Racism and the Lost Cause

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

During the anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg I tend to focus on that battle, and the actions of the men who fought it. I anticipate that I will add another article tomorrow from my Civil War and Gettysburg text dealing with a part of that battle, but today because it is so pertinent even 150 years after the war, I will revisit the myth of the Lost Cause and its influence on American history and race relations after the war was over. 

Sadly, the desire of Northern corporations, Southern landowners and those who sought reunion over justice, the rights of African Americans were not only subjugated to those interests but blacks were again degraded and their efforts to achieve their own freedom cast aside as politicians, landowners, academics, businessmen, preachers and even veterans organizations raced to forget what the war was about. 

This post is also part of my Gettysburg text and I do hope that it will cause us all to think about how history and justice can be obscured in the interest of covering over crimes for political, economic and social goals. 

Peace

Padre Steve+

Lost-Cause

Though Edmund Ruffin and his dreams of an independent republic built on slavery and white supremacy was dead, in the coming years, the Southern states would again find themselves under the governance of former secessionists who were unabashed white supremacists. The institution of slavery did not endure “but southerners’ racial beliefs and habits did…. The white ex-Confederate South proved much more successful in guarding this sacred realm” [1] during Reconstruction and after than they did during the war. Former secessionist firebrands who had boldly proclaimed slavery to be the deciding issue during the war changed their story. Instead of slavery being the primary cause of Southern secession and the war, it was “trivialized as the cause of the war in favor of such things as tariff disputes, control of investment banking and the means of wealth, cultural differences, and the conflict between industrial and agricultural societies.” [2]

Alexander Stephens who had authored the infamous Cornerstone Speech in 1861 that “that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition” argued after the war that the war was not about slavery at all. Instead, the former Senator and Confederate Vice President changed his tune and argued that the war:

“had its origins in opposing principles….It was a strife between the principles of Federation, on the one side, and Centralism, or Consolidation on the other.” He concluded “that the American Civil War “represented a struggle between “the friends of Constitutional liberty” and “the Demon of Centralism, Absolutism, [and] Despotism!” [3]

Jefferson Davis, who had masterfully crafted “moderate” language, which radicals in the South used to their advantage regarding the expansion and protection of the rights of slave owners in the late 1850s to mollify Northern Democrats, and who wrote in October 1860 that: “The recent declarations of the Black Republican part…must suffice to convince many who have formerly doubted the purpose to attack the institution of slavery in the states. The undying opposition to slavery in the United States means war upon it where it is, not where it is not” [4] was not above changing his longstanding insistence that the slavery was the heart of the Confederacy’s claim to existence and the reason for secession.

birth_of_a_nation-3

After the war a revisionist Davis wrote:

“The Southern States and Southern people have been sedulously represented as “propagandists” of slavery, and the Northern as the champions of universal freedom…” and “the attentive reader…will already found enough evidence to discern the falsehood of these representations, and to perceive that, to whatever extent the question of slavery may have served as an occasion, it was far from being the cause for the conflict.” [5]

Instead of being about slavery the Confederate cause was mythologized by those promoting the false history of the “Lost Cause” a term coined by William Pollard in 1866, which “touching almost every aspect of the struggle, originated in Southern rationalizations of the war.” [6] By 1877 many southerners were taking as much pride in the “Lost Cause” as Northerners took in Appomattox.[7] Alan Nolen notes: “Leaders of such a catastrophe must account for themselves. Justification is necessary. Those who followed their leaders into the catastrophe required similar rationalization.” [8]

The Lost Cause was elevated by some to the level of a religion. In September 1906, Lawrence Griffith, speaking to a meeting of the United Confederate Veterans, stated that when the Confederates returned home to their devastated lands, “there was born in the South a new religion.” [9] The mentality of the Lost Cause took on “the proportions of a heroic legend, a Southern Götterdämmerung with Robert E. Lee as a latter day Siegfried.” [10]

This new religion that Griffith referenced in his speech was replete with the signs, symbols and ritual of religion:

“this worship of the Immortal Confederacy, had its foundation in myth of the Lost Cause. Conceived in the ashes of a defeated and broken Dixie, this powerful, pervasive idea claimed the devotion of countless Confederates and their counterparts. When it reached fruition in the 1880s its votaries not only pledged their allegiance to the Lost Cause, but they also elevated it above the realm of common patriotic impulse, making it perform a clearly religious function….The Stars and Bars, “Dixie,” and the army’s gray jacket became religious emblems, symbolic of a holy cause and of the sacrifices made on its behalf. Confederate heroes also functioned as sacred symbols: Lee and Davis emerged as Christ figures, the common soldier attained sainthood, and Southern women became Marys who guarded the tomb of the Confederacy and heralded its resurrection.” [11]

Jefferson Davis became an incarnational figure for the adherents of this new religion. A Christ figure who Confederates believed “was the sacrifice selected-by the North or by Providence- as the price for Southern atonement. Pastors theologized about his “passion” and described Davis as a “vicarious victim”…who stood mute as Northerners “laid on him the falsely alleged iniquities of us all.” [12] It was a theme that would be repeated by others in the coming decades, instead of a traitor to his nation; Davis became a figure like Jesus Christ, condemned though innocent.

