lost cause 2

Your enemy is not a criminal just because he is your enemy.”
—Saying credited to the founder of Israeli intelligence.
“How could we help falling on our knees, all of us together, and praying God to forgive us all.”
—Joshua Chamberlain on the surrender at Appomattox.

Gary W. Gallagher and Alan T. Nolan, eds., The Myth Of The Lost Cause And Civil War History. Indiana University Press, 2000.

The Progressive historian Howard K. Beale (mentor of C. Vann Woodward) published in 1946 an essay called “What Historians Have Said About the Causes of the Civil War.”1 He intended not so much to comment on the Civil War as to present an exhibit of the patterns made by successive changes in historical interpretations. Beale thought that historical scholarship did, with the passage of time and the accumulation of knowledge, make progress, though slowly and unevenly, in approaching the ultimately unreachable “truth” of history.

However, the predominant pattern of historical interpretations, Beale found in reviewing the literature on the Civil War, is not progressive but cyclical. Every “new” interpretation has its precedent in explanations made at the time of the event by actual participants and commentators. Historians offer not new interpretations but only new versions of old ones.

The Myth Of The Lost Cause And Civil War History offers stunning proof of Beale’s prescience. The mainstream explanation of the war which flourished from 1861 to about 1900, Beale wrote, was the “devil theory”: the war was caused by a “conspiracy of selfish or wicked men” against the Union. (Confederates had their own version of the devil theory but it had little influence prior to 1900.) Nolan’s essay, “The Anatomy of the Myth,” and a complementary one by co-editor Gallagher, contain nothing new except in the packaging. Their case is a militant re-assertion of the thesis that the war was caused by the wickedness of Southerners, a case made in such works as Joshua R. Giddings’s History of the Rebellion (1864) andHenry Wilson’s History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America (3 vols., 1872–1877). Not since the war generation have the good guys and bad guys been so starkly differentiated as by Nolan.

Nolan presents the world with what he considers to be an undisputedly accurate summation of the war. Eleven seceding Southern states, under the domination of a small group of slaveholders, attempted without justification to “destroy the United States” and initiated war by an unprovoked attack on Fort Sumter. The “United States” rose up in righteousness and put down the evil rebellion, in the process securing emancipation for African-Americans and generously refraining from the severe punishments the traitors deserved. “Having swept away the counterfactual Myth of the Lost Cause,” Nolan believes he has established the true “historical image of the war” which is “undisputed as accurately describing the central aspects” of the Civil War era.

But unfortunately, alas, according to Nolan, “despite the undisputed essentials, the war is today surrounded by a vast mythology.” On the one hand there is the true history of the war, and on the other hand there is the mythology of “the Lost Cause” which seems to persist despite the agreement of all good and informed persons that the “Lost Cause” is a “caricature of the truth” which “wholly misrepresents and distorts the facts of the matter.” The “Lost Cause,” presumably a belief that the Confederates had a few points on their side of the argument, was something, according to Nolan and Gallagher, invented after the war by Southerners to rationalize their evil, destructive, and failed actions. In support of this conclusion they present a history of the development of this false and pernicious “Lost Cause Myth,” beginning with the postwar writings of Edward A. Pollard and Jubal A. Early, These writings, the authors claim, foisted on an unsuspecting world false and deceptive notions such as the admirable character of Robert E. Lee, the skill and heroism of Confederate soldiers against heavy odds, and the honorableness of Southerners in their cause.

There are many things wrong with this treatment of so vast and complicated an event as the American Civil War. To begin with, and Gallagher is far too fine a historian for this, it confuses books with life. A few books cannot create a popular belief so widespread and enduring. The editors are clearly offended and alarmed by the power and persistence of the “myth” and long to destroy it completely. The timing of their attack surely relates, as “new” historical interpretations usually do, more to concerns of the present day than to the pursuit of historical “truth.”

A fundamental problem is the authors’ failure to define and stipulate what they mean by myth. They apparently mean myth in a petty sense as a group of untrue “facts” that influence people’s beliefs and understanding. This is inadequate. Myth, in fact, is a fundamental human way of understanding human experience. It is found in all times and places. It is neither true nor false. It is art. A myth may be questionable (like the story of Magna Charta, say) in the view of literal-minded pedants and still be true and meaningful in an important sense. Southerners are not the only people to have “myths.” To accept Nolan’s “undisputed” interpretation one has to have the implicit belief that Northerners ALWAYS deal in true “facts,” that their motives are always good, and that the words of Southerners about their own motives and actions are ALWAYS untrue. Apparently, only Southerners among all Americans suffer from self-flattering myths.

