American Civil War: The Lost Cause

Figure 1.--This powerful image visually depicts the the ederal achievement of both abolishing slvery and saving the Union. Actually Lincoln's was far greater. In the 20th century a junited American Republic would save Western civilization from German and NAZI bestiality and Soviet totalitarian rule. After President Lincoln announced the Emanicipation 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 undermined the nobility of the Federal cause. This view persisted until the rise of the Civil Rights movement (1950s) suceeded in changing the historical naritive even in the North.

The Lost Cause was the belief that the Southern Secession, even the defense of slavery, was honorable, but was destined to failure because of the industrial superiority of the North. The Lost Cause proponents also maintained that prostrate South after the Civil War was victimized by unscrupulous carpetbaggers, scalawags and barely civilized blacks. "The Lost Cause" was a historical myth which persisted for many years in American history. We see some of this view in such American classics as Gone with the Wind. And it has not entirely disappeared in the national consciouness. The Civil War in the minds of most northerners had been fought to preserve the Union, not free the slaves. Racism was not a belief prevalent only in the South. After Reconsnstruction there was no real Federal action to protect the rights of Black citizens in the South or to prevent terroist activities perpetrated by the KKK. The KKK was even established in northern states like Indiana. Southern historians with anti-Black biases established the Lost Cause myth. This was largely accepted even in the North, in large part because of the widly held rascist attitudes of most white Americans at the time. The historical myths went largely unchallenged except by scholars like W.E.B. Dubois, who was not given scholarly recognition at the time. The historical myths of the Lost Cause were not seriously challenged by academics until the advent of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.


After the Civil War, the Federal Government began a process of Reconstruction. The Federal Government descipte Southern critics, persued a soft peace. Southern soldeiers were allowed toi simply return home after afirming loyalty. Lee's soldiers after surrender were not even interned. The same was true of Johnston's soldiers in North Carolina who surrendered soon after. Blacks for the future. White southerners attepted to intoduce a legal system which kept the freed slaves in a state of servitude. Their primary instrument was the Black Codes (1865). They restricted the rights of Blacks and limited economic and educatioinal opportunities. White southerners formed a secret paramilitary white supremacist organization, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). The KKK terrorized blacks with beatings, whippings, burning of homes and lynching. Radical Republicans in Congress persue a policy aimed at protecting southern Blacks. Here the quarled with President Johnson (1864-69). President Grant was more supportive (1869-77). The central step taken was the passage of the 13-15 amendments which abolished slavery and guaranted the civil rights, including the right to vote, of the freed slaves and guaranteed the equal protection of the law. (The Emancipation proclamationThere was an execyive order and open to legal chgalenge.) The slaves were freed, Reconstruction brought great hope for change in the South. There were some considerable gains made. Schools were established and Blacks elected to public office. The Freedman's Bureau was established. After President Hayes (1877-81) withdrew Federal troops from the South, the white majority began to take away the civil rights that the freed slaves had briefly experienced.

White Fears

Ubderpining the Lost Cause were widespread racist beliefs. These neliefs exosted in North and South, but were most pronounced in the South because most blacks lived in the South. Whites lived in constant fear of a black slave rebellion. And these fears instensified after the Civil war as the Republicans attempted to give the newly freed blacks citizenship and voing rights. There was also the white fear that black men had rapacious sexual drives and lusted after white women. There were a range of economic issues that compeled southern whites to resist black enfranchisement, but the largely irrartional racist fears were of enormous importance, justifying in white minds extra-legal violence. One historian suggests that whites were living in a fantasy land. [Lemann] This is probably true in the sence that were no real plabs by blacks to rise up. And of course over the ghistory of slavery it was black women who were preyed on by white men. But fantasy or not, these fears were very real to the individuals involved, and the strength of these believes persisted into the mid-20th century when souther whites lased out violently at civil rights workers.

The Lost Cause Argument

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 rsources 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.

