American Civil War: The Lost Cause Argument


Figure 1.--After President Lincoln announced the Emoanicipation Proclamation after the Federal victory at Antitem (September 1862), the abolishment of slavery became a central Federal war aim. This is Charley, a New Orleans slave. New Orleans was captured by a Fedearal naval squadron (April 1862). This and similar CDVs were widely sold in the north to be added to family scarop books. Emancipation added a degree of nobility to the Union cause. This CDV was captioned 'Freedom's Banner' for sale in the north. From the beginning, there was no doubt in Lincoln's mind that slavery was at the heart of Southern secession which caused the War. After the War, the view of the war began to change as Lost Cause historians until the rise of the Civil Rifghts movement (1950s) suceeded in changing the historical naritive even in the North.

Almost from the moment the guns fell silent, the Lost Cause argument became a major factor in Civil War histrography. The Lost Cause was the belief that the Southern Secession, even the defense of slavery, was honorable. Proponents tend to insist that Southern generals were more skillful, but their nobel effort was destined to failure because of the industrial superiority of the North. Lost Cause historians artgue that the true cause of the Civil War was not slavery but the attempy by the North to use the Federal Government to supress legitimate states rights. The War is presented as a nobel effort overwhealmed by the substantial materrial resources of the North. The Lost Cause proponents also maintained, often with considerable venim, that prostrate South after the Civil War was victimized during Reconstruction by unscrupulous carpetbaggers, scalawags and barely civilized blacks. The inferiority of Blacks which was described in both cultural and biological termns was used to justify segregation. Disenfranchisement was more of a problem and was variously denied, deemphasiuzed, or ignored. The Lost Cause was argued by considerable number of historians. The varied in the issues persued and the arguments made, but there were several basis arguments that were made by many of the Lost Cause historians.

Legal Struggle

Perhaps the most effective argument of the Lost Cause historians is that secession was legal and that the Southern states were exercising their legitimate rights. Here the Constitution is silent. But the the basic constitutional principle is that those powers not specufically allocated to the Federal Government are alloted to the states. We are not sure if the issue of secession was discussed at the Constitutional Convention, but adding a provision prohiviting secession would have made the Constitution impossible to rarify. We do know that states began tlking aout secssion soon after the Constitition was ratified. While the legitimate right of secession was a powerful argument, it was not used by many Lost Cause historians. The reason for this is that the late 19th century was an era of great patriotism and selling the idea that the states had the right to seceed ws not a winable exercise. Rather the Lost Cause historians turned to other arguments more acceptable to the American public, especially states rights and the benigh nature od slavery.

Slavery/States Rights

The Lost Cause was the belief that the Southern Secession, even the defense of slavery, was honorable. Lost Cause historians artue that the true cause of the Civil War was not slavery but the attempy by the North to use the Federal Government to supress legitimate states rights. Here again, even with the racist attitudes of the day, arguing that slavery was a legitimate institution was another tough sell. Thus many Lost Cause historians insisted that slavery was not the cause of the Wae, but rather states rights. This gave the Southern cause a legitimate issue. The division of power between the Federal Government and the states was one of the central issues debated at the Constitutional Convention and is still debated today. This was this a legtimate issue which could justify secession more honorably than the defense of slavery ever could. Of course the issue of state rights is not uncommonly raised when the issue considered is difficult to justify on its own merits. Modern scholars have little doubt as to the primacy of slavery as the cause of the War. Issues such as states rights were amenable to political solutiions. Slavery was another matter, it simoly could not be resolvedf constituionally. There was never any doubt in Lincoln's mind as to the main cause of the War. [Zeitz]

Benign Nature of Slavery

While Lost cause historians down played the centrality of slavery in leading to the Civil War. They could not, however, conceal the obvious importance of slavery. Thus many Lost Cause historians dismissed the horrors of slavery deficted by the abolitionists. Lost Cause historians often pinted a begin image od slavery. To my knowledge this was never done by actually interviewing former slaves. Normally it was done, if supporting evidence was offered at all, by collecting ancedotal evidence from the slave masters.

Competence of Southern Generals

Proponents tend to insist that Southern generals were more skillful, but their nobel effort was destined to failure because of the industrial superiority of the North. Southern generals were lauded, the most famous of all was Robert E. Lee. Commonly Lee and other southern generals are depicted as cultured gentelmen. Federal generals like Grant were depicted as uncultured and professionally less skillfull, relying on the superior Northern resources to win battles. Somehow battlefield genius is seen as a more nobel chracteristic than industrial prowess. The War is presented as a nobel effort overwhealmed by the substantial material rsources of the North.

Sacrifice of the Southern Soldier and People

Lost Cuse historians also tend to laud the Confederate soldiers and people for the sacrifices they made to win independence. The argument seems to be that hightened sacrifce conveys nobility. Here there can be no argument that the Confederate soldier and most civilians may enormous sacrifics in an effort to gain independence. Suggesting that this conveys nobility or legitimacy is a less clear matter.

Radical Reconstruction

The Lost Cause proponents also maintained, often with considerable venim, that prostrate South after the Civil War was victimized during Reconstruction by unscrupulous carpetbaggers, scalawags and barely civilized blacks. The inferiority of Blacks which was described in both cultural and biological termns was used to justify segregation. Disenfranchisement was more of a problem and was variously denied, deemphasiuzed, or ignored.

Modern Historical Assessment

Like all myths, there is some truth to the Lost Cause argument. It is true that a case can be made for the legitimate right of a state to seceed. It is not specificlly prohibited in the Constitution. It is also true that the North had a great material advantage. It is probably not true that Southern generals were significantly more skillful. It is true that Robert E. Lee was a towering figure and staved off the collapse of the Confederacy in 1862. It is also true that his combatitive tactics were very costly in bleeding the Army of Northern Virginia. More importantly Southern generals in the West proved to be generally ineffective and in some cases clearly incompetent. Perhaps the greatest inaccuracy of the Lost Cause argument is to deny the centrality of slavery as well as the nature of slavery. This was key to Lost Cause argument especially by the 20th century. The Confederacy could not be defendended on the basis of slavery. While slavery became indefensible, state's rights was an issue which could be legitimately defended. It was an issue with the Articles of Confederation as well as the Constitution and continues to be an issue in American politics today. Racism in America

Sources

Zeitz, Josua. Lincoln's Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay and the War for Lincoln's Image (2913), 400p. John Hay and John Nicolay were President Lincoln's secretaries. They were thev cloest individuals to him outside his immediate family. After the War, despite the growth of the Lost Cause dioctrine, they both worked to preserve Lincoln's conviction for the historical record that slavery was at the heart of the War.








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Created: 2:04 AM 3/9/2006
Last updated: 3:10 AM 2/1/2014