What is the Lost Cause of the Confederacy?
Arising from the cataclysm of the Civil War, the Lost Cause of the Confederacy is an interpretation of history that seeks to romanticize the ‘Old South,’ “one in which nostalgia for the Confederate past is accompanied by a collective forgetting of the horrors of slavery.”
As Joseph Price, founder of Livingstone College, said in 1890, “The South was more conquered than convinced, it was overpowered rather than fully persuaded. The Confederacy surrendered its sword at Appomattox, but did not there surrender its convictions.” The Lost Cause was, and is, the way the Confederacy preserved these convictions for posterity.
Why is it a problem?
The Lost Cause narrative is designed to invalidate the African-American experience and justify white supremacy by absolving white Americans of the sins of slavery and rebellion.
It is deeply rooted in racism. To rationalize the war, the Lost Cause constructs an antebellum South that was a stable and tranquil society with happy and fulfilled slaves and kindly masters, or that Confederate leaders – most of all Robert E. Lee – were heroic and saintly, had no stake in slavery, and merely fought to defend their homes, or that Reconstruction was a “rape” of the South.
All of these are gross distortions of the historical record. More insidiously, the Lost Cause does not – and, in fact, cannot – include the story of slavery, the story of emancipation, and the story of Jim Crow. That the same men who created Jim Crow also erected Confederate monuments is immaterial to Lost Cause ‘historians.’ To them, ‘Southern heritage’ – which nearly always means white heritage – must be defended and celebrated against all alternative narratives.
Why shouldn’t we let people believe this?
We believe that a segregated society demanded a segregated history. If these statues are allowed to be placed in reverence, New Orleans will keep alive the narrative of white supremacy and endorse the symbols of racial oppression.
Since their creation, the symbols of the Lost Cause have been symbols of hatred, wielded by those that opposed freedom and equality. The New Orleans City Council – including Mayor Cantrell – voted to declare that these monuments “praise a subject at odds with the message of equal rights under the law.” We can never have true reconciliation in our state as long as the narrative of division is given respect.
How is the Lost Cause not valid history? Isn’t it just another history?
History, as a discipline, requires an understanding of context and a willingness to interrogate and criticize sources for their own biases and agendas, for what authors in the past chose to include and what they chose to ignore. Historians – real historians – devote tremendous energy to historiography, on understanding the way historians of the past framed their narratives. The Lost Cause is not capable of doing this honestly, and thus is no history at all.
History is not just about the remembering, but also the forgetting. Since the 1950s, historians have examined the intellectual history of the Lost Cause, its invention as part of the resistance to Reconstruction, and its role in justifying Jim Crow. And yet Lost Cause supporters have no interest in understanding why they know what they know, and what that implies.
So, what about this secret committee? Are they thoughtful historians?
Nope! Read all about their issues in Part Two.