In 1923 a song about Jefferson Davis repeated this theme:

Jefferson Davis! Still we honor thee! Our Lamb victorious, who for us endur’d a cross of martyrdom, a crown of thorns, soul’s Gethsemane, a nation’s hate, A dungeon’s gloom! Another God in chains.” [13]

The myth also painted another picture, that of slavery being a benevolent institution which has carried forth into our own time. The contention of Southern politicians, teachers, preachers and journalists, before, during and after the war was that slaves liked their status; they echoed the words of slave owner Hiram Tibbetts to his brother in 1842 “If only the abolitionists could see how happy our people are…..The idea of unhappiness would never enter the mind of any one witnessing their enjoyments” [14] as well as the words of Jefferson Davis who in response to the Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation called the slaves “peaceful and contented laborers.” [15]

gone_with_the_wind_b

The romantic images of the Lost Cause were conveyed to the American public by numerous writers and Hollywood producers including Thomas Dixon Jr. whose play and novel The Clansman became D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation; a groundbreaking part of American cinematography which was released in 1915. Margaret Mitchell, who penned the epic Pulitzer Prize winning novel Gone With the Wind, which in its 1939 film form won ten academy awards immortalized the good old days of the old South with images of faithful slaves, a theme which found its way into Walt Disney’s famed 1946 animated Song of the South. Through such films and books the myth of the Lost Cause became part of the national heritage with many people in states outside of the South and even some foreigners coming to believe the myth.

The Lost Cause helped buttress the myths that both comforted and inspired many Southerners following the war. “It defended the old order, including slavery (on the grounds of white supremacy), and in Pollard’s case even predicted that the superior virtues of cause it to rise ineluctably from the ashes of its unworthy defeat.” [16] The myth effectively helped pave the way to nearly a hundred more years of second class citizenship for now free blacks who were often deprived of the vote and forced into “separate but equal” public and private facilities, schools and recreational activities. The Ku Klux Klan and other violent organizations harassed, intimidated, persecuted and used violence against blacks.

When Reconstruction ended Southerners elected officials who turned a blind eye to the activities of the Klan and instituted state laws which denied most civil rights to African Americans, “From the 1880s onward, the post-Reconstruction white governments grew unwilling to rely just on intimidation at the ballot box and themselves in power, and turned instead to systematic legal disenfranchisement.” [17] Lynching was common and even churches were not safe. It would not be until the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s that blacks would finally begin to gain the same rights enjoyed by whites in most of the South.

Despite this, many Union veterans to their dying day fought the Lost Causers. Members of the Grand Army of the Republic, the first truly national veteran’s organization, and the first to admit African American soldiers as equals, the predecessor of modern veteran’s groups, continued their fight to keep the public fixed on the reason for war, as well as point out the profound difference between what they believed that they fought for, and what their Confederate opponents fought for during the war.

“The Society of the Army of the Tennessee described the war as a struggle “that involved the life of the Nation, the preservation of the Union, the triumph of liberty and the death of slavery.” They had fought every battle…from the firing on the Union flag Fort Sumter to the surrender of Lee at Appomattox…in the cause of human liberty,” burying “treason and slavery in the Potter’s Field of nations” and “making all our citizens equal before the law, from the gulf to the lakes, and from ocean to ocean.” [18]

At what amounted to the last great Blue and Gray reunion at Gettysburg was held in 1937. The surviving members of the United Confederate Veterans extended an invitation to the GAR to join them there. The members of the GAR’s 71st Encampment from Madison Wisconsin, which included survivors of the immortal Iron Brigade who sacrificed so much of themselves at McPherson’s Ridge on July 1st 1863 adamantly, opposed a display of the Confederate Battle flag. “No Rebel colors,” they shouted. “What sort of compromise is that for Union soldiers but hell and damnation.” [19]

Ruffin outlived Lincoln who was killed by the assassin John Wilkes Booth on April 14th, 1864. However the difference between the two men was marked. In his Second Inaugural Address Lincoln spoke in a complete different manner than did Ruffin. He concluded that address with these thoughts:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” [20]

Why this Matters Today

The_Storming_of_Ft_Wagner-lithograph_by_Kurz_and_Allison_1890a

The American Civil War provides a complex drama that political leaders, diplomats and military leaders would be wise to study, and not simply the military aspects and battles. Though the issues may be different in nations where the United States decides to intervene to prevent humanitarian disasters, to prevent local civil wars from becoming regional conflagrations, or to provide stability after a civil war, the conflict provides poignant example after poignant example. If we fail to remember them we will lose who we are as a nation. Sadly, all too often that is what we do.