This implicit assumption in dealing with evidence is so fundamental to his attack on “the Lost Cause” that Nolan is not even aware of it. In a well-known essay, “History and Morality,” the great English historian Sir Herbert Butterfield said that historians who are aware of and allow for their prejudices are more reliable than those who are convinced of their own objectivity.2 He also warned that what historians present as moral judgments of acts and actors in the past are too often not really moral judgments at all but merely preferences. It all depends not on expert discovery of “fact” but on who you like and dislike. According to Butterfield, the historian will do well to keep his moral judgments aside until after his investigation of the evidence. Like any other person, historians are entitled to moral judgments after they fully investigate the situation, but being a historian does not per se qualify one as an unbiased judge of right and wrong in historical events and conditions. In other words, contra Nolan, the historian should have better things to do than exhibit his own likes and dislikes. (But I prefer the great classical scholar and poet A.E. Housman’s description of a historian’s work: a historian is not like a scientist looking through a microscope, but more like a dog searching for fleas. You can never be sure you have got them all.)

The authors never really grasp the nature and importance and function of Myth.

A “myth” like the “Lost Cause” surely does not spread so widely and last so persistently without a basis in “fact.” (One is reminded of the Yankee girl’s exclamation on seeing Lee passing through Pennsylvania: “I wish he was ours!” To truly understand a myth you must investigate the human purposes it serves. The “Lost Cause Myth” is international and enduring, which is why Confederate battle flags appeared all over occupied Europe during the fall of the Soviet Empire. It must serve some purposes beyond use as a rationalization by long dead Confederates for their sins and errors – even if one accepts that “the purpose of the legend was to hide the Southerners’ tragic and self-destructive mistake.” (A mind-reading insight which I reject since I am yet to find a single Confederate who thought he had been mistaken, as opposed to being regretful at having lost.)

Gallagher and Nolan mightily lament but seem to have no adequate explanation as to why the “Lost Cause” shows such vitality. A serious investigation might look into why the North (and the rest of the world) has had such a voracious appetite for “Lost Cause mythology.” Is it possible that the myth owes much of its creation and force to Northern psychological needs instead of being just a Southern self-deception? (Ah, but we have already proved that all such delusions are traceable to the South alone.) But why did such mythologizing Southerners as Thomas Nelson Page, Margaret Mitchell, and D.W. Griffith have such impact on mostly Northern audiences? There is a question for fruitful research!

But, alas, in spite of Nolan’s having established for all time the true and undisputed understanding of the war, the world finds itself enveloped and blinded in the smoke of the Lost Cause mythology. (Like those poor dupes of Southern apologetics, Churchill and Eisenhower, visiting with Douglas Southall Freeman to be misinformed and deceived?) But don’t effective myths have to have some real if not exact relationship to fact? Gallagher in his essay laments that Lee, and even his horse, have received frequent and favorable attention from creative writers (not all of them Southern by any means), while: “No successful novels [or movies] have been built primarily around Grant, his campaigns, or the armies he led.”

Could there maybe be some reason for this besides Jubal Early’s obscurely published pro-Lee writings of more than a century ago? Heaven forbid, but could it be that there is something to the idea of Lee as a Christian gentleman, that there is something intrinsically attractive in the man? To put it another way, could any writer plausibly imagine Lee using his men as cannon fodder as Grant did in the Wilderness, or Lee conducting the most corrupt presidential administration in American history? Or Grant kneeling to pray for guidance? If I had to pick a starting point of the mythology of celebrating Lee as a great American hero, I would not choose Early. I would select the speech made in 1907 by the great Lost Cause dupe and former Union officer from Massachusetts, Charles Francis Adams, Jr., “Lee’s Centennial.”3

Nolan presents little evidence, which is understandable since his piece, whether admitted or not, is not an historical article but a polemical essay (just like the one you are reading). However, it would be nice if he showed a trace of occasionally having weighed some evidence. Instead he relies on argument from authority, supplemented occasionally by ad hominem. Abraham Lincoln said that secession was a conspiracy of lawbreakers and not the will of the people. Question settled. Discussion over. And since he is backed by the authority of “almost all [professional] historians” in the unquestioned starting-point that Confederates were always evilly motivated and dishonest, our author is justified, is even entitled to the name of a perceptive historian, in finding whatever hidden meaning he wishes behind their deceptive words.

In this Nolan is working safely within the commonplaces of a contemporary unexamined consensus that approaches the rigor of a partly line. Perhaps he cannot be blamed too much. Some historians think the North was bad, too, but all historians are today required to “know” that the South is bad. That is his real “authority.” But unlike most of his peers, Nolan has not learned the uses of subtlety and apparent balance. He admits Northern racism, as he can hardly avoid in the state of today’s literature, but minimizes its importance in the same way that Confederate apologists minimize slavery. His essay literally reeks with assumptions of intellectual and moral superiority and dismissive contempt for those fellow citizens who disagree with his characterization of the most important period of American history. The ideal of judicious weighing of evidence and balance in presentation before passing sentence never makes its appearance.

