The Legacy of the Lost Cause: An Interview with Kathryn Shively Meier

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the prominent speakers scheduled to speak at the 2016 CWI conference about their upcoming talks and their thoughts about Reconstruction and its legacies.  Today, we’re speaking with Kathryn Shively Meier, Assistant Professor of History at Virginia Commonwealth University. She is the author of Nature’s Civil War: Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia (University of North Carolina Press, 2013).  Dr. Meier is currently working on a biography of General Jubal Early.

Image #1: Dr. Kathryn Shively Meier. Image courtesy Virginia Commonwealth University.
Dr. Kathryn Shively Meier. Image courtesy of Virginia Commonwealth University.

CWI: What are the core elements and ideas that comprise the “Lost Cause?” When and why did it emerge, who were some of its prime architects and supporters, and in what forms did it manifest itself?

MEIER: The Lost Cause, or the collective Confederate memory of the Civil War, most notably emphasizes states’ rights, rather than slavery, as the cause of the war. In the words of Jubal A. Early, a former Confederate general and key architect of the Lost Cause, “During the war, slavery was used as a catch word to arouse the passions of a fanatical mob . . . but the war was not made on our part for slavery.” Early’s 1866 assertion directly opposes the declarations of secession passed by several seceding states in 1861. For example, Mississippi’s declaration of secession read, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery–the greatest material interest of the world.” Other primary tenets of the Lost Cause include the claim that secession was legal, the portrayal of slavery as benign, an explanation of Confederate defeat chiefly as the result of inferior manpower and materiel, the glorification of Robert E. Lee and his lieutenant Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and the practice of extolling Confederate soldiers and Confederate women.

Image #2: Confederate General Jubal Early, a key architect of the “Lost Cause.” Image courtesy of the National Park Service.
Confederate General Jubal Early, a key architect of the “Lost Cause.” Image courtesy of the National Park Service.

While Richmond Examiner editor and Confederate biographer Edward A. Pollard popularized the term “lost cause” with the 1866 publication of his book of the same title, former Confederate generals and white Southern women had already been hard at work preserving this memory of the Civil War through various publications, orations, and memorial events since Lee’s surrender. Jubal Early was the first Confederate general to publish his memoirs in 1866, and he proceeded to develop and solidify the Lost Cause via influential essays in the Southern Historical Society Papers and speeches for the Association of the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee’s death in 1870 significantly intensified the Southern effort to memorialize the revered general and promulgate the Lost Cause.

The Lost Cause, with its emphases on nostalgia for the Old South and romanticizing of Confederates heroes, offered solace to a defeated people, who faced considerable social, economic, and political turbulence in Reconstruction. Throughout the early to mid-nineteenth century slavery had grown unpalatable to much of the western world, hence the de-emphasis of slavery in Southern rhetoric despite its centrality to the Confederate national project. Finally, the Lost Cause offered justification for the war’s monumental toll on humans’ lives and its devastation of the Southern economy.

CWI: What role did the North and Northern voices play in the formation and perpetuation of the Lost Cause?

MEIER: In the immediate aftermath of the war, Northern and Confederate veterans vied to promote their particular memories of events in various newspapers and histories. Jubal Early was particularly active in public disputes with Northern interpretations, such as Philip Sheridan’s account of the Shenandoah Valley campaign of 1864, maintaining that the Confederates lost because of inferior numbers. As Reconstruction wound down in the 1870s, some Northerners embraced the Lost Cause as a useful tool to promote reconciliation, though recent scholarship has shown that this was not as common as once believed. In the twentieth century, popular books and movies, such as Gone with the Wind; art, and school textbooks further obscured historical events by promoting the Lost Cause, leading to an embrace of the Confederate memory by white Americans at large.

CWI: What kinds of resistance did the Lost Cause face in its early years?  Why does studying the Lost Cause today still matter? How is the legacy of the Lost Cause still palpable more than 100 years after its creation?

MEIER: U.S. soldiers, black and white, remembered the war as fought for Union and emancipation, providing their own histories, newspaper accounts, and speeches, particularly at Grand Army of the Republic events. Union soldiers openly and vehemently opposed the Confederate memory for as long as they lived.

While the academy has largely rejected the Lost Cause, it still has salience in popular culture. This is in part because the Lost Cause offers many half-truths, making it complicated for historians to de-tangle and explain. To provide one example, the United States did enjoy overall superior manpower and materiel to the Confederacy; however, these advantages did not guarantee ultimate victory, as four long years of war proved. The United States also needed a winning military and political strategy, which included emancipation, competent generals in key positions, and enduring popular support to prevail.

The Lost Cause remains widespread today in part because popular culture seeks heroes and celebrates underdogs. Moreover, the alliance of the Lost Cause with the concept of states’ rights continues to hold appeal for some who promote small government. Further, Lost Cause symbols have been, and are still, used to trumpet white supremacy. Recent debates over the Confederate flag and monuments have called into question whether the Confederate interpretation of history should continue to be publicly celebrated given its mixed meanings.

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