Civil War Mythbusters: Grappling with the Lost Cause

Last fall, CWI Fellow (and now Gettysburg College graduate) Megan McNish ’16 shared this reflection on the experience of commemorating the Civil War in spite of having no family members who were in America during the conflict. A few hours later, we received a notification that someone had responded to the post. 

We receive many comments on the Gettysburg Compiler, and not infrequently do they come from adherents of the Lost Cause mythology. Few comments, however, have been as detailed and historically problematic as the one Megan’s post received. We invited the Fellows (past and present) to respond with their own comments to different parts of the argument, and now we are publishing their compiled responses along with the original comment. 

The text in the gray boxes below was originally published by the commenter as one long paragraph. We have divided it into sections (though maintained the original order) so that the Fellows’ responses could be inserted immediately after the sections to which they refer. We have also changed visible URLs into hyperlinks for the sake of aesthetic appeal. Apart from these tweaks, no edits have been made to the content, grammar, style, or spelling for either the Fellows or the original commenter. Not every possible critique of the comment is included below as each student was asked to hone in on one or two parts that they thought would most benefit from further discussion and context. 

Feel free to share your own impressions and reactions in the comment section. 

The comment begins:

I commend your passion on this subject and it is truly an honor to read about a youth that studies history. I would however like to set the record straight about the Civil War and the real reasons it was fought. This War just like many others throughout history were fought over greed. The South did not betray their fellow countrymen but rather the North oppressed the Southern states with unfair taxation and think about that for a moment UNFAIR TAXATION. Does that ring a bell think the Boston Tea Party.

Ryan Nadeau ’16:  What makes a tax unfair? Certainly, the case can be made for taxation without representation, as it was during the Revolution. By our standards of representative democracy, that’s just fine. However, prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, the South had plenty of representation. In the Thirty-sixth Congress, which sat from 1859 to the opening days of 1861, the states of the Confederacy held twenty-four of the sixty-six seats in the Senate (two for each state) and sixty-six of two-hundred and thirty-eight seats in the House of Representatives. Admittedly, this number for the House seems unusually low– and it was. Had the South abolished slavery, they would have received significant increases to their political representation. The Three-Fifth’s Compromise, as outlined in the Constitution, recognized only three out of every five slaves towards the population of a state when accounting for representation. Continue reading “Civil War Mythbusters: Grappling with the Lost Cause”

When Confederates Came Marching Home: Jason Phillips on Southern Veterans and Reconstruction

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

Jason Phillips. Image courtesy of West Virginia University.
Jason Phillips. Image courtesy of West Virginia University.

Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the historians 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 Jason Phillips, the Eberly Professor of Civil War Studies at West Virginia University. He is the author of Diehard Rebels: The Confederate Culture of Invincibility (University of North Carolina Press, 2007) and the editor of Storytelling, History, and the Postmodern South (University of North Carolina Press, 2013). He is currently at work on a second book, Civil War Looming: A History of the Future, which examines how Americans anticipated the Civil War and how those prophecies ultimately shaped their experiences and memories of the war.

CWI:  What obstacles—physical, emotional, political, social, financial, cultural—did the Confederate veteran face upon returning home, and how did he seek to deal with them? In what ways did Confederate veterans’ expectations of returning home match with the reality of the homecoming experience, and in what ways were they unprepared for or confounded by the realities of their homecoming?

PHILLIPS: As your question suggests, defeat stared Confederate veterans in the face in every facet of their lives. Failure was a physical, emotional, political, social, financial, and cultural fact that confronted and confounded returning rebels. Patrick Gilmore’s song, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” encapsulated how Confederates anticipated their homecoming. Communities would welcome returning heroes with fanfare. Church bells would peal with joy. Reality mocked such dreams. But if Confederates were unprepared for defeat, they were also unprepared for federal leniency. Many rebels expected the government to punish treason. The Confederate rank and file didn’t fear personal imprisonment or execution, as their generals and political leaders did, but they dreaded disfranchisement, confiscation of property, and a prolonged military occupation of the South. What happened was far less severe, and that federal leniency in 1865 emboldened Confederate veterans to resist Radical Reconstruction years later.

Confederate veterans reunion, Little Rock, AR, 1911. Image courtesy of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.
Confederate veterans reunion, Little Rock, AR, 1911. Image courtesy of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

Continue reading “When Confederates Came Marching Home: Jason Phillips on Southern Veterans and Reconstruction”

Southern Reconstruction and Constructed Memory: Anne Marshall Talks Veterans, Heritage Groups, and Reconcilation

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

Anne Marshall History professor environmental portrait
Anne Marshall. Image courtesy of Mississippi State University

Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the historians 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 Anne Marshall, Associate Professor of History at Mississippi State University. Marshall’s most recent publications include Creating a Confederate Kentucky: The Lost Cause and Civil War Memory in a Border State (University of North Carolina Press, 2010), and “The Jack Burden of Southern History: Robert Penn Warren, C. Vann Woodward, and Historical Practice,” in Storytelling, History, and the Postmodern South, ed. by Jason Phillips (Louisiana State University Press, 2013).