Historical Myth

Southern historians with anti-black bias established the Lost Cause myth. It proved to be one of the long-lasting trends in American historiography. The Lost Cause because an article of faith of virtually religious dimensions thriughout the South. More surprisingly is became largely accepted even in the North, dspite the monumental accomplishment of destroying slavery. This historical myth went largely unchallenged except by a few scholars like W.E.B. Dubois, who was not given scholarly recognition at the time. It is not entirely clear to us why the Lost Cause myth achieved such uncritical acceptance given the strength of the Abolitionist Movemebtbin the North. We suspect that it was primarily the impact of the dominant rascist attitudes of the day. It had to be remmenbered that racist attitudes were commn even among many abolitionists. Opposition to slavery was the issue they chmpioned, not racial equality. There does not seem to be a reasonable alterntive comclusion. Here a key factor was that while slavery had become unpoplar in the North, racial equality and black civil rights were not principles that were widely accepted. The Progressive Movement of the late-19th and early-20 century dis not champion race issies. In fact the peak of the Progresive Movement tacks neatly with the nadir of race rlations on America, the supremecy of Jim Crow and the rise of a revived KuKlux Klam. In fact many Progressives were ardent believers in eugenics. The historical myths of the Lost Cause were not seriously challenged by academics until the advent of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.

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 cobatitive 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

The Civil War in the minds of most northerners had been fought to preserve the Union, not free the slaves. Racism was not a belief prevalent only in the South. America from the arrival of the fitst Africans at Jamestown (1619) developed as a racist society. Even after the Resvolution when slavery was gradually abolished in the northern states, most Americans held rasist views. Racism was even prevalent among many abolistionists. The view that Blacks were inferior was widespread among White Americans before and after the Civil War. After the Emancipation of Blacks most White Americans continued to view Blacks as inferior in a wide range of human endevors. A new doctrine became increasingly popular in America and other ountries--Eugenics. Eugenics provided what was though to be scientific grounding for racist doctrines. Eugenics did not specifically target Blacks. Generally speaking, however, a dominant racial group usully finds spperior attributes from itsown group. That was precisely what happened in America. Laws were passed in many states that used eugenics theories to steralize substantial numbers of mostly Black and poor Americans. Eugenics was later adopted by the NAZI as a pseduo-scientific justification for anti-Semitism.

White Suppression of Blacks

After Reconsnstruction there was no real Federal action to protect the rights of Black citizens in the South or to prevent terroist activities perpetrated by the KKK. The KKK was even established in northern states like Indiana.

Lost Cause Historians

Several authors addressing the Civil War and Reconstruction perpetrated what has come to be called the Lost Cause. Many of these authors were southerners, all were sympathetic to the South. All also were racists of varying intensity. The general assessment of modern historians is not only were the Lost Cause historians wrong, but many essentially falsified history.

Jubal Early

Virginian Lt. General Jubal Anderson Early was involved in almost every major battle in Virginia from First Bull Run (July 1861) to Cold Harbor (June 1864). Virginia was where the first and last Civil War batytles were fought. It was the single most important state of the Confederacy. Early earned a solid reputation as a competent first brigade and then division commander in Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. His performance as a corps commander was more mixed. Lee gave Early command of his Second Corps (Jackson's Corps) which he committed to the Shenandoah Campaign. Lee had few commanders left to choose from. The Shenandoah Campaign was vital to the Army of Northern Virginia and the Confederacy. It was the agricultural breadbasket feeding Lee's Army. And the loss of the Shenandoah Valley doomed Lee's Army. Early did not rise to the occassion, but in fairness by 1864 the Federal forces superority in men and supplies was insurmountable. Early led an epic effort, but was defeated by General Philip H. Sheridan. Early's combat achievements are [erhaps best descibed as solid, but rarely did they rise to exemplary like Stonewall Jackson or James Longstreet. [Cooling] While Early's contribution to the Confederacy during the Civil War limited during the War, he had a major impact after the War. He became as 'Old Jube' the self-appointed custodian of Confederate history and more than anyone responsible for the 'Lost Cause' mythology which did so much damage to not inly the freed slaves, but to the South as a whole after the War. Early litteraly manufactured history from his position in the Souther Historical Society. Early used his position to reward and punish southern historians in an effot to perpetuate his view on the causes and conduct of the War. Early was influential in helping to shape rarly historical assessments of the War, not only in the South but in the North as well. Early' Lost Cause mythology came to doiminate American historioraphy of the Civil War until the rise of the Civil Rights Movement (1960s). The distortions and half truths have still not completely disappeared.