Ken Burns wrote:

“after the South’s surrender at Appomattox we conspired to cloak the Civil War in bloodless, gallant myth, obscuring its causes and its great ennobling outcome – the survival of the Union and the freeing of four million Americans and their descendants from bondage. We struggled to rewrite our history to emphasize the gallantry of the wars’ top-down heroes, while ignoring the equally important bottom-up stories of privates and slaves. We changed the irredeemable, as the historian Davis Blight argues, into positive, inspiring stories.” [21]

The Union was preserved. Reconciliation was achieved to some degree, albeit in an imperfect manner. The continuance of legal racism and discrimination through the imposition of Jim Crow laws which discriminated against blacks and promoted segregation, poll-taxes and rigged tests to keep blacks from voting stained honor of the nation. The lack of repentance on the part of many of those who shamelessly promoted the Lost Cause and their current defenders continues to this day. Allen Guelzo wrote in the American Interest about the importance of both reconciliation and repentance to Frederick Douglass after the war:

“Douglass wanted the South not only to admit that it had lost, but also that it had deserved to lose. “The South has a past not to be contemplated with pleasure, but with a shudder”, he wrote in 1870. More than a decade later, Douglass was still not satisfied: “Whatever else I may forget, I shall never forget the difference between those who fought to save the Republic and those who fought to destroy it.” [22]

Likewise, that imperfect but reunited Union was all that stood in the way of Nazi Germany in the dark days of early 1942. Had the American republic fragmented during the war, had the South won, as so many kings and dictators of the day either openly or secretly desired, there would have been nothing to stand in the way of Hitler and his legions. Neither there would there be anyone to stand in the way of the modern despots, terrorists and dictatorships such as the Islamic State today.

Religion does matter to peoples, tribes and nations. It is still an important part of both foreign and domestic policy, even if a civilian policy maker or military strategist or operational planner does not believe in God and the effect of it cannot be minimized. Michael Oren notes “the impact of religion in shaping American attitudes and policies toward the Middle East” [23]in his book Power, Faith and Fantasy: America and the Middle East 1776 to the Present. The conflict between largely secular Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Moslems in the Balkans is a glaring example of how people who are basically non-religious will rally around faith as a means of unity against rivals of a different faith, even those who are their long time neighbors.

Likewise, the attempt of former President Bush as well as President Obama to portray the response against Al Qaida and later the invasion of Iraq as “a war against terrorism – not as a war against Arabs, nor, more generally, against Muslims…” [24] has fallen on deaf ears in much of the Moslem world. Many Moslems, see the war as being waged against them and their religion. Many, even moderates have deeply ingrained beliefs similar to the late Osama Bin Laden, or the current leaders of the Al Qaida or the Islamic State for whom “this is a religious war, a war for Islam against infidels, and therefore, inevitably; against the United States, the greatest power of the world of the infidels.” [25]

In our culture of secularization we forget the primal importance of religion to others. Part of what we do not realize is that for people with Fundamentalist religious beliefs, no-matter what religion they belong to that religion is bedrock in times of tumult. When times are tough it is far easier for people to fall back on the more simple and fundamental aspects of their religious beliefs. For Americans this usually plays out in the individual drama of struggle, faith, sin and redemption and salvation. However, even in the United States religion can be, as we have seen from this brief look at the importance of religious faith and ideology in the ante-bellum United States, the Civil War and the aftermath of the war and Reconstruction, be translated into a catalyst and buttress for mass movements and holy war.

confederate-flag-picture

The controversies and conflicts brought on by the ideological, social and religious divides in the Ante-Bellum United States provide current leaders with historical examples. Our Civil War was heavily influenced by religion and the ideologies of the partisans in the North and in the South who were driven by religious motives, be those of the evangelical abolitionists or the proslavery evangelicals. If one is honest, one can see much of the same language, ideology and religious motivation at play in our twenty-first century United States. The issue for the vast majority of Americans, excluding certain neo-Confederate and White Supremacist groups, is no longer slavery; however the religious arguments on both sides of the slavery debate find resonance in our current political debates.

