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.
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)
And even if they came over as slaves because another African tribe captured them and put them into slavery they were much better off coming here than any other country slaves were sent to! How about being happy you have the advantage of living here instead of Africa! https://t.co/ayYWsz1lh7
— ❌ Roger Barker ❌ (@RogerBarker5) September 17, 2019
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.
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):
This is going to head to the courts and depending on which court (judge) rules we could lose open carry laws in numerous states. It may take years but it will wind up in the Supreme Courts. We had a civil war over states rights to govern.
— Ray Gordon (@RgRockie99) September 9, 2019
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…