John Rhodes

John Rhodes was one of the first respected historians to present the LostbCause argument. Rhodes argued that the southern cause was both just an honorable. He insisted, with some validity, that secession was a legal right of a state. It certainly is not expressly prohibited in the Constitution. He also defended the right to own slaves, seeing it as a simple property and thus "sacred". He saw no difference between owning blacks than owning "horses and mules." For Rhodes, the Southern cause was honorable even though it was destined to failure because of the industrial and other material resources of the North. This was a recurring theme of the Lost Cause proponents, the South was essential spirtitally superior, but overcome by superior numbers and resources. Rails was especially critical of Reconstruction, clziming that the South was victimized by unscrupulous carpetbaggers, scalawags and barely civilized blacks. Rhodes commitment to slavery may sound reprehensible to modern readers, but Thodes has to be credited with honesty. Many Lost Cause historians, while attempting to misrepesent the nature of slavery, have attempted to down play the importance of slsvery as the major cause of southern secession and thus the Civil War.

Douglas Southall Freeman

Douglas Southall Freeman is a an example of a typical Lost Cause historian. Freeman's biography of Robeert E. Lee presents the standard Lost Cause argument.

John W. Burgess

Another early Lost Cause historian was John W. Burgess. It was Reconstruction that Burgess asailed. (Lost Cause historians for the most part could not sucessfully attack the Civil war itself because Lincoln and the War came toi be icons in the North, Reconstruction was a different matter. There was never a string commitment to Reconstruction among the northern public.) He echoed Rhodes' condemnation of Reconstruction. He was particularly critical of the politicains elected with black voters and desparaged the blacks elected to public office in the South, calling them "ignorant barbarians". The historical images that Burgess poresented layed the basis for images that would later be depicted in the D.W. Grifith film epic "Birth of a Nation" (1915). Burgess used this distorted picture of Reconstruction to ratiuonalize if not justify KKK terrorism. Burgess writes that it was understandable that southerners would have formed secret socities to resist Reconstruction which he refers to as a "blunder-crime against civilization."

William A. Dunning

Perhaps the most important Lost Cause Historian was Willm A Dunning. He taught at the prestigious Columbia University and helped to influence a generation of American histoirians. Dunning wrote extensively on Reconstruction and his portrayal became widely acceppted in America, bith North and South. Dunning's central thesis was at the core a rasist interpretation of Reconstruction black incompetence and "barbarity" were the reason that Reconstruction failed. (Dunning like other Lost Cause historians ignore or underplay the fact that southern states before the War had laws which prohibited the education of blacks. While traiuning in mannual skills was permissible, presumably because of economic bebefit to the owner, traching slaves to read was prohibited by law in the slave states.) Dunning argued that Reconstruction not only created the political climate in which support for Jim Crow laws grew, but that such laws were beneficial and needed. He maintains that the state governments installed during Reconstruction (with the enfranchisement of black voters) were incompetent and dishonest. He used the term :"stupid" to describe black elected officials. He claims dishonest politicans looted the state treasuries ans raised taxes on the propertied classes to ruinous levels. One of the institutioins established by the Recoinstruction state governments were public schools. Dunning is even critical of this and ignores the fact thatv these schools for the first time offered a basic education to poor whites. Dunning saw racevmixing as the central issue. While not among the most vicious racists who addressed the issue, he saw blacks and race mixing as threatening southern white society. He was apauled by integration which the Reconstruction state lerislatures attempted to promote. He wrote, "It played a part in the demand for mixed schools, in the legislative prohibition of discrimination between the races in hotels and theaters and even in the hideous crime against white womanhood, which now assumed new meaning in the annuals of outrage."

