Bad History Masquerading as an Appeal to Peace and Piety: A Response to Allen Guelzo’s “Why We Must Forget the Lost Cause”

It is a testimony to the prevalence of anti-Southern sentiment that The Gospel Coalition (TGC), one of the most prominent evangelical parachurch entities, has provided a platform for such sentiments by publishing an article entitled “Why We Must Forget the Lost Cause.” Written by the prominent Princeton University Professor Allen Guelzo, this piece was published in the “Bible and Theology” section of TGC’s website, of all places, and in this may be seen its first and most serious fault. By thus including it here, TGC and Dr. Guelzo imply that there is an orthodox perspective upon, not a verse of scripture, nor an important Greek or Hebrew word, much less a Christological dogma, but rather an event in American history eighteen centuries removed from Christ’s death and resurrection. To be told that working “out [one’s] salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12) requires denying the constitutionality of secession, a thing Guelzo labels the foremost element of the ‘Lost Cause,’ is most curious, but the piece does not stop there with its claims and insinuations.

Laying aside the fact that Guelzo begs the question by regarding the Late Unpleasantness as a civil war, rather than as a dispute between two sovereign nations, he makes a number of obvious errors. The first is when he says that the “Ephraimites and Gileadites (in Judges 12) carried on inter-tribal warfare even when the only thing that distinguished them from each other was the way they pronounced ‘shibboleth.’” This ignores utterly the first seven verses of the chapter, which explain a more serious difference that lay between the two factions that was the reason for their war. In his attempt to find a scriptural example of civil war he makes the claim that “in 1 Kings 14, we find that Israel and Judah were so polarized that ‘there was war between Rehoboam and Jeroboam continually.’” At this time in history Israel and Judah were two distinct nations ruled by separate kings, and that by God’s will as a punishment on the House of David for its sins (2 Chron. 10, esp. v. 15; comp. 1 Kings 11:30-39); and yet this is to his mind an example of a civil rather than an international war. There were other examples he could have used (for example, the warring houses of David and Ishbosheth, 2 Sam. 2) that might be more accurately termed civil wars, but Guelzo instead used an example which is no real example.

Some of his claims show plainly his anti-Southern bias and his motives as a polemicist. He says that Southern love of heritage and interpretation of history (i.e. what he calls the ‘Lost Cause’) resulted because “transforming domestic political grievance into outright armed resistance requires an extraordinary level of energy and apologetics—much more so than when responding to another nation’s aggression—and those energies are too great to be easily dissipated once the conflict is resolved.” One may reply by noting that the South’s “extraordinary level of energy” arose because it was responding to another nation’s aggression during the war, and that it was driven to secession by the continual provocation of fanatical Northern partisans over the course of decades prior to it. More to the point, that it is invading and destroying a neighboring nation rather than letting it live in peace that requires such “an extraordinary level of energy and apologetics.”

Then he makes a curious comparison of the South to such places as Somalia and the Sudan with the statement that the “alienating ideologies that summon and justify civil war do not easily disappear when the wars conclude.” Apparently it was ideology, then, that lay at the heart of the Confederate War, not different values and cultures, the balance of power, different political and economic interests, or a history of mutual ill will and sectionalist antagonism. He goes on to say that “Southern literature . . . has ached with the agonies of the Southern Confederacy’s loss in 1865.” Indeed, because those agonies were not simply a question of a ‘defeated ideology,’ but a result of actual impoverishment because of ruined farms, military occupation, political repression, etc.

Elaborating upon his theme, he says that “it had taken [Southerners] a generation of self-convincing to gin up enough boldness to break up the American Union.” Yes, because Southerners believed in the American Union, were genuinely loyal, and knew their fathers’ and grandfathers’ generations had suffered mightily to bring it about. (Recall that General Lee’s father, for example, was an officer n the Continental Army: no Southern son would be quick to undo something it had taken his father so much effort and pain to bring about.)

He continues that this meant “a generation of persuading themselves legally that states still somehow possessed sufficient constitutional sovereignty to secede from the Union, persuading themselves economically that Europe’s hunger for their cotton crop would force the Old World to come to their rescue, persuading themselves socially that the South’s agricultural society was inherently superior to money-grubbing Yankee capitalism, and persuading themselves morally that enslaving people of another race as their labor force was (as John C. Calhoun dared to argue) ‘a positive good.’”

As for the legal/political question here, Guelzo acts as if the Tenth Amendment did not exist, as if New England had not already made a serious consideration of secession during the War of 1812, as if the people in question were not the sons and grandsons of people who had seceded from the rule of Britain, and as if Texas’ recent secession from Mexico was not heralded as a legitimate example of the principal of self-rule.