Let us look into some of the points asserted in “The Anatomy of the Myth,” as presented in the author’s division of his subject matter. This is not easy to do since the argument is repetitive and not very well organized, though Nolan evidently believes that he has conclusively vanquished into oblivion every claim ever offered in opposition to the Unionist Southern-devil interpretation of the war.

“THE LOST CAUSE AS ADVOCACY.” Southern writers before, during, and after the war had the effrontery to actually defend themselves against the accusations of their enemies and present their cause in a favorable light. Nolan seems to find something surprising and conspiratorial, even diabolical, about this. I wish Gallagher and Nolan would research a little into the extravagant glorification of the Union cause that DOMINATED American discourse for decades after the war and involved, among other things, the virtual (and blasphemous) deification of Lincoln. That mythology persists powerfully to this day. It is arguably just as unfactual as “the Lost Cause” and the source of far more evil consequences. A little admiration for Lee and the boys in gray by their descendants and others is harmless in comparison with a self-righteous stamping-out-the-grapes-of-wrath mentality.

Robert Penn Warren in a little book about the legacy of the Civil War at the time of the bicentennial chided the South for using its defeat as an excuse to do nothing about its problems. He also warned the rest of America about its own problematic legacy, a “Treasury of Virtue,” which encouraged a thoughtless presumption of unblemished righteousness as the basis for our country’s actions in the world.

Establishing his discussion to describe and refute “THE CLAIMS OF THE LEGEND,” Nolan presents various “false” ideas sustaining the “Lost Cause myth.” It would be child’s play to compile volumes and volumes of evidence qualifying and contradicting his sweeping and rather imperial assertions. I offer only a few examples here.

“SLAVERY WAS NOT THE SECTIONAL ISSUE.” According to Nolan, Confederates dishonestly presented issues other than slavery as the real cause of the war – putting forth such trivial and imaginary factors as economic and cultural conflict instead.

A single-issue treatment of the causes of any other great war in history, like Nolan’s of the Civil War, would be laughed out of school. One of the greatest of American historians, Charles A. Beard, thought economics played the major part. But in Nolan’s universe Unionists are always governed by the highest motives – they are never moved like other human beings by self-interest, vanity, a lust for domination, opportunism, and just plain old misapprehension and fecklessness. Apparently the long-standing economic conflict of the sections was insignificant.

As long as one views the conflict entirely through Nolan’s eyes, it is easy to dismiss all considerations except slavery. I wish Mr. Nolan would do a little research into the North. He might begin to notice the thirty years Cold War against the South that preceded secession. Powerful elements of the North had an aggressive and innovative economic and cultural agenda that had something to do with the accumulation of irritations among Southerners. Northerners were not all just pious patriots. He could start with the works of Ernest Lee Tuveson, Anne Norton, Richard F. Bensel, Harlow W. Sheidley, and Susan-Mary Grant on the antebellum North. Could there be some mitigating factor in Southern behavior that the devil-theory can explain only as a product of an intrinsically evil Southern character? Surely Nolan is the only historian who has failed to notice that one result of the war was the institutionalization of a cozy relationship between the federal government and Big Business/Big Banking that persists to this day?

Further, Nolan’s argument fails to distinguish between the immediate cause of a war and the underlying causes; or between the causes of a war and the reason men fight and continue to fight a war. It is common to claim, with little evidence, that the white supremacist and agnostic Lincoln “evolved” during the war into an egalitarian and a Christian. Can’t Southerners evolve, too, under conditions that were far more stressful for them per capita than for Northerners? If the North developed a mission for emancipation as it went, could not the war in its course come to mean something else to Confederates than the reasons for secession mentioned in the South Carolina ordinance? Is it even possible that most Confederates in the end came to put the objective of independence ahead of that of preserving slavery? (Many said so.)

The preservation of slavery, or more precisely the protection of slavery from outside interference that was considered irresponsible and self-interested, was the immediate cause of the first secession. However, in what sense was slavery the cause of the federal government’s military suppression of the elected governments of the Southern states? That was what constituted the war. The war was formally declared not to be against slavery but to enforce the power of the “United States.” If irritation over the slavery issue caused the secession of the first seven states, what caused that of those who followed after Fort Sumter and the enthusiastic enlistment of most opponents of secession into the cause of independence? Lincoln’s intent to subdue states by military force, which to Southerners, and to a great many more Northerners than is usually admitted, involved a false and revolutionary interpretation of the Union. How can the war be only about slavery when the war consists of the federal government “preserving the Union,” and there is voluminous evidence that Northerners who were making war did not consider emancipation as a primary goal or a goal at all.

