The Myth of the Lost Cause

A review of The Myth of the Lost Cause: Why the South Fought the Civil War and Why the North Won (Regnery History, 2015 ) by Edward Bonekemper

The late Edward H. Bonekemper III had a bachelor’s degree from Muhlenberg College and a master’s degree in American history from Old Dominion University. He also had a Juris Doctor from Yale Law School. He retired as a federal government attorney after 34 years and retired as a Coast Guard Reserve Commander (Homeland Security). Now that you know this about him, this book may not surprise you. He presents it from the view of a prosecuting attorney for the Union and has the view of a field grade naval officer rather than a flag infantry officer. He is right in some places (South could have won) and wrong in others (Longstreet caused the Gettysburg loss). The problem is his opinions are based on the opinions of others, whom he quotes at some length to reinforce his views.

But first, here’s what Merriam-Webster says a myth is: “1. a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon; 2. a popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone, especiallyone embodying the ideals and institutions of a society or segment of society; 3. an unfounded or false notion.”

Bonekemper was nice enough to inform us what the Myth of the Lost Cause was.

Here’s Bonekemper’s definition:

  1. Slavery was a benevolent institution but was dying on its own before Northern radicals waged war on their own countrymen to eliminate it at once.
  2. The protection of states’ rights, not slavery, was the central cause of secession.
  3. The Confederacy faced such great odds that it had no chance of winning The War.
  4. Robert E. Lee, who nearly overcame those odds, was one of the greatest generals of history.
  5. James Longstreet was responsible for the Confederacy’s loss at Gettysburg and thus the loss of The War.
  6. Ulysses Grant was an incompetent “butcher” who won The War with brutality and superior numbers.
  7. The North prevailed by waging unprecedented “total war” against the South.

Let’s look at each of these.

  1. Slavery was a benevolent institution but was dying on its own before Northern radicals waged war on their own countrymen to eliminate it at once.

Bonekemper was nice enough to present tables showing the value of slaves and how they had increased before The War. So where is a new plantation to get its slaves, when the value has doubled in a decade? And who takes care of elderly slaves who can no longer work? Slaveowners wanted to protect their investments and wanted to sell slaves to other parts of the United States. There is no argument against this. One, of course, wonders how someone starting out could afford slaves. Try this: The government has decided to make used cars illegal. What would you, as owner of a used car lot, think and do? Would you be favorable to losing your investment because owning used cars became illegal? What would you do with your used cars?

The late Eugene Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, won the Bancroft Prize; it was written from a Marxist point of view. Genovese examined the society of the slaves. He viewed the antebellum South as a closed and organically united paternalist society that exploited and attempted to dehumanize the slaves. He paid close attention to the role of religion as a form of resistance in the daily life of the slaves, because slaves used it to claim a sense of humanity. Both masters and slaves embraced paternalism but for different reasons and with varying notions of what paternalism meant. For the slaveowners, paternalism allowed them to think of themselves as benevolent and to justify their appropriation of their slaves’ labor. Paternalist ideology, they believed, also gave the institution of slavery a more benign face and helped deflate the increasingly strong abolitionist critique of the institution. Slaves, on the other hand, recognized that paternalist ideology could be twisted to suit their own ends by providing them with improved living and working conditions.

The late Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South, was written from a feminist point of view. She writes that class and race as well as gender shaped women’s experiences and determined their identities. Drawing upon massive research in diaries, letters, memoirs, and oral histories, the author argues that the lives of antebellum Southern women – enslaved and free – differed fundamentally from those of Northern women. It is not, therefore, possible to understand antebellum Southern women by applying models derived from New England sources.

The late David Brion Davis, a Pulitzer Prize winning historian on Southern slavery and the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, has pointed out an African-American family in South Carolina, who were large slaveowners. This family, accepted by white gentry society, had their own family pew in the Episcopal parish, where only distinguished white families owned pews. Their eldest son was buried in South Carolina with attending Confederate veterans, including his commanding officer.

In Louisiana French Creoles were the most open about racial intermingling in America before modern times. Wealthy Creole planters allowed their Franco-African sons, the métis, to inherit their wealth. These sons were raised with high French culture – some were sent to France for their education. They were known as “les gens de couleur”.

