On a website devoted to publishing scholarly articles, I did recently did a search for “The Lost Cause” and unsurprisingly found a plethora of articles on that theme relating mostly to the aftermath of the American War of 1861-65. Also unsurprisingly, many of these apparently set about to examine the issue with a view toward debunking that effort as futile, backward, and so on.
What occurred to me following this admittedly unscientific and non-comprehensive survey were three related observations. The first has to do with what we might call a natural human response to any defeat and the trauma and shame that go with it. The second relates to the motivation on the part of the South in electing to engage in that War. And the third pertains to the matter of the arbitration of right and wrong, truth and falsehood by either war or word.
That the South after the War, over several decades, sought in various ways to defend its actions in the spring of 1861 should not be surprising. It did so through the formation of various organizations—among them the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the United Confederate Veterans—through the erection of statues and monuments, and not least through the writing of apologias, memoirs, and histories, to name a few. The notion that there is something wrong or inappropriate in their doing these things is at least naïve and obtuse in the extreme. Why would they not do just what they did? The cause for which they fought transcended by far a defense of slavery even if, for some, it included the “peculiar institution.” Moreover, their honor was at stake. After all they, were members, for better or worse, of an honor culture. When honor is attacked, the appropriate response is to defend it.
The issue here, I would suggest, lies not solely with the motives of the Confederates but with the attitudes of the victorious North as well. It was not enough for them to defeat the South militarily. No. They must also destroy it and everything—its economy, its culture, its ideals, its social views, its institutions—everything it stood for. Hence, a defense cannot, must not be allowed in 1865 or 1965 let alone in 2022. The North had in short to destroy and utterly humiliate the South so that it could be remade in its own image. So really, the position of the North was not a matter at all of naiveté or obtuseness. It was—and is—an expression of a gnostic, utopian ambition to dominate and control anything not yet like itself. Like many such ambitious projects, this was also one in which the perpetrators failed to see any flaws or failings of their own.
What the North most wanted and wants still is to destroy what they consider to be the “myth” of the Lost Cause.[i] The really interesting thing about this goal is that they do so completely oblivious to the fact that they themselves have been quite busy over the years manufacturing their own set of myths. Not the least of these, of course, is that when it comes to the evils of slavery they themselves are as pure as the driven snow. It is as if no New England ships transported slaves to American shores; as if there never were any slaves in Northern states; and as if there were no Black Codes in states like Illinois prohibiting free blacks from taking up residence before and after the War.
Another myth is that which formed around Mr. Lincoln almost immediately after the War ended. He is a figure who, in addition to being the sixteenth president, also became known as “Father Abraham,” and, even more egregiously, a Christ figure without easy parallel, the Savior-Redeemer of his Country—a myth engendered in part by his martyr’s death over Easter weekend of 1865 and brought to fruition by the overwrought rhetoric of countless clergymen and political orators. The phenomenon of the North’s inconsistency in such matters is what I would call pathological hypocrisy, all the more striking in being utterly unrecognized by those who suffer from it.
Second, as for the motivation of the South in engaging in the War in the first place, does anyone with a sober mind seriously believe today that the citizens and leaders of the region would have thrust themselves into a destructive war against great odds without compelling reasons? Again, the cause of slavery by itself is hardly sufficient to explain it except to the narrow, diehard ideologue. It is clear from Mr. Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address that he for one failed to see such reasons. He asks at one point: “Will you hazard so desperate a step [secession], while there is any possibility that any portion of the ills you fly from, have no real existence? [emphasis added]” It is the argument of a mind intent on not seeing but one side of the quarrel—his own.
It is not my purpose here to survey all the reasons for—or for that matter against—the South’s decision to fight. But a brief reference to one of the underlying causes or circumstances is appropriate. Frank Lawrence Owsley in a well-known essay, “The Fundamental Cause of the Civil War,” attributes the impetus behind the war to “egocentric sectionalism.” It is a charge that may be applied, of course, to both sides. It grew out of the fact that more and more over the decades the two sections became distinctly different. The one was becoming more and more commercial and industrialized, while the other to the south was content to remain predominantly agricultural and feudal. Also important, in the political debates leading up to the conflict beginning at least as early as the 1850’s, was that the language used by both parties became more and more hostile as they became more certain that they both were in the right. The language of the abolitionists, asserts Owsley, became not merely inimical but even “coarse and obscene.” Inflammatory language enflames passions, and such passions can spark the flames of war. To paraphrase Richard Weaver, rhetoric has consequences.[ii]
One other reason for the South’s engaging in war that developed fairly quickly after Lincoln’s first call for troops was that of standing in defense of the home land. If the threat of invasion by a hostile army was not enough for some, it was more than enough for many others. One has only to review in the historical record the extent of the destruction to houses, barns, livestock, crops, and cities (such as Columbia, South Carolina), to get some idea of what was at stake. Much of the destruction had little military value but was designed as punishment, especially toward the end, for the audacity to have defied the government in Washington. And that punitive spirit does not even take us into the period of Reconstruction.
