Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Lost Cause: Definitions and Beginnings

Like many others, I'm still stunned by the brazen, disgraceful, disingenuous display of the Confederate flag in Tampa, Florida.
Words like "ignorant", "racist", and "disrespectful" leap to mind, not just when I see the flag flying, but read the words of those who planned this exhibition and those who support it.
I do not wish to give them any louder voice than they can muster themselves, so there will be no links or quotes in this space. If you want to find and read them, good hunting.
One important thing to note is the group that planned and funded this endeavor; an organization called Sons of Confederate Veterans. This point is important is because this group was and still is a cornerstone of some of the greatest mythology in the American pantheon, The Lost Cause.
Definition: The Lost Cause was and is the literary and intellectual effort of white southerners, ie Confederates,, to reconcile and explain the Confederates' shattering defeat in the Civil War. As Gaines Foster, probably the foremost historian on the subject, says, it is the "Southern interpretation" of the Civil War. Originating as it did in the South after the war, this caricature of actual events, ideas, and strategy eventually spread to the North and the rapidly developing West. Over time, this constructed memory has replaced the actual history of the war.
I want to move in a step-wise fashion through this complicated quagmire of national memory and history, so we will start with the underpinnings and beginnings of this movement here. In posts to come, we will cover the key tenets of the Lost Cause and the actual history that is being subverted, then slavery, secession and the Lost Cause, and finally how the Civil War is presented in movies and the media. This will take some time, but let's begin.
At the end of the Civil War, the southern states that made up the Confederacy (Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi) were, to be blunt, absolutely shattered. Emotionally, philosophically, financially, and physically gutted. To whit:
-25% of men aged 20-40 dead
-40% of livestock destroyed
-50% of farming supplies and equipment lost
-railroads and heavy industry completely paralyzed
-approximately 60% of total Confederate wealth lost, and...
-the complete termination of the institution which had supplied labor, lifestyle, philosophy, and financial position to the Confederacy; slavery.
The veterans coming home from combat, as well as the women, children, and elders who had lived through the darkest days of the war, were not only left with a devastated society, but without explanation for it. Throughout the nation, people were quite pious, and the belief in divine inspiration and support was rampant throughout both sides. Now the losing side had to come to grips with the disillusionment of a clear divine rejection of its philosophy and its efforts.
The spiritual aspect aside, the Confederate leadership also needed to account for themselves and their actions which had led to disaster, as did the men who fought under the (many) flags of the Confederacy.
Foster's book features a quote from Clement Evans, a veteran from Georgia who later became commander of the United Confederate Veteran's organization (from which the above-named Sons of Confederate Veterans arose). Evans stated "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."
From this nearly impossible position came an effort to recast the ideals and efforts of the Confederacy, to present secession as a heroic effort, and the war as a noble, honorable cause. This effort got started right away. Edward Pollard, previously the editor of the Richmond Examiner, both named and launched the movement in 1867 with the publication of "The Lost Cause: The Standard Southern History of the War of the Confederates." It wasn't until a former Confederate general and wholly unreconstructed secessionist started writing and publishing; however, that this movement began to pick up steam. Prepare to meet one of the most influential fathers of the Lost Cause, General Jubal A. Early.

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