 As for the economic question, the keen interest that various European nations, particularly Great Britain and France, took in the Southern War demonstrates that this attitude was not wholly without merit. As for the moral view, it is inaccurate to imply that John C. Calhoun said that enslaving people of another race was good simpliciter, rather than under certain civilizing conditions (e.g. them serving beneficent masters rather than languishing in Africa). (It is, however, admitted that this ideal did not often comport with the reality of Southern slavery.)

Guelzo opines that “defeat in the Civil War laid every one of those assumptions in the dust.” Hardly. It showed that cotton was not so much king as hoped and that Europe would not finally intervene for its sake, sure, but some of the other propositions, even if reduced in popularity, were yet right (as the legality of secession), even if it was not politically feasible to discuss them in the immediate aftermath of the war. Guelzo’s argument here approaches a might makes right—or better, a weakness proves wrong—form like that of the ancient Jews who thought that illness was a proof of personal or familial sin (Jn. 9:2): he says, in effect, ‘The South lost, and that is proof that its values were foolish, mistaken, and depraved.’ One might counter: or that in this fallen world wickedness is sometimes allowed to predominate for a time; or again, that the South’s punishment for some sins, such as those to do with slavery, does not mean it was being punished for all it valued, or that all of its beliefs were false.

Then come some odd objections that suggest Guelzo was writing in a petty polemical spirit rather than as a fair historian. He quibbles with the language of Lee’s General Orders No. 9 (G.O. 9) when they say that “after four years of arduous service marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to surrender to overwhelming numbers and resources,” as if that army had been living a life of leisure since 1861, and as if Grant’s men were equal in number, outfitting, and general living conditions.

Guelzo’s emphasis on what G.O. 9 did not say that he thinks it should have said (i.e. its declining to regard the surrender as a result of “Grant’s relentless and impeccably timed pursuit of Lee”) suggests he wants to vindicate Grant as a great general, and thus he betrays his zeal for his own nation’s champion. He dislikes the image of “dauntless heroes” that he says was invoked by the language of G.O. 9; but in this his complaint comes across rather as that of a partisan disparaging his opponents than as a historian deflating hyperbole. (“Dauntless band” of heroes would be hyperbole, as the Army of Northern Virginia had no shortage of deserters; but as it is, it is Guelzo’s term, not that of the more restrained and dignified language of G.O. 9, which refer to Lee’s men as “survivors.”) He dislikes Col. Marshall’s later description (“powerful flotilla”) of the difference in equipment between the Confederate and Union forces, even though it is reasonably accurate as a general statement of material fact during much of the later part of the war. He also makes Colonel Marshall whine about the war being “unfair from the start,” when Marshall’s point (in G.O. 9 at least) seems rather to have been to highlight the devotion and courage of the men than to bewail the world.

Guelzo has a curious ardor to emphasize Marshall’s authorship of G.O. 9, and has a concern for detail on its genesis that contrasts strikingly from his nonchalant insinuations and sloppy claims elsewhere. In this vein he notes that “Lee struck out a paragraph, which he said would tend to keep alive the feeling existing between the North and the South.” Proof of Lee’s true desire for reconciliation, one would think, but Guelzo gives no credit for that and instead proceeds with “Lee was actually preparing to write a report that contradicted much of what Marshall had written.” Colonel Marshall in G.O. 9 was talking about the character of the Army of Northern Virginia over its whole career; Lee, during the end of said career. Not so much contradiction as talking about two different things which overlap but partly. And consider that Lee’s contrast with the earlier behavior of the army (his reference to that behavior “which formerly characterized” it) suggests he had the same opinion of the army during its whole career as Colonel Marshall, as does his retention of most of G.O. 9, which Guelzo admits. 

Guelzo later disparages an early postbellum Southern writer as a “Romantic” for thinking that “nations grew out of blood and soil.” Let it be noted that nations growing out of blood and soil is a tenet of the Old Testament of whose premises he claims to be an expositor (for example the Table of Nations, Gen. 10). He disputes other claims of this same writer (Edward Pollard), such as the common Southern belief that concern with commerce is “low” or a substitute for real culture and refinement. Regarding this he says that “no one but socialists and aristocrats regarded the commercial sense as base and degrading.” Pray tell, if preoccupation with commerce and, by extension, industry (for there can be no commerce without things in which to traffic) did not tend to debase those who were caught up in it, why then did there arise an army of social reformers, union organizers, muckrakers, progressive political agitators, and other advocates for major social change who all bewailed the dehumanizing cruelty of 1800s industrial society? (Curious, too, that such commentators seem to have greatly increased in number and fervor in the decades following the end of the war and its sudden transformation – read, generic Americanization – of Southern society.)             

