Tuesday in Mooseville – The Lost Cause Myths We Still Haven’t Busted 9/17/19

Monument to a Confederate soldier, dedicated in 1901 in the town of Union, West Virginia, to “men who served the lost cause” in the U.S. Civil War.  Worth considering: this was the era when Confederate war memorials proliferated.  Memorials are typically built by the victors; what did they assume they had won?

I became a history major, in part, because I had excellent, compelling history teachers throughout my childhood. It seemed to me (although I didn’t have these words until I was much older) that they approached their lessons as historians first and schoolteachers second. I distinctly remember two different occasions in two different school districts in two different states with two different teachers when the history textbook was read aloud…and then the teacher(s) closed the book, threw it across the room in frustration, and stated, “Now let’s talk about what really happened.” Nowhere was this more evident than when the Civil War was the topic of study, and as a result, I missed many of the Lost Cause shibboleths that were being taught at the time. My high school history teacher did change things up, and he taught “the war of Northern aggression” from the Southern “perspective” so we learned the Lost Cause historiography, but we learned it as myth rather than as historical fact. So while I knew that some people viewed “states’ rights” as a proximate cause of the Civil War, I had read the primary documents of secession written by Southern legislatures with their unequivocal statements about seceding over their determination to preserve and expand slavery.

Unfortunately, my teachers were the exception rather than the rule, and too many of the myths perpetuated by the Daughters of the Confederacy are still found in history textbooks today. It’s largely understood today that this twisting of historical memory was intentional and done to serve the agenda of white supremacy. Studying the myths of the Lost Cause isn’t just done to establish the difference between myth and reality; it’s done to understand how historical memory is created.

…the study of memory allows us to understand the extent to which previous interpretations of the past were subject to political, social, and economic pressures, and how difficult it was for individuals and communities outside of dominant power structures to preserve and commemorate their preferred understanding of the past. (Levin, Kevin. Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder, University Press of Kentucky, 2017, p. 10)


In their book, The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader: The “Great Truth” about the “Lost Cause”, James W. Loewen and Edward H. Sebesta identify four key neo-Confederate myths that drove the understanding of the Lost Cause during the Nadir and beyond. The myths are:

First, slavery was good, and slaves like it…Nevertheless, ending slavery was also good, because slavery was a burden on white planters. …Second, the South seceded for states’ rights, or perhaps over tariffs and taxes, not for slavery. …Third, during the “War Between the States,” Confederates displayed bravery and stainless conduct. They only lost due to the brute size of the North. Conversely, slaves displayed loyalty to their “masters” during the war. Finally, and most important, during Reconstruction, vindictive Northern congressmen, childlike African Americans, and corrupt carpetbaggers and scalawags ravaged the prostrate South. (“RECONSTRUCTION AND FUSION (1866–1890).” In The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader: The “Great Truth” about the “Lost Cause”, edited by Loewen James W. and Sebesta Edward H., 253. University Press of Mississippi, 2010.)

The myth of slavery being for the betterment of the African in America is a necessary part of Lost Cause mythology. It functions to assuage white guilt (if any exists); to justify ongoing white supremacy; and to reinforce the happy slave/magical Negro creation who exists to serve the white community.
THEN:

I cheerfully admit that during the war there was scarcely a plantation in the South where the mistress and her children were not left alone at the mercy of the slaves a great part of the time, and that the record shows unswerving loyalty on their part. This happy condition was the result of years of training until it had become an inherited tendency. No thought of social equality, and the vile thought inevitably incident thereto. ever entered the heads of the negroes. The discipline of the plantation was firm but kind, and the relation between the owner and owned took on a paternalistic character, the owner feeling as he might toward a lot of children and the slaves looking up to him as a superior whom they held in highest respect. There naturally grew up an affection, a bond of sympathy, and a mutual feeling of interest that was as beautiful as a poem, whatever may be said about the institution of slavery as a whole. (And I wish to say just here that none of the Old slaveholders nor any of their descendants would restore the institution if they could.) (E.H. Hinton, “The Negro and the South: Review of Race Relationships and Conditions,” Confederate Veteran, August 1907, p. 367)