Slavery under several headings forms a large part of Nolan’s case. Slavery was wrong and the South would not give it up. True, but that was not the issue. The issue, as Jefferson (and Lincoln, too) realized, was how to go about getting rid of slavery. This everyone believed would be an immense and dangerous undertaking. Abolitionists did not contribute to this practical undertaking, but contented themselves with the most extreme perfervid abuse of Southerners. Lincoln had no proposal except colonization and blocking of slavery from the territories. The first was impractical and the second was driven more by economic, racist, and political power objectives than by a very hard to find Northern benevolence toward African Americans.

I tend to agree with Nolan in dismissing historians who came to the too-easy conclusion that slavery was moribund and would have easily and naturally ended. But we have the authority of no less a figure than Daniel Webster, who declared so in 1850, that it was the abolitionists who were responsible for retarding and halting the process of emancipation. However, since I am inclined to believe that Southerners of the Civil War era did not lie every time they opened their mouths or put pen to paper and that they were basically a Christian people of good will, much evidence suggests to me that the peculiar institution had evolved and was evolving in the South. It is even possible that such evolution could have had results more beneficial all around than what actually happened as a by-product of a war of conquest. And certainly the Unionist devil theory fails to convince in its assumptions about “dying to set men free.” The North’s greatest thinker, Emerson, said he was less concerned about the welfare of a thousand black people than he was about one white man corrupted by slavery.

“THE NATIONALIST/CULTURAL DIFFERENCE.” Cultural differences as a cause of conflict Nolan dismisses as “fiction.” Of course “nationalism” and “culture” are both rather slippery and elastic terms, but the argument seems to be that cultural differences between the sections were imaginary or insignificant and Southern pretensions to cultural distinction phony. But, alas, from before the Revolution up to the present day, Americans North and South have been remarking upon cultural differences that were significant to them. There were many facets to this, but the predominant aspect was the insistence of New Englanders on cultural stereotypes that portrayed themselves as the true Americans and Southerners as different, evil, and bad Americans. This latter stereotype may have sometimes ascribed slavery to be the cause of the differentness, but in fact it preceded the slavery conflict, beginning in early colonial times, and covered every element of Southern life that differed from the Northern ideal (myth?). (There has always been a countercurrent of Northerners and foreigners who found that the South was different – and better.) Why does every respectable university in the world today offer Southern Studies courses if it is all a “fiction”? For that matter, why do even Confederacy-bashing historians seem mostly to want to live in the South?

Volumes of evidence could be collected about the reality of cultural conflict, but perhaps it is enough to point out that many Northerners considered the cultural differentness of the South to be the cause and justification of the war. Your Honor, may the defense submit as its Exhibit No. 1, Mr. Alan Nolan, a historian who asserts it to be an undisputed fact that the North was democratic and progressive and the South was possessed of a guilty, destructive, unAmerican culture. A number of foreign visitors declared before the war that the North and South were essentially two different countries. They are still doing so.

For Nolan, Southerners do not deserve any cultural identity of their own, they are only an inferior and defective version of himself. (Ideologies don’t allow much notice for music, literature, attitudes, manners and other aspects of culture that distinguish peoples.) Could there be something to this cultural conflict, after all? Our author, perhaps in this exemplary of a “Northern” way of thinking, views the war as the triumph of a righteous agenda that is a bit abstract and self-justifying. Southerners tend to take history more personally, to remember what great-granddaddy did and why he did it.

Could that be a cultural difference? If so, it might help explain the strange vitality of “the Lost Cause Myth.” Could the same cultural variation be at work in the contrast between Sherman’s “War is Hell,” and Forrest’s “War means fighting and fighting means killing”? Abstraction versus personalism? Sherman, it appears, was not responsible for the devastation of Georgia and Carolina. All that burning and looting was caused by a terrible impersonal force called “War.” Likewise, according to Lincoln, “the war came.” Apparently his actions had nothing to do with it. For Forrest, no folderol. If you are going to do war you have to own up to reality and face the personal responsibility of killing.

