Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Book Review: "The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History"

This book is actually a collection of nine essays by a host of notable Civil War and Lost Cause historians published in 2000. If you look at the "reading stand" sidebar, you'll notice that I started this work several months ago, and this is why. Each essay is really a stand-alone work that fits under the umbrella of the broad title, thus it can be consumed in a leisurely fashion without having to go back over old ground.
Dr. Gary Gallagher, a professor at the University of Virginia and a noteworthy Civil War historian, has made a nice niche for himself by co-editing this work (with Alan Nolan) and many others like it. Most cover a specific campaign, and as I've read the three volumes on Gettysburg, one on Fredericksburg, and have texts on Antietam and the Peninsula Campaign in the library, I was quite curious to see what this non-campaign based collection would be like.
When I read the previous efforts, I was struck by how they are certainly not meant for beginners on any particular subject. Each essay assumes some level of previous reading/learning about the subject, thus my experience has been mixed. I opened this book knowing that my expertise on the Lost Cause was more in its nascency, so I kept my expectations limited.
I was most pleased to find the first two essays, by Gallagher and Nolan, titled "The Anatomy of the Myth" and "Jubal Early, the Lost Cause, and Civil War History: A Persistent Legacy." These two essays, each about 25 pages, pack a tremendous amount of background into the Lost Cause both as a theory and its development. The space limitation really isn't much of an issue, especially for Nolan, who packs a huge amount into his space.
After those first two efforts, the rest of the book is quite different in tone, as each essay focuses more on a subset of the Lost Cause mythology and dissects it in some detail. Particularly strong efforts are Brooks Simpson's study of the Lost Cause and its vendetta against U.S. Grant, and Jeffry Wert's discussion of James Longstreet and the Longstreet-lost-it-at-Gettysburg myth.
I closed the book with a vastly increased understanding of the subject, which is clearly the point; yet I was somehow unsatisfied. I had hoped for an essay that would examine the propagation of the Lost Cause mythology into contemporary thought and education; sort of a history of Civil War history if you will.
The essays are chock-full of things that the mythology has made quite real in movies and textbooks throughout the country, and though there is a clear foundation for the mythology and reputations it tried to injure or bolster as the case may be, the long-term ramifications are not explored. Is this a fatal flaw in the book? Of course not, each essay is a separate entity and these disparate parts are brought together under the same cover. If this was a single text on the Lost Cause, this would be much more of a problem.
There is much to be gained by studying the Lost Cause and it is a complex issue. This text not only covers much of the subtlety of the issue, but provides a cogent and quite complete background for someone entirely new to the subject.

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