Confederate monuments and the cult of the Lost Cause

Posted on March 13, 2018. Filed under: Civil Rights, Civil War, Politics, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , , , |

Here’s a great article from Smithsonian, by New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu, on the real reason so many Confederate monuments were put up in this country, both just after the Civil War and in the 1950s and 60s. One application for federal funding to preserve three Confederate statues as historically important specifically states that the statues commemorate the Cult of the Lost Cause:

“The Cult of the Lost Cause had its roots in the Southern search for justification and the need to find a substitute for victory in the Civil War. In attempting to deal with defeat, Southerners created an image of the war as a great heroic epic. A major theme of the Cult of the Lost Cause was the clash of two civilizations, one inferior to the other. The North, “invigorated by constant struggle with nature, had become materialistic, grasping for wealth and power.” The South had a “more generous climate” which had led to a finer society based upon “veracity and honor in man, chastity and fidelity in women.” Like tragic heroes, Southerners had waged a noble but doomed struggle to preserve their superior civilization. There was an element of chivalry in the way the South had fought, achieving noteworthy victories against staggering odds. This was the “Lost Cause” as the late nineteenth century saw it, and a whole generation of Southerners set about glorifying and celebrating it.”

It’s very odd that this clear-eyed assessment of the Lost Cause as a cult and therefore a myth was successfully used to justify maintaining three Confederate statues in Louisiana. One would think that the goal of preserving acknowledged racist propaganda would be recognized as out of step with real American founding principles.

The only thing we would add is that Landrieu mentions the fact that Confederate memorials were put up in the North as well as the South. This is true; it happened directly after the war as part of an attempt to heal the breach and offer a socio-political olive branch to the South. But that misguided effort quickly died away in the North, while statues continued to go up regularly and in abundance in the former Confederacy.

“How I Learned About the Cult of the Lost Cause,” by Mitch Landrieu—enjoy!

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5 Responses to “Confederate monuments and the cult of the Lost Cause”

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As a historian I am used to dealing with propaganda posing as fact and prefer the cult of accuracy to that of myth. As it’s three decades since I lived in the USA I may be wrong but my understanding is that the narrative referred to was not to receive federal funding which may, or may not, be available but for recognition of the relevant statue. In addition, I find it strange that so many Americans appear to have been unaware of the Lost Cause or have taken it out of historical and sociological context. Historical perspective is vital to an understanding of the culture of any society and to regard the Lost Cause without reference to Radical Reconstruction on the one hand or the KKK on the other is to miss the essence of contemporary culture at the time in question. When I lived in Virginia references to the Old South and its continuance in the form of the Lost Cause was already an embarrassment. Ordinary folks living through social change were uncomfortable but accepted it. As ever it was politicians who portrayed themselves as representing the community.

As a non-American historian seeing Confederate statutes never bothered me any more than seeing the statue of the Republican Oliver Cromwell standing outside the Westminster Parliament. Having understood the history of time and place I saw them as reminders of the past and, as a historian, knowing what that past entailed were interesting in themselves. The question being raised in statue removal is whether such removal eradicates the past or hides the reality of what took place. It’s not as clear cut as some people may think but, having seen the statues of Saddam Hussein and others, removed by a newly liberated people, I can understand it. However, I do think it is a mistake to assume that those who latch on to the racist element within the Lost Cause represent the totality of Southern opinion from the past which is far more varied than that provided by the Southern Poverty Law Centre. In order to have ‘truthful conversations’ about the past it is essential that debates are conducted on a rational basis, acknowledging the prejudices that are inherent from our own personal, intellectual and historical development.

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Hello Dr. Thomas; thanks for your thoughtful comment. You are correct; the funding was to preserve the monuments as historical markers, not to create them. Thanks for pointing that out.

Most Americans, actually, know nothing but the Lost Cause. They learn in school that the Civil War was about economics and states’ rights, was emphatically not about slavery (because the North was just as racist, and really even more racist, than the South), and that since most Southerners did not hold people as slaves, they fought only to protect their “homeland” and families, and as such they are innocent of any connection to slavery, and therefore they can and should be celebrated and honored for their bravery and sacrifices in the war. Confederate monuments were accepted at this level.

The small fraction of Americans who want to aggressively celebrate the Confederacy and slavery were always relegated to the fringes of society. Recently, however, they have moved to claim the mainstream. This cannot be allowed to happen; we can never move so far from our founding principle of liberty and justice for all as to let proslavery and white supremacy to claim that acceptance.

Can you elaborate on your comment on the SPLC?

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As most of the studies I undertook, in particular that of what was called the Conservative and Radical Right of the 1960’s in addition to reputable history books, all set out the facts as they were known I am surprised at the content of your second paragraph. In 1858 Lincoln had drawn attention to the fact that the two forms of government could not co-exist but that one would succeed at the expense of the other. Commenting on the Dred Scott case he drew the same conclusion as Frederick Douglass. ‘Such a decision is all that slavery now lacks of being alike lawful in all the States. Welcome, or unwelcome, such decision is probably coming, and will soon be upon us, unless the power of the present political dynasty shall be met and overthrown. We shall lie down pleasantly dreaming that the people of Missouri are on the verge of making their State free, and we shall awake to the reality instead that the Supreme Court has made Illinois a slave.’ It was to preserve the Union and his understanding of freedom that Lincoln went to war. Correctly, he referred to ‘the present political dynasty’. That dynasty has changed.

As for the SPLC I regret to say it is characterised by exaggeration, quote mining and subjective evaluation which often presents itself as unvarnished truth whereas, sadly, it attaches far more importance to those who hold different opinions from itself. In many ways it perpetuates intolerance rather than undermines it. Its stance is ideological rather than factual and, as such, misrepresents what actually happens in the same manner as a spin doctor would do. It fails to recognise that society consists of many shades of opinion and not that represented by itself or those it claims are extremists. One would imagine that the only people who voted for Trump were racists at heart whereas the election was as much about social exclusion or economic deprivation by the self-appointed elite. Of course living in the UK I have a different perspective on American politics which I regard as inherently unsound based as it is on class, wealth and power, characteristics which are reflected here.

As the writer of Ecclesiastes wrote, ‘What has been, will be again, what has been done will be done again, there is nothing new under the sun’. It’s in the nature of the beast, the human nature. I doubt it will change.

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In our second paragraph we are explaining what Americans are taught about the Civil War—that it had nothing to do with slavery. That is clearly not the case, and it pains us, and all people who care about American principles, to know that the Lost Cause is still so effective in distorting our history.

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I do find that surprising. I would have thought Americans have sufficient intelligence to separate image from reality which is one reason why socialism never rooted itself deeply in the United States. I just feel that emphasising the Lost Cause gives those groups who take it at face value an importance they do not have in reality. It wasn’t just that the Confederate States wanted to preserve their culture which included slavery but that they wished to extend it into new States which made the conflict inevitable. Yet it took Lincoln three years to declare Emancipation which suggests he was acutely aware of the politics involved and the art of the possible rather than the art of the desirable.

Then again being aware that Marxism as a philosophy was effectively dead before the Russian Revolution revived it I am equally surprised that some people still think it has any relevance to the problems of any society given its practical application whenever and wherever it has had power. Some people are susceptible to deceiving themselves. As for the Confederate Statues being an historian I would have kept them in place as a reminder of what happened in the past but I understand why some people have a different perspective and interpret them as symbolic of a social system they see negatively.

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