The United States always seems to have a need to rationalize acts of war in terms of a noble crusade like “saving the world for democracy,” in the process demonizing the enemy. I bet my “Forget Hell” poster against Nolan’s framed portrait of John Brown that an opinion survey of the many Southern-born fighting men in the forces today (and the Southern public) would find a lot less of that and more of a justification of war in terms of self-respect requiring response to a threatener. A high sounding motive is not required.4

“THE IDEALIZED HOMEFRONT.” Nolan has discovered that there were divisions and conflicts within the Confederacy, which he believes Lost Causers are guilty of covering up, and therefore the notion of the Southern people united in their cause is another one of those Lost Cause fictions. Well, yes, there are always divisions in a society subject to stress as extreme as that endured by the Southern people during the Civil War. But the obviously significant larger point is that there was so relatively little internal disaffection from the Confederate cause (as opposed to opposition to particular government measures). Despite the penchant of feminist historians to make every Confederate woman’s private complaint about hardship into evidence of an underground rebellion. With their main cities taken, much of their country overrun and pillaged, sacrifice and hardship everywhere, Confederates still fought and remained hopeful until a fourth of their men were dead, a sacrifice never remotely approached by any other group of Americans. The only authority that really needs to be cited here is The Confederate War, a recent book by Professor Gary Gallagher, who has apparently since gone into rehab and become a recovering Lost Causer. And there is a false implicit assumption that every Southerner who did not like secession, slavery, or the war therefore must have liked Lincoln and the Union cause.

Nolan is able to make much of internal divisions in the Confederacy by wrongly assuming a kind of righteous unity among the people of “the United States.” like that after Pearl Harbor. If the truth is known, and it is one of the great untold stories of American history, support for the Northern cause was not nearly as solid as claimed. (Just ask Governor Seymour of New York and the federal agents who were busy arresting dissenters), even though much of the population suffered little stress compared to the lot of the South. In retrospect it was easy to ignore the role played by Unionist military forces in the border states and military forces and vigilantes in the Northern states in putting down opposition to the government (like the New York City “draft riots,” which were not riots but a mini-rebellion against the Lincoln administration. And, yes, Mr. Nolan, the Union side had vigilantes, too.) Lincoln and the Republicans themselves realized how uncertain their support was, which is why they suppressed dissent, managed elections with the army, made massive use of patronage, recruited abroad, and spent immense sums on enlistment bounties.

What would have been the morale of the North if it had suffered a comparable extent of occupation, devastation, and death as the South had by 1863, instead of enjoying a quiet and prosperous homefront? Imagine New York (New Orleans) and Chicago (Memphis and Nashville) occupied, Pennsylvania and Ohio (Virginia and Tennessee) overrun and ravaged, the capital besieged, privation the order of the day everywhere, nearly the whole male citizenry under arms. Would the population still be determined to prosecute war to the last extremity?

“THE IDEALIZED CONFEDERATE SOLDIER.” The Confederate army had deserters our writer has discovered. Therefore, the widespread image of the heroic Confederate soldier is all hogwash. All the foreign writers who have considered the Army of Northern Virginia one of the finest military forces in history are just another bunch of Lost Cause dupes. But consider: Northern armies were normally well-supplied (except for the massive corruption among Lincoln appointees and contractors) and got perhaps two hundred thousand recruits from abroad. Man per man, the average Confederate soldier made more hard marches, suffered more privations, risked his life more frequently, was wounded more times, and died more often than the average Union soldier. Outnumbered and outsupplied, Confederate leaders had to show more skill and audacity and take more risks. This is all the “myth” ever contended and it is true. No brag, just fact, as Walter Brennan used to say. One could easily make up a whole volume of tributes to Confederate heroism made by combat-veteran Northern soldiers during and after the war! And witting and unwitting tributes by admiring or frustrated Northern commanders to the accomplishments of Confederates with inferior forces.

Repeating a claim that goes back at least to the romantic Union partisan Fletcher Pratt, Nolan makes much of the highly dubious notion that Confederates were not usually outnumbered in combat. Perhaps so, but the legend of Confederate valor rests largely upon the skill and effort required to achieve that equality at contact when there were usually two or more additional large federal armies in the same theatre to be outmaneuvered. Nolan also makes a lot of a conclusion that Confederates never lost a battle through lack of supply as disproving the Southern belief that Confederates were not outfought but overwhelmed. If Confederate armies did not suffer from lack of supply (which is questionable) why not acknowledge the tremendous skill and dedication in the “backward South” that went into making that so?

The fact is, there is such a thing as a dauntless spirit, admirable to most people at all times though perhaps invisible to those who are busy stamping out the grapes of wrath. Somewhere in his works, that noted Southern apologist Bruce Catton has a moving tribute to the particular intangible but real spirit of the Confederate soldier. Admiration for a brave underdog is, or used to be, a great American quality. That is why a normal little boy or a re-enactor will usually pick the gray cap over the blue when given a choice. I suspect, also, that Lost Cause dupes understand, unlike current historians, that the Confederate army was not just another military machine, but a true manifestation of a people.