Likewise, for military, foreign policy officials and policy makers the subject of the role of religion can be quite informative. Similar issues are just as present in many the current conflicts in the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe which are driven by the religious motives of various sects. The biggest of these conflicts, the divide between Sunni and Shia Moslems, is a conflict that threatens to engulf the region and spread further. In it religion is coupled with the quest for geopolitical and economic power. This conflict in all of its complexity and brutality is a reminder that religion is quite often the ideological foundation of conflict.

These examples, drawn from our own American experience can be instructive to all involved in policy making. These examples show the necessity for policy makers to understand just how intertwined the political, ideological, economic, social and religious seeds of conflict are, and how they cannot be disconnected from each other without severe repercussions.

Samuel Huntington wrote:

“People do not live by reason alone. They cannot calculate and act rationally in pursuit of their self-interest until they define their self. Interest politics presupposes identity. In times of rapid social change established identities dissolve, the self must be redefined, and new identities created. For people facing the need to determine Who am I? Where do I belong? Religion provides compelling answers….In this process people rediscover or create new historical identities. Whatever universalist goals they may have, religions give people identity by positing a basic distinction between believers and non-believers, between a superior in-group and a different and inferior out-group.” [26]

By taking the time to look at our own history as well as our popular mythology; planners, commanders and policy makers can learn lessons if they take the time to learn, will help them understand similar factors in places American troops and their allies might be called to serve, or that we might rather avoid.

Notes 

[1] Ibid. Daly When Slavery Was Called Freedom pp.148-149

[2] Gallagher, Gary W. and Nolan Alan T. editors The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis 2000 p.15

[3] Ibid. Dew Apostles of Disunion p.16

[4] Ibid. Catton The Coming Fury p.104

[5] Davis, Jefferson The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government Volume One of Two, A public Domain Book, Amazon Kindle edition pp.76-77

[6] Ibid. Gallagher and Nolan The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History p.12

[7] Millet Allen R and Maslowski, Peter. For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America The Free Press, a division of McMillan Publishers, New York 1984 p.230

[8] Ibid. Gallagher and Nolan The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History p.12

[9] Hunter, Lloyd The Immortal Confederacy: Another Look at the Lost Cause Religion in Gallagher and Nolan The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War p.185

[10] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.854

[11] Ibid. Hunter The Immortal Confederacy Religion in Gallagher and Nolan The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War p.186

[12] Ibid. Hunter The Immortal Confederacy Religion in Gallagher and Nolan The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War p.198

[13] Ibid. Hunter The Immortal Confederacy Religion in Gallagher and Nolan The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War p.198

[14] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.106

[15] Ibid. Gallagher and Nolan The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History p.16

[16] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.525

[17] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.526

[18] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.532

[19] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.532

[20] Ibid. Lincoln Second Inaugural Address

[21] Ibid. Burns A Conflict’s Acoustic Shadows p.102

[22] Guelzo, Allen C. A War Lost and Found in The American Interest September 1st 2011 retrieved 30 October 2014 from http://www.the-american-interest.com/articles/2011/09/01/a-war-lost-and-found/

[23] Oren, Michael Power, Faith and Fantasy: America and the Middle East 1776 to the Present W.W. Norton and Company, New York and London 2007 p.13

[24] Lewis, Bernard The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror Random House, New York 2003 p.xv

[25] Ibid. Lewis The Crisis of Islam p.xv

[26] Ibid. Huntington The Clash of Civilizations p.97

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3 Comments

Filed under civil war, film, Gettysburg, History, Political Commentary

3 responses to “Racism and the Lost Cause

  1. Jerry

    Nice article. Thank you. I do want to point out a slight wrinkle, though. While I agree the South seceded over a concern over their ability to continue to protect its interest in the continuation of slavery, the North did not fight the war over slavery. Lincoln was solely focused on preserving the Union, and was warned many times not to touch slavery. Many in the North were perfectly happy to fight to preserve the Union, but would refuse to fight to free the slaves. So while southern racism certainly helped shape the conflict, so did Nothern racism.

    • padresteve

      Jerry, you are right in your comment. I have written about Lincoln’s evolving views on slavery and how by 1864 it became, over the objection of Copperheads a a war aim in itself and Lincoln ran his 1864 reelection campaign on that issue, that Union without emancipation was impossible. Over course Andrew Johnson threw that away and by 1873 most in the North walked away from rights for African Americans and abandoned Reconstruction in favor of economics and reunion. I do appreciate your comments and hope you continue to read and comment. Blessings and happy Independence Day!

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