CWI: What role did memory, memorial associations, and the prolific creation of Civil War monuments play during the Reconstruction era?

MARSHALL: The efforts of both former white Confederates and white Unionists to commemorate the memory of the dead and surviving soldiers played a significant role in helping the American public deal with the trauma of war. Monuments and veterans associations became about much more about honoring the past, however. They also served as an effective way to shape the present during Reconstruction. Union veterans associations like the Grand Army of the Republic served as an advocacy group within the Republican Party, while black Union veterans often drew upon their service in the U.S. Army as grounds for obtaining and retaining the rights of citizenship in the post-war era. Most notably, white southerners created an entire worldview surrounding the concept of the Lost Cause, which they wielded to turn back the tide of federal Reconstruction and maintain white supremacy. In many ways, the very different aims of memorial groups who channeled the memory of the Civil War toward different ends became a way of continuing to fight the war in culture and in policy well after the fighting on the battlefield was over. Continue reading “Southern Reconstruction and Constructed Memory: Anne Marshall Talks Veterans, Heritage Groups, and Reconcilation”

Crack Open a Bottle of General Lee – A Second Course

By Ryan Nadeau ’16

Welcome back, fellow historical diners. Last time, you joined me in comparing a fine selection of Union generals to food. Today, we’ll be examining some of their southern counterparts. Let’s dig in!

Robert E. Lee – Aged, Fine Red Wine with a Side of Steak

Consider the following: red wines are often consumed with red meats such as steak. Steak can be enjoyed in any number of ways, from a backyard barbecue to the finest of dining establishments. In this sense, steak is the former Confederacy, ranging as it did from the most rural farmers to the opulent planters.

In memory, Lee is the Confederacy’s classic companion: the red wine to the red meat, though perhaps one better suited to a classier setting. A dish stereotypically and frequently associated with masculinity, paired with an emblem of class. When considering a general frequently held up as the ideal gentleman of the South, could such a combination be any more fitting? Continue reading “Crack Open a Bottle of General Lee – A Second Course”

George Washington: Hero of the Lost Cause

By Alex Andrioli ’18

George Washington was a revolutionary founding father. He served as the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army through eight years of war, turned down the opportunity of becoming sovereign of the newly-formed United States, established the precedent for future presidents, and voluntarily stepped down from office after two terms. Though it took many men to conceive and found the United States of America, Washington is the poster child of the revolution and the spirit of 1776. Washington embodies the basic American spirit, so it is no wonder why both the North and South staked a claim on the “Father of our Country” as civil war loomed.

In times of devastating war, people often turn to something that gives them hope and strength to justify their cause to fight. During the American Civil War people looked to the heroes of the American Revolution because it was the “apex of heroism” that bestowed liberty onto the American people. Soldiers of the Civil War were sons and grandsons of the Revolutionaries who shared admiration in their beloved leader, George Washington, with their descendants. As a result, Washington’s lasting legacy forced him to campaign long after he took his dying breath.

my mans george
Photo Courtesy of the Library of Congress. George Washington. 1890.

Continue reading “George Washington: Hero of the Lost Cause”

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. Continue reading “The Legacy of the Lost Cause: An Interview with Kathryn Shively Meier”

"Competing Memories of the War": An Interview with Dr. Caroline Janney

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the prominent historians scheduled to speak at the 2016 CWI Summer Conference about their upcoming talks and their thoughts about Reconstruction and its legacies. Today, we’re speaking with Dr. Caroline Janney, Professor of History at Purdue University. Janney is the author of Burying the Dead But Not the Past: Ladies Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause (University of North Carolina Press, 2008), and most recently, the multi-award-winning Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation (University of North Carolina Press, 2013).

Caroline Janney

CWI: How did Reconstruction shape the public memory of the Civil War? Who participated (or was not allowed to participate) in the shaping of Civil War memory and why?

JANNEY: Memory is a multi-faceted process that is at its heart about contemporary events. That is, the way in which people (northern and southern, black and white) thought about the war between 1865-1877 was in response to what was happening between 1865-1877. One of the best examples of how the policies of Reconstruction – or at least the uncertainty of what lay ahead – affected memory is the Lost Cause. Because former Confederate men were fearful of being charged with treason, southern white women took the lead in memorializing the Lost Cause. By invoking their maternal obligations to care for the dead, they were able to create Confederate cemeteries and establish the practice of Memorial Days as early as 1866. Continue reading “"Competing Memories of the War": An Interview with Dr. Caroline Janney”

The Clash of Storytelling and History

By Ryan Nadeau ’16

One of the most enduring archetypes of heroic storytelling is the triumph of the underdog: a figure who overcomes great and powerful foes due to their innate virtues, the nobility of their goal, or the hubris of their arrogant and highly flawed enemy. Their triumph illustrates the existence of greater forces of fairness, justice, and righteousness in their story world: a world in which they who are truly deserving of victory find it, and they who are unworthy are cast down – a story which has a spotty record at best in the real world. The narrative does not necessarily have to be so grand, either (the casting down of an enemy is completely optional). The enduring narrative of the self-made-man, for instance, follows a similar path: here is a person who has no material advantages to speak of, but is able to rise to the top of society through their own virtue and skill, triumphing against all odds.