In summarizing what he regards as the five wrongheaded essentials of the ‘Lost Cause,’ Guelzo asserts that one of these is that “slavery was not the real issue of the Civil War; hence, the Union had no moral high ground to claim against the Confederacy.” The North’s aim was to maintain the Union. Slavery cannot be accurately regarded as the great cause of the war when the far larger, more populated, and victorious aggressor was not motivated by a desire to extinguish it, but rather by conquest and forcible subjugation of the other combatant for reasons of economic self-interest. As for the suggestion of the North having a claim upon the moral high ground, its imperial greed in making war upon the South at all, and especially the barbarous and unjust way that it did so, make such an insinuation fatuous.

Guelzo proceeds to further attack the various Southern claims he regards as false, saying that “the pillars on which the Lost Cause rested were, to put it frankly, rotted.” He disparages the claim of vastly disparate resources lying behind Southern defeat by brushing aside as rather insignificant the North’s population advantage (23 million to 9 million), as if having two and a half times as many men was not a serious factor in an age when single shot, muzzleloaded rifles were the main arms. Continuing this theme, he proceeds with one of the sloppiest claims of the entire article: “What Lost Causers ignored was the South’s advantage in fighting on the defensive, and with a vast interior that ought to have been able to swallow up invading armies the way Russia did Napoleon’s.” As a geographic statement this is absurd. European Russia alone is twice the size the Confederacy was. Paris is over 1,700 miles from Moscow, whereas Richmond is only about a 100 miles from Washington, which meant the US’s lines of communication were but a fraction of Napoleon’s in his ill-fated Russian adventure. The Confederacy had, to boot, an enormous coastline to defend against an opponent with almost absolute naval superiority, as well as the Mississippi passing through its midst and a very long land border. It was more or less surrounded and could be assailed from nearly any direction, unlike enormous Russia with the frigid Arctic Sea buttressing its north, its own vast regions preventing an attack from the east, and various other nations preventing an attack from the due south. It seems churlish to have to point it out, but there is also quite a difference in winter climate between Russia and the South.

Moreover, there were serious political differences that make the two matters far from analogous. Russia in 1812 was an empire ruled over by an autocratic czar who could conduct a scorched earth policy of attrition towards his own land, not least since there was so much space to spare. Anyone who has more than a superficial knowledge of the Confederacy knows well that all of the talk of state rights was not idle banter, and that the various states spent about as much time feuding with each other and the central Confederate government as with the invading Union armies. If the Confederate government had suggested abandoning Richmond as the Russians had evacuated Moscow and burning the fields of Virginia and the Carolinas to fall back into the Deep South, Jefferson Davis would have soon found that said states would have seceded from the Confederacy and made their own way (perhaps in armed conflict against the Confederacy) with a speed that would have made the hotspurs of 1860 South Carolina look like reluctant secessionists. Then too, the geographic problems would have again entered in, so that the Confederates in falling back from the Upper South would have simply been closer to Union forces operating along the sea or the Mississippi. And let it not be forgotten that unlike Russia, whose minorities (Germans and Cossacks) were generally loyal to the imperial government, there were substantial numbers of unionists and pacifists in some places in the South, as well as large numbers of slaves who could be recruited into the US Army: South Carolina and Mississippi, for example, were majority slave.

Guelzo continues by saying that “Northern numbers should not erase the fecklessness with which one Confederate general after another (including Jubal Early) fought and lost battles they could otherwise have won.” There were many poor Southern commanders, as well as many mistakes made by otherwise competent ones, yes, as in all nations and wars, but there was a reason it took the United States four years of brutality to subjugate the Confederate States, namely that the leaders and men of the Confederate States Army showed much tenacity in defending their country. The one Confederate general he mentions by name here is hardly an example of unmitigated fecklessness, since his late campaign in western Virginia against long odds delayed the Union significantly.

Guelzo dislikes greatly the notion that the Confederates were the more noble and honorable of the parties. He says that “Southern soldiers might have indeed behaved with becoming decency; but so did Northerners, including the much-reviled Sherman, who offered to share his ‘last cracker’ with beleaguered Atlantans if only they would ‘once more acknowledge the Authority of the National Government . . . instead of devoting [their] houses and streets and roads to the dread uses of war.’” Offering material aid to people who are starving because one is systematically destroying the industrial and agricultural economy of their country, and doing so on condition that they submit to one’s own will, is not decency but coercion; and well might we suspect the moral judgment of a man who can conflate such cruel coercion with the honor of someone like General Lee. Compare Sherman’s statement with Lee’s orders to his army in Pennsylvania (General Orders 73): “The commanding general therefore earnestly exhorts the troops to abstain with most scrupulous care from unnecessary or wanton injury to private property, and he enjoins upon all officers to arrest and bring to summary punishment all who shall in any way offend against the orders on this subject.” 