The late Ulrich Bonnell Phillips’ Life and Labor in the Old South. Phillips was a Southerner born in LaGrange, Georgia, at the end of Reconstruction. He is the father of the modern study of slavery in the South. Phillips contended that masters treated slaves relatively well. His views were rejected most sharply by Kenneth M. Stampp in the 1950s. Eugene Genovese wrote that Phillips’ “work, taken as a whole, remains the best and most subtle introduction to antebellum Southern history and especially to the problems posed by race and class.”  C. Vann Woodward wrote: “Much of what Phillips wrote has not been superseded or seriously challenged and remains indispensable.” Phillips always denied he was proslavery. He was an intellectual leader of the Progressive Movement and slavery (in his interpretation) was inefficient and antithetical to the principles of progressivism. Phillips (in 1910) explained in detail why slavery was a failed system. As Phillips suggested, the South would have found its own solution to freeing its slaves without the horrors of the worst war in American history.

  1. The protection of states’ rights, not slavery, was the central cause of secession.

Southern leaders realized that they were about to lose control of Congress, which they had held since Washington was President. They also realized the Republicans maintained a nationalist political ideology similar to the Federalists of the 1790s, while the Democrats advocated traditional federalism, what is often termed “state’s rights.” It was not so much that slavery was being threatened but the South’s agrarian life. Thus, the South favored states’ rights as opposed to a strong central government. This even current historians fail to realize.

  1. The Confederacy faced such great odds that it had no chance of winning The War.

Bonekemper is correct: The South could have won The War. By sending all the cotton it had to Europe and using the proceeds to build ships and buy materiel of war, the South could have easily defeated the Union. Imagine dozens of AlabamasFloridas, and Shenandoahs on the high seas sinking Yankee ships. Imagine every Confederate armed with Enfield rifles and the artillery composed of rifled cannon.

The South only needed to defend its borders, not defeat the North. The North would have worn out its armies attacking Southern troops and her competent leaders, attempting to win The War. Imagine more Fredericksburg victories against attacking Yankee troops.

John Cook has identified four specific Confederate advantages: (1) the psychological edge of fighting for independence and to protect their homes and way of life; (2) interior lines and geography, including rivers, mountains, and swamps that were the equivalent of successive lines of fortifications; (3) higher per-capita production of corn, livestock, and other necessities of life; and (4) cotton, which, properly utilized, could provide economic and diplomatic benefits.

  1. Robert E. Lee, who nearly overcame those odds, was one of the greatest generals of history.

Bonekemper does not like Robert E. Lee. What he fails to realize and fails to put into this book is that Lee was a true follower of Napoleonic tactics. He believed, as did Napoleon, that one great victory would win The War. But that did not work for Napoleon in Russia and for Lee in Pennsylvania.

Lee believed in giving a plan and letting his subordinates execute it. Thus we have Stonewall Jackson’s constant victories after Lee’s plan and Longstreet’s attack at Gettysburg. Lee refused to interfere with subordinates’ plans. Thus we see Lee not giving orders directly to others at Gettysburg. Today’s battlefield is micromanaged in a way even Gen. George Patton would not recognize.

Bonekemper also believes Lee lost The War by not shifting his troops from Virginia to elsewhere in the Confederacy. Imagine Longstreet suddenly appearing before Sherman. Imagine Jackson suddenly appearing at Vicksburg. How would this have changed The War?

Others have good opinions of General Lee. There is no disputing that President Dwight D. Eisenhower – raised in Kansas, graduate of West Point, Supreme Allied Commander of World War II, five-star general, and President of the United States – admired Robert E. Lee for his character without considering him a traitor to the uniform or the country. “Lee was, in my estimation, one of the supremely gifted men produced by our Nation … selfless almost to a fault … noble as a leader and as a man, and unsullied as I read the pages of our history. From deep conviction I simply say this: A nation of men of Lee’s caliber would be unconquerable in spirit and soul. Indeed, to the degree that present-day American youth will strive to emulate his rare qualities … we, in our own time of danger in a divided world, will be strengthened and our love of freedom sustained.”