The Confederate Memorial at Stone Mountain, depicting a heroic Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson: Heroes of the Confederate story, but of history? Photography courtesy of Jim Bowen, via Wikimedia Commons. 26 January, 2012.
The Confederate Memorial at Stone Mountain, depicting a heroic Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson: Heroes of the Confederate story, but of history?
Photography courtesy of Jim Bowen, via Wikimedia Commons. 26 January, 2012.

As a human society, we love underdogs – from sports teams, to politicians, to businesses, to even something as mundane as a high school debate team. Why? Because their their success makes a good story, and is a hopeful suggestion that there is a force of fairness in the world that will reward those who work for their success. This is why, for instance, sports fans go nuts for a successful low-seed team during NCAA March Madness. The very fact that we call such turns of fortune “Cinderella Stories” reflects our affection for the fairy-tale of the underdog. Continue reading “The Clash of Storytelling and History”

Vandalism and Symbolism

By Steven Semmel ’16

The world of social media has been buzzing over the topic of the Confederate flag, creating a scary divide of opinions over it. The whole debate/argument started over the shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. The shooter had the Confederate flag posted all over his social media sites, creating some disturbing images of hatred. Instead of focusing on the race war the shooter was trying to start, many focused on the Confederate Flag he had in his pictures online. Tempers flared and many sought the removal of the Confederate flag from in front of the Capital Building in Charleston during the funerals of the victims.

However, this was just the beginning. Soon many people wanted more, to remove the flag all across the country. Apple, Amazon, eBay, and Walmart joined the event by removing Confederate flag items from being sold. The announcement made many people feel that their “Southern Heritage” was being suppressed and people were “too soft and offended by too many things in today’s society.” Then the Gettysburg National Park Service announced the removal of sole Confederate flag merchandise from their book store. The same people now thought that the government was trying to oppress the Southern perspective of the Civil War and were going to remove Confederate flags from all museums. The people for the removal thought it was about time that the flag was removed because it stood for slavery and a national divide. They also brought in the argument that Germany banned the Nazi flag from flying, so why was the Confederate flag still flying to this day. But what does this flag mean and what is the appropriate way to respond to this debate? Continue reading “Vandalism and Symbolism”

Flags of Some of Our Fathers, Part 2: The Little Giant

By Matt LaRoche ’17

One of the most seductive forms that Confederate memory has taken in the century and a half since the alleged return of peace truly reeks of a David vs. Goliath complex. The image of the luckless-yet-plucky Johnny fighting off endless blue waves of Northern invaders—with all of the hope of a man stabbing the ebbing ocean with a butter knife—endures in popular memory. As Tony Horowitz’s investigations in the 1990’s uncovered, those sympathetic to the Southern cause have long since codified the notion of the rebel cause as A) nobly doomed from the start on account of the North’s overwhelming industry and manpower and B) a stand for noble principles of personal freedom from governmental intervention—i.e. the ‘States Rights’ argument. In all of this, of course, there is no longer any serious contemplation of the horrors of slavery, the clear unhappiness of the slaves, or the palpable class-based oppression of the South’s antebellum ‘Haves’—the slaveholding aristocracy. The days when political alignments eclipsed the dark side of the South have long since passed, but the old rationalizations still persist and mistakenly defend the Southern war effort, portraying her soldiers as spotless martyrs.

And these views can be hard to challenge. Not from an objective standard, necessarily, but from an emotional one. A visit to Point Lookout, Maryland—former site of one of the larger prisoner of war camps to hold captured rebels—reminds visitors of how strongly the plight of the rebel prisoner of war is still felt today. The sight sports not one but two grand monuments to the Southerners who perished in Federal captivity. A sober obelisk placed by the United States government post-war marks a mass grave for 3,384 Confederate prisoners who could not be identified for individual burial. A dazzling, lovingly-maintained mash-up of state and rebel unit flags, soldiers’ names carved in stone, and the illuminated likeness of the ubiquitous Southern son sits separated from its sister by a few yards and a scraggly tree line. This addition appeared on the scene in 2008. Every time I visit I find reminders, such as wreaths, that people have taken time out of their lives to drive to the very tip of Maryland to pay their respects.

Federal monument to the unknown Confederate dead interred at Point Lookout. This obelisk is said to be the only federally funded monument to Confederate soldiers. Wikimedia Commons.
Federal monument to the unknown Confederate dead interred at Point Lookout. This obelisk is said to be the only federally funded monument to Confederate soldiers. Wikimedia Commons.

Continue reading “Flags of Some of Our Fathers, Part 2: The Little Giant”