Nolan cannot understand why Bedford Forrest is considered a hero by many: “To a thoughtful and humane person, he seems an anomalous hero.” To those who think of heroes in terms of politicians, athletes and movie stars, Forrest certainly won’t qualify. But to those who think in terms of Western Civilization, the definition of a hero is one who fights with great skill and courage in defense of his people against long odds: the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, Hector before Troy, Horatius at the bridge, Roland at Roncesvalies. In that light, it is hard to find a better qualified hero than Forrest.

“THE LAWFULNESS OF SECESSION.” The paragraph Nolan devotes to secession attempts to pre-empt the very question that was at issue. One could easily fill ten volumes with evidence supporting the lawfulness of secession, from the reservation of sovereignty made by the New York ratifying convention and the centralist Alexander Hamilton’s assurance in The Federalist that the U.S. government could never have the right or ability to coerce a state; through the words of Jefferson, Madison, Tocqueville, Lord Acton, and countless others; right down to the statement in 1861 by the soon-to-be elected Governor of the largest Northern state that secession, though regrettable, was lawful (and nderstandable).5 (The Illinois state motto, adopted 1818, begins with “State Sovereignty,” followed by “National Union.”)

But the nub of the argument for coercion of the seceding states, then and now, was the need to preserve the territorial integrity of the United States and to preserve government of, by, and for the people. To make war to preserve the United States as one territory (and, incidentally, one market) is nationalism, a very powerful force in the modern world, which is supported by both practical interest and sentiment. The nation-state is a territorial monopoly of force and exploitation. It has no necessary connection with democratic government or constitutionalism, however. In what sense, really, did secession threaten to “destroy the United States” or democratic government?

Nolan rather assumes that the federal government and the 40 per cent of the people who voted for Lincoln are “the United States” and may decide who counts and who doesn’t when it comes to “the consent of the governed.” As H.L. Mencken wrote, the Gettysburg address is beautiful but it is poetry, not truth, because it reverses the realities as to who was fighting for and who was fighting against self-government at Gettysburg.6

A questioning of the soundness of Lincoln’s appeal to government of, by, and for the people can only be answered by the purely subjective conspiracy-theory claim that the Confederate government was not really the voice of its people, but only a “combination” of lawbreakers who made the Southern people deluded pawns. If so, the pawns put on a damn good performance of acting like men who believed they were fighting the invaders of their country and the enemies of their freedom. (Of course all true historians, and all good people too, already know that you can’t believe a thing those slave-owning traitors said. Those poor Southern dupes only imagined the invaders they were fighting and that their liberties suffered from their being Reconstructed.)

If Nolan would set aside Lincoln’s prettier orations and take a look at evidence of what Northern prosecutors of the war were actually saying among themselves and in public, he will find a strong emphasis on enforcing obedience to government, i.e. to those who control the government, and much less emphasis on celebrating democracy and the consent of the governed. A desire for authority and order and sometimes a naked lust for domination is evident. Something that foreign observers noted and that perhaps a few contemporary historians are beginning to notice.

Secessionists had to win the support of their fellow citizens on the open hustings. Nolan seems to have completely forgotten what Progressive historians knew well – that there were special interests and powerful minorities in the North that had more than a democratic influence on the conduct of the Union’s war. The difference being that the influence of the bankers and industrialists was somewhat clandestine and their interests more remote from those of the average Northern citizen than the interests of the slaveholding and non-slaveholding Southern farmers were from each other.

There is heavy evidence, indeed, that Northerners at first widely viewed secession with a “let the erring sisters go in peace” attitude. The tone changed and hardened when influential men began to point out the loss of economic benefits that the North would suffer if an independent South was allowed to establish free trade. Is it possible that Northern people were mislead by their leaders into sacrifices for hidden unworthy motives? (“A rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight”?) But, of course, we have already been assured by the author under consideration of the “undisputed” fact that economic interests had nothing to do with the Civil War, unlike every other war in history.

Nolan is entitled to his opinion like everybody else, but could we not expect from a historian just a little more nuance about the effects of the war on democratic government – say some notice of the expansion of Presidential power and the establishment of national mercantilism that accompanied the Union victory? Not to mention that today, along with the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the relentless absorption of power by the U.S. government, many thoughtful people around the world have begun to question the necessity, utility, and sacredness of the centralized state, even to reflect that a right of secession might be a better guardian of democracy than the presumed benevolence of a centralized government.

“THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN.” Nolan is greatly offended that many people think of Lee and Jackson as Christians. (Note that he uses for his title a refrain that smears Confederates with a religious militance which is more in a Northern style. Marching secular saints are definitely not a Southern thing. Has he never heard “Dixie” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”?) Lee was “hateful and bitter” toward the North. I wonder why? In Nolan’s book Stonewall Jackson was “like Oliver Cromwell among the Irish, killing people zestfully for the glory of God.” This historian is really reaching anywhere for mud to sling. True, Jackson was a Presbyterian and true he advocated relentless warfare against the invading army. But surely the true analogy to Cromwell in Ireland, in both spirit and fact, is not Stonewall but Sherman in Carolina? Nobody on either side ever doubted that, like it or not, it was Northerners, not Southerners who were the Puritan side of that conflict. But I must tell Mr. Nolan that there are in the civilized world today thousands of people who have carefully and seriously studied these things and have found Lee and Jackson to be truly inspiring examples of Christian faith in trying conditions.

It was not the Confederacy that had a General Hooker! Mr. Nolan’s eagerness to marshal every scrap of anti-South rhetoric he can find reminds me of the professor I recently stumbled across on the net. This thoughtful intellectual was complaining that the “Southern Gun Culture” is polluting America with violence. Timothy McVeigh? Ted Bundy? The Unabomber?

Yet our author is not entirely without balance – sort of: “It is not my intent in any way to disparage the common soldier of the Confederacy. In many ways he was the principal victim of the Lost Cause myth.” How can the Confederate soldier be “victimized” by a flattering myth? As a descendant of common soldiers of the Confederacy on both sides, I am sure I speak for us all in affirming that we can do without this condescending sympathy. Southerners still know an insult when they see one.

“THE YANKEE SOLDIER.” Our author regrets that in Gone With The Wind and other expressions of popular culture we sometimes see portrayals of mean and predatory Union soldiers, “bad people who were gratuitously upsetting the genteel and benign Southern culture.” (Actually, in recent years there have been pervasive and untruthful portrayals of Confederates as the bad guys, but never mind.) I don’t think that upsetting genteel culture is exactly what the victims of burned houses and empty larders were complaining about.

In fact, “the Lost Cause myth” never suggested that all Yankees were like that. Lost Cause writings are full of tributes to brave an honorable Union soldiers, a sentiment that was reciprocated by those Union soldiers who actually were brave and honorable.

For Nolan, and he is unfortunately very typical of today’s writers in this, all that needs be said about atrocities in the Civil War is that there were atrocities on both sides, as in any war. Discussion closed. But wait a minute. Is there really a moral equivalence between Stonewall Jackson’s advocacy of ruthless and relentless warfare against invading soldiers (which was never really implemented) and the Union’s fully implemented and official policy of systematic terror and devastation against civilians to facilitate their conquest? I think not, and I am in the good company of a lot of disinterested observers of the time and later.

Making an amateur mathematical projection from my own acquaintances, there are still today in the South hundreds of thousands of people who remember what was done to their own families—houses burned, churches desecrated or torn down, crops and livestock gratuitously destroyed, 12 and 13 year old boys and black men shot and hanged, women (including African-American women) molested, such dangerous war materials as jewelry, silver, furniture, pianos, silks and satins, family Bibles, and paintings hauled away. As I said before, Southerners tend to take history somewhat personally. After all, it’s our history we are talking about here.

I find it hard to believe that anyone can seriously assert the equivalence of atrocities on both sides. It is easy to overlook other peoples’ suffering, but morally perilous. One is reminded of those U.S. leaders who speak with callous casualness about the incineration of innocent women and children as “collateral damage.”

Nolan’s most salient proof of atrocity by Confederates is the claim that Lee’s army captured black people (number unspecified) in Pennsylvania and returned them to slavery. Alas, real life and real people are a lot more messy and complicated than the “undisputed truth” of history. A forthcoming book by a respected authority will document the story of several thousand black men who willingly went with Lee’s army to Pennsylvania AND BACK. Colonel Fremantle saw one of them marching a Yankee prisoner along.

“Having swept away the counterfactual Myth of the Lost Cause,” our author modestly proclaims, “a historian may briefly state the history of the Civil War as follows.” How’s that for careful scholarship? Many facets of Nolan’s what follows – Reconstruction, Fort Sumter, and others, I have not even touched upon. But I return to my earlier question. How did “the Myth of the Lost Cause” come to be and what purposes has it served in the life of the American people?

Nolan offers as an explanation of the Lost Cause mythology an analogy that is his lowest blow and least defensible assertion of all. Confederates who thought they were overwhelmed rather than fairly defeated, he thinks, were like the Germans who excused their loss of World War I because of being “stabbed in the back.”