On that last topic Guelzo says that “Lee’s army proved just as adept at destruction and wastage when it crossed the Potomac.” Laying aside that there is an implicit admission that Sherman was not in fact characterized for behaving with decency—for how could Lee’s army be just as adept at destruction as Sherman’s unless Sherman’s forces did in fact act barbarously?—this is simply wrong: the Army of Northern Virginia did not do to private civilian property in Pennsylvania (or earlier, Maryland) what Sherman did to Georgia and the Carolinas or Sheridan to the Shenandoah. There were Confederates that acted in a manner which brought shame to their country, alas, but the Army of Northern Virginia did not engage in the systematic destruction that characterized Sherman’s March to the Sea. Perhaps the most charitable thing that can be said here is that Guelzo is careless in his choice of words, and that he means by “Lee’s army” across the Potomac the Confederate forces in general during the entire period of the war, not simply Lee’s forces in their northern campaigns. Either way, that would still entail an enormous exaggeration, for though Confederates, acting either individually or on official orders, did carry out some acts of barbarism, the extent of such wrongdoing was far less than that of the Union forces. The lack of quarter shown to black Union troops is admitted as one of the sadder elements of Confederate history, but as a historical question it is possible that it was rather because of chivalric notions than in spite of them.[1]

He finishes up this section with a brief attack against “the constitutionality of secession,” saying that “one searches the Constitution in vain for the reversion clause that describes a mechanism for seceding from the Union,” as if there must be an explicit statement to that effect in order for the right to exist, and as if the natural law principles asserted in the Revolution were no longer regarded as universal and timeless, but had instead ceased to be relevant in the four years between the Treaty of Washington and the authorship of the Constitution. Then, too, his logic is self-defeating: one searches the constitution with equal vanity in seeking a perpetual union clause. 

He finishes with a section he titles “Blessing of a Forgetting God,” though it is not so much about God as about what Dr. Guelzo asserts is the goodness of forgetting the past. Thus he quotes David Rieff as saying, “There are some human deeds so toxic that the health of the present can only be preserved by refusing to cultivate historical grievance.” Perhaps; but why should defending one’s homeland and culture be regarded as so toxic that it ought to be forgotten? Further, even if this is a good principle, let it be asked who most needs to hear it, the traditional Southerner of today, or the many would-be revolutionaries demanding reparations for past offenses and ginning up things like the 1619 Project? Guelzo then concludes with a confused attempt at piety:

As a Christian, I am also warned that forgetfulness of past offenses can be a blessing, for “if you, LORD, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand?” (Ps. 130:3). Indeed, there are offenses so great that we should pray intently that God would “hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea” (Mic. 7:19). It is, after all, God’s purpose in Christ that “we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Pet. 2:24). That might just be a fitting epitaph for the Lost Cause. And for a few others.

As a question of Christian theology, God forgives only the sins of those who have been forgiven and justified in Christ by faith (Jn. 3:15-18, 36; 14:6; 1 Jn. 5:10-13); he most emphatically remembers, and will in due time avenge, the wrongdoing of unrepentant sinners (Ex. 34:6-7; Nah. 1:2-3). Laying that aside, it is a strange argument which sees in the mystery of divine forgiveness a reason for human forgetfulness of national heritage and honor. ‘Because God forgives the sins of the justified, Southerners should stop revering Lee, remove all Confederate names and statues, deny state rights, and get on with life as normal, historically-clueless Americans’ is an odd suggestion, but it is the one that Dr. Guelzo seems to make here under the pretense of Christian piety. How sad that an organization such as The Gospel Coalition has seen fit to publish such an anti-Southern historical and political polemic as an example of edifying theological doctrine; but let it be hoped it is seen for what it is and rejected accordingly as the sloppy and oft-inaccurate nonsense that it truly is.


[1] See Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, The Mind of the Master Class, pp. 360-362. It is suggested that as the equivalent of the peasant underclass, former slaves who fought for the Union were, like revolting medieval peasants, not afforded the honor and mercy that the Confederates’ counterparts in the Union Army (i.e. rival ‘knights’) were shown. If a fair summary of the chivalric ideal and of its effect upon Southerners, this calls into question chivalry’s beneficence and desirability.

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