President Lyndon Baines Johnson of Texas added, “If we are to heal our history and make this Nation whole, prosperity must know no Mason-Dixon line and opportunity must know no color line. Robert E. Lee, a great son of the South, a great leader of the South – and I assume no modern day leader would question him or challenge him – Robert E. Lee counseled us well when he told us to cast off our animosities, and raise our sons to be Americans.”

President Ronald Reagan of California said, “Robert E. Lee, the Southerner who criticized secession and called slavery a great moral wrong, would become himself an American legend, yet a man who, though he rode off into myth and glory, would suffer cruelly in his own time. After the dissolution of his cause, he would work to bind up the Nation’s wounds. And to those pessimistic about the Nation’s future, he once said, ‘The truth is this: The march of Providence is so slow and our desires so impatient; the work of progress so immense and our means of aiding is so slow and our desires so impatient; the work of progress so immense and our means of aiding it so feeble; the life of humanity is so long and that of the individual so brief, that we often see only the ebb of the advancing wave and are thus discouraged.’ ‘It is history,’ he said, ‘that teaches us hope’.”

President Theodore Roosevelt, also a military officer and President, said, “There is no need to dwell on General Lee’s record as a soldier. The son of Light Horse Harry Lee of the Revolution, he came naturally by his aptitude for arms and command. His campaigns put him in the foremost rank of the great captains of all time. But his signal valor and address in war are no more remarkable than the spirit in which he turned to the work of peace once the war was over. The circumstances were such that most men, even of high character, felt bitter and vindictive or depressed and spiritless, but General Lee’s heroic temper was not warped nor his great soul cast down. He stood that hardest of all strains, the strain of bearing himself well through the gray evening of failure; and therefore out of what seemed failure he helped to build the wonderful and mighty triumph of our national life, in which all his countrymen, North and South, share. Immediately after the close of hostilities he announced, with a clear sightedness which at that time few indeed of any section possessed, that the interests of the Southern States were the same as those of the United States; that the prosperity of the South would rise or fall with the welfare of the whole country; and that the duty of its citizens appeared too plain to admit of doubt. He urged that all should unite in honest effort to obliterate the effects of war and restore the blessings of peace; that they should remain in the country, strive for harmony and good feeling, and devote their abilities to the interests of their people and the healing of dissensions.”

  1. James Longstreet was responsible for the Confederacy’s loss at Gettysburg and thus the loss of The War.

General Robert E. Lee, however, saw the series of battles over July 1 – 2 as steps along the correct line of approach. “The enemy is there [on Cemetery Ridge], and I am going to strike him.” Lee suggested 15,000 men should be enough, to which Longstreet replied, “It is my opinion that no 15,000 men ever arrayed for Battle can take that position.” Longstreet was one of the most able tacticians in the Confederate army, with a discerning eye for terrain, and a keen appreciation for the role of artillery, but Lee was the commander and Longstreet went to obey orders.

The Gettysburg attack would be a complex and difficult attack to organize because it involved parts of two army corps and dozens of support troops. Before the attack there would be an extensive artillery preparation by most of the artillery units of the Army of Northern Virginia. It was quite a plan to be organized by Longstreet in the short time before it stepped off.

Longstreet, however, did not give all of his considerable talents to making sure the attack had every chance of success:

First, Longstreet designated Maj. Gen. George Pickett as the guide for the attack. To its left was Lt. Gen. A. P. Hill’s troops and Longstreet selected Maj. Gen. Henry Heth’s division to go forward with Pickett, even though it had fought heavily on July 1st. Then Longstreet simply instructed Pickett to find a spot for his men to ride out the artillery barrage somewhere in the vicinity of the Union center. When the attack stepped off, Pickett was instructed to join his left flank with the right flank of Brig. Gen. James Pettigrew, 400 yards away.

Second, Longstreet failed to see that all his troops were informed of what they could encounter during the attack.

Third, Longstreet failed to send more support troops along with the attack; Anderson’s division was available to cover both flanks but not used. Lee had contemplated that part of Law’s or McLaws’ commands of Hill’s Corps would be sent forward, but did not order Longstreet to use them for it; Longstreet instead used them to secure his right flank. What he sent forward were the small brigades of Col. David Lang and Brig. Gen. Cadmus M. Wilcox “to protect [Pickett] from any force that the enemy might attempt to move against it.”

