The Last Hurrah of the Lost Cause?

Here are a couple of articles to read together. First, see David W. Blight, Europe in 1989, America in 2020, and the Death of the Lost Cause at The Atlantic. I would seriously love to round up everyone complaining that toppling Confederate statues is “erasing history” and rub their noses in what Blight wrote here.

The Lost Cause is, of course, a mythology that grew in the South after the Civil War. And at the hands of generations of Southern historical scholars, the mythology supplanted the real history of the war, as well as the real history of slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and a lot of other things. The Lost Cause denied that the primary — and secondary, and tertiary — reason so many slave states seceded and formed the Confederacy was to protect the institution of slavery. Instead, the myth insisted, the Civil War was fought to preserve some noble, agrarian way of life that was principled and free. Seriously. And this way of life was ripped away from the poor victimized South by those dirty northern industrialists for some vague reason that never made coherent sense. And if you know anything at all about the real history, you know what a pile of excréments de taureau that is.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu found a document in the National Register of Historic Places that explains the Lost Cause pretty well. It said:

The Cult of the Lost Cause had its roots in the Southern search for justification and the need to find a substitute for victory in the Civil War. In attempting to deal with defeat, Southerners created an image of the war as a great heroic epic. A major theme of the Cult of the Lost Cause was the clash of two civilizations, one inferior to the other. The North, “invigorated by constant struggle with nature, had become materialistic, grasping for wealth and power.” The South had a “more generous climate” which had led to a finer society based upon “veracity and honor in man, chastity and fidelity in women.” Like tragic heroes, Southerners had waged a noble but doomed struggle to preserve their superior civilization. There was an element of chivalry in the way the South had fought, achieving noteworthy victories against staggering odds. This was the “Lost Cause” as the late nineteenth century saw it, and a whole generation of Southerners set about glorifying and celebrating it.

David Blight, who is the Sterling Professor of History at Yale University, takes that a bit further:

The Lost Cause argued that the Confederacy never fought to preserve slavery, and that it was never truly defeated on the battlefields of glory. Lost Cause spokesmen saw the Confederacy as the real legacy of the American Revolution—a nation that resisted imperial and centralized power, and which could still triumph over rapid urbanization, immigration, and strife between labor and capital. Above all, the Lost Cause seductively reminded white Americans that the Confederacy had stood for a civilization in which both races thrived in their best, “natural” capacities. The slaughter of the Civil War had destroyed that order, but it could be remade, and the whole nation, defined as white Anglo-Saxon, could yet be revived.

It didn’t take a lot of mutation for the Lost Cause myth to become the right-wing politics that infect us today. I would argue that most right-wing nuttiness of today is the result of the Lost Cause getting mingled into Red Scares/McCarthyism and evangelical premillennialism. And, unfortunately, that nonsense spread everywhere and wasn’t limited to the South.

As I’ve written here before, most of the Confederate monuments in the U.S. were erected in the early 20th century, a time in which the Lost Cause myth had reach cult proportions. This perod also coincided with the First Red Scare. The Confederate officers so enshrined were depicted as dashing, patriotic gentlemen heroes, nobly defending their “way of life” from the rapacious, freedom-killing federal government.

The 1920s also saw the revival of the Ku Klux Klan. This is all of a piece. Those who embraced the Lost Cause myth also came to lump eastern European immigrants, labor unions, communism, big cities generally, any form of religion that was not Christian fundamentalism, and egghead college-educated northeastern elites into the same pot.

David Blight:

From the eighteen-nineties through the First World War, as Jim Crow laws and practices spread across Southern states, and as lynching became a ritual of terror and control, it was organizations like the U.D.C. and U.C.V. that placed hundreds of monuments, large and small, all over city squares and town centers. By 1920, virtually no one in the South, black or white, could miss seeing a veterans’ parade, or a statue of a Confederate soldier leaning on his musket with sweet innocence and regional pride. Schools, streets, and parks were named for Confederates. And, at one dedication after another, the message sent to black Southerners was that the Lost Cause was no longer lost. It had, instead, become a victory narrative about the overturning of Reconstruction and the reëstablishment of white supremacy. The myth had become the ruling regime, which governed by law and by violence, and because it controlled the story. What’s more, the nation largely acquiesced to, and even applauded, this dogged Southern revival.

I could go on and on, but the short version of this is that the Lost Cause myth is a pile of historical revisionist nonsense that squeezed out real history, and I honestly believe it has to die and be replaced by real history before the poison it represents can be excised. That’s a big reason I am all in favor of getting rid of Confederate monuments, except arguably the very few that mark the spot of some real historical event. Most of them have nothing to do with history; they are totems of the Lost Cause. It also means we need to squeeze what’s left of the myth out of American schools and textbooks, and as much as possible, jeer it out of popular culture. Zero tolerance, I say. We won’t have a manageable, inclusive nation until we accomplish this.

If you can get past the Atlantic firewall (I think they give you a couple free articles every month, if you don’t subscribe), it’s very much worth reading Blight’s essay all the way through. But now I want to move on to the other article of note and a more recent byproduct of the Lost Cause — the Southern Strategy.

Paul Waldman writes How Donald Trump will finally kill the Southern Strategy. It begins:

With one poll after another showing Joe Biden leading him by double digits, President Trump is in a precarious situation. So he has apparently decided that the way for him to prevail is to squeeze one more election out of the Southern Strategy, the one that has delivered the White House to Republicans so many times over the past half-century.

The problem is that he’s been trying to milk that strategy for political success since he took office, without anything to show for it. When we look back, we may well realize that there was indeed one last presidential election that could be won on white racial resentment — but that election happened in 2016.

