I was contacted by Mr. Patten, who asked me to post his essay considering the topic of the “Lost Cause” and its level of influence on our understanding of the war since its conclusion. I know that this may spark some vigorous discussion and debate, as this is a subject that historians have argued over for well over one hundred years. I hope you will all give Mr. Patten’s essay consideration and thought.
LOSE THE LOST CAUSE
As we journey through the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and with the release of the movie Lincoln, and particularly with the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation upon us, Americans have been well motivated to deeply assess every aspect of the time period that tore our nation apart. While we ponder those times and analyze why our nation plunged into such strife, we will, as always, be exposed to the continuing drumbeats of the “Lost Cause”. Southerners, and many Northerners alike, will regale us with the noble reasons that actually motivated eleven states to secede. We will be told that they were fighting for their liberties and for their proud heritage. The Southern states, in fact, stood up to an overreaching, draconian national government bent on crushing individual freedoms and destroying states’ rights.
Have I missed any of the other lies the “Lost Cause” might tell? The lies actually never seem to end. They started just after the smoke cleared from the battlefields that revealed Southern defeat and they continue to this very day. Only now, they are magnified by the moment.
One issue dominated the politics of the Civil War time period and everything else spun off of that issue. The issue of racially specific slavery caused the Civil War and the “Lost Cause” revisionists, from 1865 to the present, cannot change or sanitize the true reason for Southern secession. Can any of us today honestly imagine our nation splitting apart in 1861 had there been no slavery? What other issue or issues so captivated the imaginations of the people back then that could have caused the Union’s destruction? Only one issue had that kind of power and anything else anyone could cite would be a mere corollary. Even a cursory reading of the thoughts of the Southern leadership exposes their obsession with the issue of slavery. Dig deeper and their obsession over that singular horror becomes pathological.
Jefferson Davis lauded slavery as a great institution through which “a superior race” changed “brutal savages into docile, intelligent, and civilized agricultural laborers…worth thousands of millions of dollars.” He proclaimed that “the labor of African slaves was and is indispensable” and he bridled at any attempt to interfere with that system or limit its extension.
Alexander Stephens, the Confederacy’s Vice President, declared that the Confederacy’s “cornerstone rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.” In addition, he unequivocally stated that slavery “was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.”
State after Confederate state declared in their “secession resolutions” that slavery was the primary cause of their departure. Mississippi summed it up best, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world.” “There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union…”
The Confederate Constitution enshrined slavery and forbade its states and territories from banning it or interfering with its spread. In addition, Section 9 of the document extended the same prohibitions to the national government, “No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in Negro slaves shall be passed.” As a result, there was no avoiding slavery in the C.S.A., not even through secession, for curiously, no such right was provided. In effect, the Southern leaders created exactly what they wanted; a slaveholding nation well insulated against those who would seek to alter or abolish the peculiar institution.
Northerners of the time period were hardly confused as to the origin of the conflict. Lincoln unlocked the deep non-mystery in his Second Inaugural Address, “All knew that this interest (slavery) was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war…”
In his memoirs, Grant came right to the point, “The cause of the great War of the Rebellion against the United States will have to be attributed to slavery.”
The Confederate dream of an exclusive slaveholding nation crashed in 1865. But, out of the ashes of Confederate defeat emerged a victory of sorts; it was the “Lost Cause”. History is supposedly written by the winners, but not this time. Rebel writers such as Edward Pollard, Alexander Stephens, Jefferson Davis, and so many others seized control of the narrative and transformed the ugliness of the slaveholding cause into a fight for liberty and rights. Both the Confederate journalist Edward Pollard and the former Vice President Alexander Stephens began their assault on history directly after the war was over. Slavery ceased to be an issue. Rather, valiant struggles for freedom by gallant Southern cavaliers facing overwhelming odds became the norm. Davis waited a few years, but then in 1881, he joined the club with his memoirs, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. In volume one, he wrote, “The truth remains intact and incontrovertible, that the existence of African servitude was in no wise the cause of the conflict, but only an incident.” Views such as these found enormous audiences and sparked a tidal wave of historical distortion that tragically gained acceptance.
One Southerner wasn’t fooled by any of it. Colonel John S. Mosby, arguably the finest partisan raider the Confederacy produced stated, “The South went to war on account of slavery.” He found the “Lost Cause” sentiment repulsive and wrote, “I never heard of any other cause of quarrel than slavery.” But then he added something very interesting, “After the fight is over they invent some fanciful theory on which they imagine that they fought.”
Now we see the “Lost Cause” fully exposed. With slavery abolished upon the ruin of the South and labeled as the filth that it was, how then do the losers cope? Looking at the reality of the war, the South endured destruction on a scale few could ever have imagined, and for what? They shed blood and lost all defending a system of horror and disgust, thus myth became their only refuge. Given their situation, the so glorious, so holy “Lost Cause” could have turned out so no other way.
We now have the perfect opportunity to set things straight and see the conflict as it truly was. Only time will now tell if we can finally put the “Lost Cause” myth away and face the brutal truth of our past while celebrating the new birth of freedom that gave meaning to all the destruction.