Third, regarding the determination of right and wrong, truth and falsehood, perhaps I may be allowed to state what should be obvious to all sensible and moderately intelligent persons. And that is that force, the violence of war in particular, does not prove anything beyond who has exerted that force with greater quality or quantity or both. As Jefferson Davis noted after the War, “Force may prevail over right, but cannot destroy truth.”[iii] Force does not arbitrate what is true or false. It does not determine what is right or wrong. Arguably, that is why such an extensive effort was set in motion after the War to “re-educate” Southerners of a certain age—especially the young—in what was the true American way as understood, that is, by Northern educators and schoolmarms sent South.
Those of a certain age reading this essay will recall that in the sixth grade it was typical for a class in Southern public schools to learn by heart and recite in unison the Gettysburg Address. The exercise was more than an effort at exposing the young to the glories of lofty rhetoric. Its goal was rather to inculcate a certain view of what the War had been about, what the Country really stood for. One stops short of referring to that grand locution as propaganda, but the effort at molding young minds in a certain direction certainly partakes of that motivation. But I would suggest that just as force itself cannot determine truth and falsehood neither can propagandistic projects achieve that end either. In time, the young will realize, for better or worse, that they have been played upon.
How the truth of things stands can best be acquired by the continuous, sometimes arduous, exercise of knowledge-gathering, openness to the wisdom of our elders, an eye for the slippery use of language by some, and a discernment informed by all of one’s faculties operating in unison.
Finally, as regards the concept of the lost cause in general, we may recall an often-quoted remark by T. S. Eliot in an essay on the philosopher F. H. Bradley: “If we take the widest and wisest view of a Cause, there is no such thing as a Lost Cause because there is no such thing as a Gained Cause. We fight for lost causes . . . to keep something alive [rather] than in the expectation that anything will triumph.”[iv]
Closer to home, Allen Tate, who in part modeled his literary career on that of Eliot, wrote to his friend and fellow Fugitive-Agrarian, Donald Davidson “Any coherent point of view, whether it have any chance of practical success or not, becomes a valuable instrument of criticism. The chief virtue of such a stand is to make contemporary abuses stand forth for what they are. . . . No cause is lost so long as it can sustain a few people in the formulation of truths.”[v]
Those who most vociferously impugn the Southern Lost Cause don’t merely seek to eliminate it; they want to cancel anyone who would dare even to mention it let alone presume to defend any part of it. That is who they are; that is who they will always be. And not all of them reside north of the old surveyor’s line. As Mel Bradford liked to remind us, some who reside south of that line are born Yankees of the race of men. We can’t change them, and we shouldn’t bother to try. It is a waste of breath and ink. To the extent that we can, we should ignore them. What we can do also is defend as best we can those values of our ancestors worthy of honor: faith, integrity, courage, perseverance, love of place and family, and life-enhancing traditions that are our unique heritage.
[i] Granted, the Lost Cause has been marked by excesses and sentimentality. In a critical commentary late in Gone With the Wind, one which reflects Scarlett O’Hara’s own jaundiced perspective, the author notes: “The Lost Cause was stronger, dearer now in their hearts [the Old Guard] than it had ever been at the height of its glory. It was a fetish now. Everything about it was sacred, the graves of the men who had died for it, the battlefields, the torn flags, the crossed sabres in their halls, the fading letters from the front, the veterans” (Ch. 49). Scarlett, both before, during, and after the War had scant use for the Cause. In fact, to the Old Guard, she was, after the War, now “the enemy.” Her cause was first and last Scarlett O’Hara. Though the novel is often interpreted as an expression of the Lost Cause theme, nothing could farther from the truth. The consistently expressed attitudes of the two main characters make that perfectly clear.
[ii] Frank Lawrence Owsley, “The Fundamental Cause of the Civil War: Egocentric Sectionalism,” in The South: Old and New Frontiers: Selected Essays of Frank Lawrence Owsley (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1969), 56. See also his “The Irrepressible Conflict,” in I’ll Take My Stand, 61-91 (1930; Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977).
[iii] Jefferson Davis, To R. C. Holland, July 25, 1881, Jefferson Davis: The Essential Writings, ed. William J. Cooper, Jr. (New York: Modern Library, 2001), 426.
[iv] T. S. Eliot, “Frances Herbert Bradley,” Selected Essays, New Edition (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1964), 399. Eliot was also sympathetic to the thought of the Nashville Agrarians.
[v] Tate to Davidson, February 18, 1929, The Literary Correspondence of Donald Davidson and Allen Tate, ed. John Tyree Fain and Thomas Daniel Young (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1974), 224.