Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Civil War and Lost Cause Mythology

I'm currently studying the Lost Cause mythology that surrounds America's general understanding and interpretation of the Civil War, and the more I get into it, the more I realize just how pervasive, misleading, and influential it is! The Civil War is a clear exception to the rule that the victors get to write the history, for this movement that arose from early-Reconstructionist Southern thought has taken the foreground in current Civil War memory. From our history books in primary school, to Ken Burns' "Civil War" documentary, the mythologies that make up the Lost Cause are everywhere. And be assured, they are myths, pure perversion of fact.
Over time, CW scholarship has gone through many phases, and the current focus, based upon books and articles being published and info in the blogosphere, seems to be on reviewing primary data to help define, explain, and debunk the interpretations of the war that make up the Lost Cause mythology. As I study the recent work by Gallagher, Nolan, and Foster, I realize that, even though my undergraduate degree was primarily focused on Civil War study, a significant proportion of what I learned and how I interpreted events and people was through the prism that Lost Cause mythology established. I'm sure this is the same for all of us, because we never learned about Civil War mythology as myth, we were taught it is as fact.
For example, what battle leaps into your mind as the most important battle of the war? Who is the first general that you think of when I say "name a Civil War general"? What were the primary causes of the Civil War?
All of these are pivotal and major points in CW education, and all are taught, in large part, based upon the Lost Cause mythology...
Most important battle: bet you thought of Gettysburg
CW general: dollars to donuts Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson came to mind
Primary causes: you probably remember teachers, professors, and textbooks bloviating about states rights, secession, even Northern aggression, with maybe some discussion of slavery thrown in.
Why do we think this way, almost universally, when there are thousands of primary documents (ie firsthand accounts of events written during or just after an event by participants) that clearly describe people very differently, events with varying levels of importance, basically a different war. And why is CW scholarship now finally heading in a new direction? Because the Civil War still resonates more strongly in the way we think, act, and treat each other as Americans than any other event, and much of the resonance, especially today, is based upon myth.
Recall during the 2000 presidential election, one of the pivotal issues before Bush and Gore was whether it was permissible for the Confederate flag, the Stars and Bars, to be flown above the capital building in Charleston, South Carolina. The fact that this flag which, rest assured, flew over a movement based purely on the need to protect and enforce the right to own slaves, could reach the level of presidential discourse, shows how much influence this mythology has, even today.
So, what I propose to undertake on this blog is an effort to do the following: give background into the Lost Cause movement and why it started in the first place, then look at how it blossomed and propogated from purely revisionist history into the common interpretation, and how it still affects and influences us today. Along the way, I will certainly bring up the primary foundations/myths and give the evidence to the contrary.
Please follow along, because this will be an truly fascinating and enlightening journey!

1 comment:

marcferguson said...

I just discovered your blog through reading your comments on Kevin's blog. Your discussion of "Lost Cause Mythology" caught my attention, and I just now read this, your first entry, on that subject. I will go on to read the others.

A while back, I wrote a short definition of the Myth of the Lost Cause for a blog site I haven't launched, and wondered what you thought of it as a "nutshell" definition and point of departure for exploring the issue:

"The term "Lost Cause" is a reference to efforts on the part of former Confederates, especially Jubal Early, and Confederate sympathizers in the decades following the war to recast the meaning of the war, its causes, and reasons for the South's defeat. In the "Lost Cause" version, the Confederates fought for a noble, but doomed, cause. The role of slavery as the underlying cause of the war was completely written out of its narrative of the war and its causes. The South was doomed from the outset because of the North's superior manpower, resources, and industrial capacity. The leaders of the confederacy were noble, valiant, and in all ways superior to those of the Union. Hence, Davis, the statesman, was a man of principle; Lincoln was an unscrupulous politician who schemed to bring about a war in the interests of northern capitalists. Lee was a brilliant, inspiring, and humanitarian general who was never outgeneraled, even against vastly superior forces; Grant was a butcher without imagination who only ever prevailed by throwing his endless supply of soldiers at the enemy with no regard for the cost in lives. Emancipation itself was nothing but a cynical ploy by Lincoln that never freed a single slave. And, of course, the plight of the freedmen after the war was much harsher than it had been under the enlightened and benevolent paternalism of Southern slavery, which in reality was a mutually beneficial social arrangement that had been grossly mischaracterized by Northern abolitionists before the war, who, along with the scheming Northern capitalists, were the true villains of ante-bellum america. The Myth of the Lost Cause became the official ideology of white supremacy in the South, where the war was lost on the battlefield, but the cause was continued in the political, social, and economic arenas of white control over the black population. You see the fruits of this "Cause" with the legal segregation, disfranchisement, economic marginalization, and ongoing public violence of the "Jim Crow" era. The ultimate irony of the term "Lost Cause" is the persistent, and until the Civil Rights era successful, effort to win, through other means, the goals of the Confederacy."