Fourth, all the units selected for this assault were chosen by happenstance, not upon deep reflection. As Pickett’s division had not yet seen action, it was a logical choice. Pettigrew’s division, although in the fight July 1st, had regrouped. But the supporting brigades right and left were those that happened to be there.

Fifth, as the attack stepped off, the all-important alignment was immediately off. Pettigrew had only two brigades start on time; the third (Brig. Gen. Joseph Davis) started late but caught up. Since Davis was the focal point of a fourth brigade, Col. John M. Brockenbrough’s, the fourth brigade gave up on catching Davis and conducted its own, poorly coordinated and lightly pressed attack. The gap between Pickett and Pettigrew took quite a while to make up, and they did not finally get together until crossing Emmitsburg Road. As Pettigrew paused to redress his line, those to the rear thought they were wavering; this was corrected as Brig. Gen. Richard Garnett’s left aligned with Pettigrew. Davis, who had started late, led a disorganized attack with Pettigrew. Brockenbrough, unused to command, divided his 500-man brigade into two wings, but never caught up with Davis on his right. When the Yankees fired into him from the front, his troops fled all the way back to Seminary Ridge.

While Pettigrew’s men struggled to make any progress east of Emmitsburg Road, Pickett’s brigade commanders were launching his division like a juggernaut across the pike and on to the stone fence. The Virginians were able to bring many more men closer to the Union position than Pettigrew could and would not be so readily repulsed. Garnett finally closed with the right flank of Fry’s brigade, making connection with Pettigrew.

When Confederates finally reached the stone wall, the object of the attack, they turned and wondered, “Where are our supports?” There were none. Who was at fault? Most say Longstreet; Bonekemper says Lee.

Pickett lost 498 killed, 833 wounded and captured, 681 captured (42%). Pettigrew’s losses were estimated to be 470 killed, 1893 wounded, and 337 wounded taken on the battlefield (62%). Wilcox reported losing 200; Lang reported 115. Davis (44% loss) and Brockenbrough (17% loss) had reports covering both days’ fighting. Marshall (67%) and Frye (57%) lost accordingly.

Was this enough to lose The War? No. But Longstreet argued with Robert E. Lee and became a Republican.

  1. Ulysses Grant was an incompetent “butcher” who won The War with brutality and superior numbers.

Once again Bonekemper is partially right and Lost Cause arguers partially right. One should remember that Bonekemper has written three books on Grant, taking the “victor not a butcher” approach.

Grant realized that Robert E. Lee’s army was the target, not Richmond. Thus his attacks were against Lee’s army. Although the final campaign seems brutal, it was attack after attack, and Lee conducted a masterful defense. Grant could recoup his losses; Lee could not. Finally The War ended at Appomattox.

Fortunately Bonekemper gives more charts on how Grant was not a butcher. One of the flaws is that Lee’s army at Appomattox is given as a Confederate battle loss; it should be as a surrender not a loss. Thus Grant lost fewer troops to the Confederates, who lost thousands at surrender. Minor things such as this creep in when you’re the prosecutor and can manipulate the figures.

  1. The North prevailed by waging unprecedented “total war” against the South.

The term here is not “total war” like in WWII, but “hard war”. Hard war involves destruction of enemy armies and enemy property of all sorts; total war additionally involves the deliberate and systematic killing and rape of civilians.

Conclusion

Every pro-Confederate reader should have a copy of this book, since it sets forth all the arguments of the South-was-wrong crowd. Remember, Bonekemper is the prosecuting attorney; you should be the defense and Bonekemper gives you all the information.

So, let’s make corrections to Bonekemper’s thesis:

  1. Slavery was not a benevolent institution, but was dying on its own before the North waged war on their own countrymen to eliminate it at once without compensation.
  2. The protection of states’ rights, agrarian economy, and slavery were the central causes of secession.
  3. The Confederacy could have won The War.
  4. Despite all criticism, Robert E. Lee was one of the greatest generals of history.
  5. Gen. James Longstreet shared responsibility for the Confederacy’s loss at Gettysburg; that loss did not cause the loss of The War.
  6. Gen. Ulysses Grant won The War with constant attacks on Lee’sarmy and attrition.
  7. The North prevailed by waging “hard war” against the South.

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