NOW:

It has been well-established that the secession documents of the Confederate states explicitly reference maintaining the right to enslave people as one of the proximate causes of withdrawal from the Union. Economic anxiety did exist, but only as it pertained to the anxiety of losing slaves or the ability to expand slavery anywhere and everywhere. States’ rights, however are a post-Reconstruction rationale, which is only logical. It was only during Reconstruction, when the Federal government held considerable power and control over Southern state governments, that states’ rights became a cause to fight for and then maintain during the Nadir. By this time, chattel slavery was far less prevalent in the Western world and was indefensible as a social institution. States’ rights and white supremacy, however, were acceptable Lost Cause replacements.

THEN:

When it appeared evident to the Southern States that there was utter hopelessness in any effort to conserve the Constitution and the equality of the States, or to have them recognized in the administration of Federal affairs, the sole alternative was submission to, or acquiescence in, the revolution which had been wrought, or an effort to secure the benefits of the Government as originally constituted. Shall the Constitution and the rights of the States be maintained under new relationships, and a Federal constitutional union of States be preserved, or shall the existence of a nation be maintained irrespective of the Constitution and the autonomy and the parity of the States? (The Southern states of the American union, considered in their … Curry, J. L. M. (Jabez Lamar Monroe), 1825-1903. p. 185)

NOW (with bonus applications of the wrong lesson):

I hate to cut this off here when there are two other key myths to consider, but it’s very late and I’ve run out of steam. I’ll tackle the two other myths next week. The discussion of the saintliness of the Confederate warrior is particularly interesting, as it involves an inordinate amount of lying. Rather than embrace the “war is hell” philosophy, Lost Cause mythology chooses to sanitize [Southern] war and warriors to the point of the ludicrous. But that’s a story for next week…

DoReMI

Now a Michigander, by way of Ohio, Illinois, Scotland, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania. Gardener. Sewer. Democrat. Resister. 

  4 comments for “Tuesday in Mooseville – The Lost Cause Myths We Still Haven’t Busted 9/17/19

  1. basket
    September 17, 2019 at 10:20 am

    Good morning DoReMI, and thank you for this ongoing series. I had taken one class in historiography in my freshman year of college (it was a 3rd year class?!) and have always been fascinated by history and how people interpret/respond to it.

  2. bfitzinAR
    September 17, 2019 at 10:27 am

    {{{DoReMI}}} – I guess it comes down to white people (the majority of white people) are self-serving trash still perpetuating their evil. sigh.

    • DoReMI
      September 17, 2019 at 1:45 pm

      I’m not going to go quite that far (despite all the evidence to the contrary!) I think the reaction to the 1619 project of the NYT is informative. A lot of people were stunned by the history they were reading and actually grateful to be finally getting a fuller picture. James Loewen has made a similar point over the years about how history has been made boring and uninteresting, because it has been sanitized to the point of dullness. With that in mind, I think that education…real educaton…is what is needed. How we get to that point is quite another question.

      • bfitzinAR
        September 17, 2019 at 2:44 pm

        As long as the WASP male supremacists are in control of both media and education it ain’t gonna happen. The 1619 Project is excellent and people who are interested will read at least pieces of it. Even maybe start digging a bit deeper themselves. But racism is systemic in our society. No more than a minority of white people not being racist (as much as is possible in a racist society anyway) and a smaller minority being actually anti-racist will change the system, neither will pretty much those same people change education. Academia is about as patriarchal as the military and just as resistant to change. They loudly vaunt changing the paint on the system but never the system itself. And those who strive to change the system seldom last long. They either burn out or get pushed out. Or both. And really, very few (especially white) people are as open as you and I are to real history anyway. Real education at all. They want to know just enough to pass – and then forget it as soon as they finish that class. I believe that until we break up that media monopoly/consortium (not just the news but especially the news) we will never manage to get out of the hole. Day-to-day propaganda will keep reinforcing the myths.

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