Hinting at a Nazi connection is nearly always a sign of a weak case and a shifty argument and we must count Nolan as among those historians who seem to think that it is a shocking manifestation of incipient fascism when the Museum of the Confederacy actually displays a Confederate flag. The two cases are not at all alike. Germans used the excuse to launch a war of conquest of other lands and peoples. The Southern idea served only what seemed then to be the good purpose of making Southerners feel more at home in and more loyal to the United States. If there is any Nazi analogy to be found in the Civil War, it is the vainglorious exultation in conquest displayed by many (not all) on the victorious side. Perhaps it is worth considering what role Northerners played in creating the “Lost Cause Myth” and what psychological function it served for them: reassurance that Southerners who had scared them badly were no longer a threat to their power and privilege and amour propre?

Mr. Nolan, I think, knows not enough about post-Reconstruction America. The “Lost Cause mythology” was but a part of an understanding reached by most Americans around the end of the 19th century. (I am aware this agreement excluded African-Americans, but that is another story. There was little North/South difference of opinion on that.) The understanding, which was deemed essential to the strength of the country, went something like this: The Civil War had been a terrible ordeal for Americans. But perhaps it had been the crucible necessary to create a new, strong nation out of the original Union. At any rate, most people on both sides were satisfied that in the end America was held together. Nearly all Southerners sincerely accepted this. They would ever after be staunch supporters of the United States, as they have proved many times over ever since in countless ways, including their persistent over-representation in the combat arms of the national forces. All they asked in return was an acknowledgment that, if they had been wrong in the pursuit of independence, they had not been dishonorable and that they had fought a good fight that could be appreciated as a part of the pride of all Americans. Until rather recently that little has been granted, but “America” is now in the process of reneging on its part of the bargain.

Ambrose Bierce, who saw as much combat as any Union soldier and was not noted as a sentimentalist or superficial observer, honored the bargain when he wrote that Confederates had been “honest and courageous foemen” who represented “the dignity and infinite pathos of the Lost Cause.” Americans who were willing to fight when they believed their liberties were threatened should always be honored, said Bierce. Replying to a Bloody Shirt orator who wanted to suppress the decoration of Confederate graves, Bierce wrote:

The brave respect the brave. The brave
Respect the dead; but you – you draw
That ancient blade, the ass’s jaw,
And shake it o’er a hero’s grave.

And surely one of the finest statements in the history of the American people is Union hero Joshua Chamberlain on the surrender at Appomattox:

{There stood} before us in proud humiliation . . . the
embodiment of manhood, men whom neither toils and
sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor
hopelessness could bend from their resolve. . . .
{They were] thin, worn, and famished, but erect, and
with eyes looking level into ours. . . . {Shared memories] bound us together as no other bond.7

“Fact” is, that mutual respect flourished quite well for a long time until it was destroyed by history being put to the uses of new political agendas. Any reader of Professor Gallagher’s first book, on General Ramseur, CSA, who measured it by Nolan’s yardstick, would have to judge it to be an example of Lost Cause Mythology. It is not, it is only a good piece of historical writing within the old consensus.

A further irony is the use of the well-known romantic painting of Lee and Jackson together on horseback for the dust jacket of this latest book. As a Confederate icon, it is an appropriate illustration, of course, of the theme of the book. (This picture, I am told, was selected by that Lost Cause dupe Harry Truman for the lobby of his Presidential Library.) I will wager that the Lost Cause icon on the cover will sell more books than the “Lost Cause” critique inside. It won’t be the first time that bashers of Confederate heroes have piggy-backed upon their still-living glory.


1“What Historians Have Said about the Causes of the Civil War,” in Theory and Practice in Historical Study; A Report of the Committee on Historiography. Social Science Research Council Bulletin 54 (1946): 53–102.

2 In Butterfield’s Historyand Human Relations. London,1931, pp. 101–130.

3 Adams gave this talk a number of times in North and South, including Boston and Charleston. “Lee’s Centennial,” in Charles Francis Adams, Jr., Studies Military and Diplomatic, 1775–1865. New York: Macmillan, 1911.

4 In Ridley Scott’s recent powerful film, “Black Hawk Down,” there is a conversation along these lines between a Northern and a Southern soldier. The Southerner rather has the better of the argument.

5Speech of January 31, 1861, to the New York Democratic Convention, in Thomas S.Cook and Thomas S. Knox, eds., Public Record of Horatio Seymour. (New York, 1868).

6 “Abraham Lincoln,” The Vintage Mencken (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), 77–80.

7Chamberlain, The Passing of the Armies . . . (New York, 1915), 248ff.

Copyright © 2002 LewRockwell.com. Reprinted by permission.

Clyde Wilson

Clyde Wilson is a distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of South Carolina where he was the editor of the multivolume The Papers of John C. Calhoun. He is the M.E. Bradford Distinguished Chair at the Abbeville Institute. He is the author or editor of over thirty books and published over 600 articles, essays and reviews and is co-publisher of www.shotwellpublishing.com, a source  for unreconstructed Southern books.

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