Donald Trump of Queens, a second-generation American without family history of American military service, whose forebears were all in Europe when the Civil War happened, has embraced the Lost Cause, it appears. He probably doesn’t know exactly what it is, but he knows it’s somehow associated with winning votes in the South and anywhere one finds pickup trucks festooned with Confederate battle flags. He’s adopted  the memory of Confederate generals as the hill he’s going to defend, at least for now.

The Confederate generals, of course, had nothing to do with winning the world wars, a point Trump might not understand. Waldman continues,

Warren’s amendment to the bill funding the military, which would begin the process of removing the names of Confederate leaders from American bases, was approved on a voice vote last month by the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is controlled by Republicans; the larger bill was then approved by 25 to 2.

It seems that even in the president’s own party, there is a growing realization that just as American soldiers don’t train at Fort Himmler or Fort Tojo, it’s obscene for military bases to be named for men who committed treason against the United States in order to maintain slavery.

And on the same day that Trump was proclaiming his commitment to defend Confederate iconography, Mississippi became the last state to remove a Confederate emblem from its state flag. Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, who’s not exactly a liberal, personally oversaw the removal of the old Mississippi flag in the Capitol and posed for pictures to commemorate the historic event.

Waldman argues that Trump is going to makes his appeals to divisiveness and racism more and more explicit as the campaign continues, because that’s all he knows how to do. This is tearing the old Republican coalition apart, because a lot of college-educated and surburban Republicans like their racism in more coded and genteel forms, thank you very much.

But it’s also the case that an all-white party is not going to survive the 21st century. One suspects even Mitch McConnell knows that. Republicans have been mumbling to each other for years that they really need to expand their base to include more racial minorities. But they’ve become too dependent on racist dog whistling as a cheap and easy way to win elections. And they can’t have both.

If Trump loses in November, Waldman argues, it may kill the Southern Strategy for all time. Maybe. In presidential elections, anyway. It may take a bloodbath at the congressional level to really kill it. Well, we can hope. If NASCAR is banning Confederate flags, that tells us the Lost Cause has lost considerable legitimacy.

And if the Lost Cause myth doesn’t die pretty soon, I don’t see how the U.S. will avoid becoming an international pariah, an economic has-been, and a third-world shit hole.

11 thoughts on “The Last Hurrah of the Lost Cause?

  1. the Civil War was fought to preserve some noble, agrarian way of life that was principled and free. 

    And to oppose tariffs!  It's purely a really unfortunate coincidence that all the states that seceded practiced chattel slavery, and that they all chose to secede right after the pro-abolition Republicans won the presidency and a congressional majority.  /snark

    • Also, that all those seceding states, when referring to tariffs as the issue they were torqued about, were so angry that they kept typing "slavery" by mistake.



  2. With all due LACK OF ANY RESPECT to Confederate General's Bragg and Lee, those military bases could have been named after Percy Dovetonsils and Chaim Moscowitz, and we still would have kicked the Axis powers' ass!

    I hope presiDUNCE tRUMP keeps cozying-up to long-dead Secesh Generals, and their immoral cause.

    Because if he keeps it up, the Civil War won't be America's lone "Lost Cause."

    MAGA 2020 will become America's "Lost Cause II."

  3. I sadly don’t have time right now to read the articles you cite; I am nonetheless blown away by the fact that these statues are coming down. It’s as though a certain part of our past has been processed by enough younger people, who have absolutely moved on.

    I read a great article at the Guardian, an interview of Martha Reeves of “Martha and the Vandellas” who sang that great anthem of the summer of 1964 Dancing in the Streets. She pointed out that in the 1960s, the civil rights protesters were predominantly black, today they’re a total mix. The kids are done with this nonsense, hence the statues are coming down.

    All of this is happening against the backdrop of the ascendance and triumph of the South, its dominance in politics, the yielding of Yankee noblesse oblige to the plantation mentality of keeping the workers down.

    All of that was made possible because of the invention of air-conditioning, which transformed the South from an economic backwater to a powerhouse, able to challenge Yankee sensibilities. The South finally won the Civil War. The price is that their statues have to come down.

    • With Trump defeated at the polls, yes.  Jefferson Davis was the first, and Trump is the second president of the confederacy.  And he's just as traitorous as the first one.

  4. I'll be keeping an eye on the statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond Va. It has been so completely overpowered by the voices of protest in the form of graffiti that it has taken on a look of a work by Jackson Pollock. It is to the point where it can't remain because the cost of restoring it and defending it from the voice of protest will be to high a price to pay. And to leave it in it's current state will only serve to act as a visible indictment to the residents of Virginia for their racist history and their unwillingness to shed that racist history if they fail to remove it.

     I'm not a proponent of vandalism, but in the particular case of that statue I feel compelled to give a thumps up to the protesters for delivering a message that was designed to be heard and forced to be acted upon. Touche!

    As it stands now when people look at that statue they are not going to see Robert E Lee.

  5. Its said that the winners get to write history, and even though the South lost the Civil War, the fact that they've rewritten it is testament to the extent southern "culture" has prevailed all these years.

    Here's an excellent documentary put together by Jeffrey Robinson of the ACLU on the history of the confederacy:

    This documentary unearths the truth, that the civil war was fought to maintain not only slavery but white supremacy as well.  This is presented not as the opinion of the presenters, but in the words of the historical protagonists, the confederate politicians and generals themselves.

    I urge everyone to watch this.  I consider myself  knowledgeable in US history, just based on my own reading over the years.  But there were a few interesting nuggets of documented facts that were new to me.

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