to subdue a vast country of nine million inhabitants while the South could prevail by maintaining a successful resistance. To put it another way, the North had to conquer the South while the South could win simply by outlasting its adversary. By convincing the North that coercion was impossible or not worth the effort. The South had reason to believe that it could achieve independence; that it did not do so was as much, if not more, due to its own failings as to superior strength of the North.

That point it also important in reference to Lee's reputation as a general.  His admirers have often praised him for his bold, aggressive approach in taking the fight to the enemy.  But if the essential strategic military task for the Confederacy was to hold on and outlast the other side, Lee's risky and aggressive strategy looks very problematic.

Nolan also points out a basic fact about the home front in the South.  There was a lot of dissent and division.  The tale of the united home front behind the sacred Confederacy was not reality.  And some of that opposition was based on plain old Jacksonian American patriotism.  One of my favorite stories from the Civil War is that of the Free State of Jones, in which a band of pro-Union Confederate deserters and local resisters in Jones County, Mississippi, fought the Confederacy behind the lines.  And lived to tell the tale.

The secular canonization of Confederate heroes like Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and even Nathan Bedford Forrest - whose main legacies to history are the brutal massacre of black Union soldiers at Fort Pillow and his postwar founding of the first Ku Klux Klan - is a major part of the Lost Cause dogma.  I'll be talking more about the Lee story in later posts.

The Lost Cause view of the Civil War, its antecedents and its consequences, cannot be understood, Nolan stresses, apart from its specific image of African-Americans.  It grew up as an ideology in the postwar period whose purpose was to serve the political goal of maintaining the political and economic subjugation of black citizens in the South.

It also served as a unifying ideology for white citizens of the North and South after the war, who achieved a reconciliation that was in the end based on white supremacy and on a denial of democracy and basic Constitutional and human rights in the South.  Though blacks were the main victims, it also drastically limited the rights and status of ordinary whites, as well.

The maudlin celebration of that bloody war that became a part of the postwar white regional reconciliation probably still affects the willingness of many Americans to celebrate war in a way that has terribly destructive consequences.  As Nolan argues:

The historical image of the war is, of course, quite different. [By "historical image," Nolan here means a reality-based version of what really happened.]  It says that the seceding states were dominated by a cruel and wrongful slavery. As evidenced by the prewar political discord, the nature of the compromise efforts on the eve of Fort Sumter—all of which concerned the legal status of slavery - and the prewar statements of Southern political leaders, slavery was the sectional issue. Southern political leaders led their states out of the Union to protect slavery from a disapproving national majority. Although slaveholders constituted a distinct minority of Southern people, a majority of these people were committed to the institution for African Americans. The North went to war to defeat secession. The Civil War, therefore, presented three issues: (1) however flawed the circumstances, human freedom was at stake; (2) the territorial and political integrity of the United States was at stake; and (3) the survival of the democratic process - republican government of, by, and for the people - was at stake.

Secession was not therefore heroic—it was mean and narrow and a profound mistake. Its leaders were wrong and authored a major tragedy for the American people. Dismantling the United States in 1861 would not have benefited either the North or the South. On the contrary, it would have led to constant conflict over such things as access to the Mississippi River and the rights of the two nations to the territories, and it would have established the precedent that a loser in a democratic election may successfully resort to warfare, as Lincoln discussed in his Gettysburg Address. The warfare itself, in which African Americans participated in behalf of the North, was cruel and terribly destructive to the people of both sides.

(See the Index to Confederate "Heritage" Month post 2005 for links to all this year's posts.)

1 comment:

lazilio said...