Impact on History

The Lost Cause was not an interpretation restruicted to ardent racists. Aspects of the Lost Cause echo in many of the most respected historians which wrote on the Civil war. The Lost Cause arguments can be seen in the work of Bruce Caton, one of the best known Civil War historians. Amd they influened well known historians into the mod-20th century. Charles and Mary Beard insisted, for example, that the Civil War was fought over economic issues and not slavery and the War was the triumph of northern capitalism.

Racial Threat

One of the fears of southern whites before the Civil War was the suposed black threat to white women. Black men were portrayed as sexually insaitable thus threatening white women. Without the protection affoirded by slavery and racist laws, this became an increased concern after the Civil War. It was a rallying cry of the KKK. It also became a useful tool in the hands of conservastive politicans to ensure that poor whites did not make common cause with blacks. The basic proposition is so ludicrous that it is difficult to understand how it could have achieved such unquestioned public acceptance. There are very few instances in American history during the 19th and early 20th century iof blacks rapeing white women. Among Americans blacks, however, there are millions of induividuals with white ancestors. In most instances these white anscestors are men who either raped black women or took advantage of slavery or poverty to have sexual relations with them. The incontrvertable evidence shows that not only has there been no black threat to white women, but there has been a centuries old threat to black women. While great attention by historians, politicans, ministers, and others to the need to protect white women, the protection of black women was almost universally ignored.

Explanation of the Popular Acceptance

It is often said that the victors write history. It is often true, but for many years was not the case of the Civil war. This may seem surprising in highly patriotic turn-of-the 20th century America. Why would the northern public accept and essentially southern view of the Civil War? The reason probably lies in the strength of racist attitudes in America. Many of the arguments of the Lost Cause historians were accepted soon after the War and for about a century after the War. We believe that this was because because of the racist attitudes that most white Americans held in the 19th and much of the 20th century. "The Lost Cause" was a historical myth which persisted for many years not only in American history, but in ther public consciousness. The Lost Cause myth in many ways helped to legitimize the deeply held racist attitudes of many Americans. Other factors are involved. Many families sent their children north to be educated. (In part because the system they created did not offer quality educational opportunities.) Their views and accounts conveyed from their Confederate relatives and neighbors affected the outlook of historians like Dunning. It in effected provided the fodder to support their racist outlook.

Political Leaders

The Lost Cause argument was not just a matter for scholsarly debate. It affected every aspect of American society, including the attitude of public officials and thus was reflected in public policy. This included American presidents. President Woodrow Wilson was impressed, for example, with the iovertlky racist "Birth of a Nation" (1915). Wilson wrote about the Civil War and its aftermath. He was especially critical of Reconstruction, but maintained that recovery took place because of the "inevitable ascendancy of the whites". [Wilson]

Modern Historiography

The Lost Cause dominted American Civil War historiography for about a century. This end in the 960s with new genration of historians. I do not know one important hitorian since the 1960s thaths argued the Lost Cause argumnt. Now we understand historians in the 1960s and 70s taking on the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil war. The thing is, we continue to see historians pursuing the criticism, despite the fact there re no Lost Cause historians left. Now we are long out of school, but we see this trend time and time again on C-Spn, young historians attacking th Lost Cause as if rthey were bravely wagiung war aginst an evil syste,. Rather they are simply determined to establish their liberal credetiinals. Imprtant in modern academia for career building, but not condusive to effective hitory. By focusing on a long discredited historical interpretation, many modern historians are failing to assess mpderm liberal interpretations. And we see an imperative to tear down some of the central figures in Aneican history, condming Washington as a slave holder, Lincoln as a racist, and claiming the Emanciption proclsmtion freed no one.


Cooling, Benjamin Franklin III. Jubal Early: Robert E. Lee's 'Bad Old Man' (2014), 216p.

Lemann, Nicholas. Rede,ption: The Last Batt;e of the Civil War (2006).

Wilson, Woodrow. Division and Reunion.


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Created: 1:29 AM 12/26/2004
Last updated: 3:39 PM 11/19/2017