Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Second Phase Of The Lost Cause Study

The recently deceased Alan Nolan wrote in his essay "The Anatomy of the Myth", that "the victim of the Lost Cause legend has been history, for which the legend has been substituted in the national memory." Therefore, let us rise in the defense of history and continue our analysis of the Lost Cause mythology. The next phase of our study is going to be an examination of the pillars of the Lost Cause. Before we go on and because of the long hiatus in this discussion, I give a series of links to the posts that have preceded this one, but for the full list of associated posts, click on the Lost Cause link in the righthand sidebar.
Lost Cause #1
Lost Cause #2
Lost Cause #3
In these preceding pieces I've attempted to establish the "why" behind the Lost Cause. Now here are a few of the primary tenets that make up this long-standing and widespread mythology.
1. Slavery was not the cause for the lawful secession of 11 states
2. The Confederacy was not defeated, it succumbed solely to the overwhelming quantities of men and materiel generated by the Union
3. Robert E. Lee was an unparalleled leader of men and, as the best general in the war, should be revered with an almost god-like status. Conversely, US Grant, who accepted Lee's surrender at Appomattox, was a drunken butcher who blundered his way to victory.
4. The Eastern Theater of the war, which pitted Lee and Stonewall Jackson's Army of Northern Virginia against the Army of the Potomac, was far and away the most important theater of combat in the war.
I fully recognize that there are many other points that could be addressed here, but I'll focus on these, as they are arguably the four cornerstones of the Lost Cause.
Let's start with the slavery question first. The sheer genius of this construct was making slavery a question in the first place, and this was accomplished based almost entirely on the retrospective histories that I detest so much. The essays, statements, and discussions that laid the foundation for this claim from men ranging from Jefferson Davis to Jubal Early were compiled after the war. Conveniently, statements from the highest levels of Confederate leadership on the sectional crisis and slavery issue before and during the war, of which there were many (please feel free to request references, I will be more than happy to provide), did not make it into the purview of the Southern Historical Society and the like.
Also, it is important to remember that this whole discussion was something of an apologia ex vacuo, an apology in a vacuum. It's not like there were scheduled hearings at any level to review and investigate these issues. This was simply an effort from these men to write the history that they knew would validate their cause, accuracy be damned. The alternative, being labeled as men who started a war and led hundreds of thousands to their deaths in order to protect their right to enslave and profit off of other men, was something they clearly wished to avoid.
Instead, words like, as Robert Durden wrote "liberty, independence, and especially states rights were advanced by countless Southern spokesmen as the hallowed principles of the Lost Cause" What these ubiquitous terms, and I use the term ubiquitous because they turn up in virtually every high school text and many college curricula, fail to define is the right and independence to do what exactly?
To answer this, one must one study the sectional crisis from the early 1800s onwards. In doing so, it is clear that the southern leadership wished to have the right to not only keep slaves (as the Confederate constitution explicitly guaranteed), but expand into new territories (Kansas-Nebraska Act, Ostend Manifesto, Central and South American filibustering, among other seminal issues) and use the federal government to return escaped slaves in the North back to the South without trial or hearing (the Fugitive Slave Act). If you wish to review these items in detail, I recommend "The Impending Crisis" by Potter. I will be writing my review of it shortly, but the weight of evidence clearly supports the hypothesis that the primary southern motivation for secession and war was the issue of slavery.
Along with this apologia ex vacuo, the other technique to minimize the import of slavery in the national memory was to portray it as a somehow benign institution with peaceful and contented laborers. This myth took off like wildfire in both the history books and popular culture; one needs only watch or read "Gone With The Wind" to see it. This still lives on today with Confederate apologists crafting elaborate discussions of slaves participation in the Confederate war effort, I refer you again to Kevin Levin's Civil War Memory for an excellent discussion on this topic.
We must; however, again look back at primary sources to find out what slavery was really like. If you read Kenneth Stampp's "The Peculiar Institution" which I previously reviewed, you would be hard-pressed to maintain that school of thought. Moreover, the reaction in the South to servile insurrection speaks volumes about the volatility of the master-slave relationship and the white fear of massacre and destruction at the hands of liberated slaves. Few men before General Sherman did more to strike fear into the hearts of Southerners, slaveholder or not, than Nat Turner in 1831 and John Brown in 1859.
It is an injustice to history and to the people who suffered under the yoke of slavery to continue to turn a blind eye to the role of this institution as the pivot point on which the ACW turned. When we can finally accurately and comprehensively acknowledge the staggering motivating power and devastating effect that slavery had, we can begin to teach and learn our nation's history and understand its effects on today's culture.

No comments: