Lost Cause Alive and Well

Gen. Robert E. Lee as portrayed by Tom Schobert

Gen. Robert E. Lee as portrayed by Tom Schobert

“I think Robert E. Lee ought to be on the money. I can’t understand why he isn’t already!”

This was a comment made by a young man recently at a Civil War reenactment in upstate New York in response to a discussion about the current proposal to put a woman on the $20 bill instead of President Andrew Jackson. Because Robert E. Lee was “probably the greatest American general,” according to the same young man, it was high time his image should adorn the currency. Because I was not a participant in the discussion I overheard, I did not point out – as I surely would have – that at the time Lee held the rank of General he was fighting against the United States of America.

At the University of Virginia’s recent 2015 Signature Conference on the Civil War, there was a panel discussion about the “Lost Cause” in which one of the panelists, John M. Coski of the Museum of the Confederacy, suggested that the influence of the Lost Cause was waning. Mr. Coski clearly has not visited upstate New York recently.

The Lost Cause is the name of a school of thought about the Civil War. It emerged in the late 19th century led by men like former Confederate generals Jubal Early and John B. Gordon and organizations like the Daughters of the Confederacy. Among the prominent tenets of the Lost Cause are that slavery was not a primary cause of the Civil War, both sides fought bravely for the causes they believed in, Robert E. Lee was one of the greatest men to ever live, and the South lost because they were overwhelmed by greatly superior manpower and resources.

Some historians have suggested that while the North won the war, the South won the peace. This contention is based, at least in part, on the predominance of the Lost Cause myth – even in the North. An examination of the reenacting hobby in upstate New York seems to suggest that the Lost Cause is alive and well. For instance, for every Union regiment in the hobby, there are two or three Confederate outfits. In fact, a common problem at reenactments when it comes time to simulate battle is that the Union is always outnumbered. To remedy this, Confederate reenactors are called upon to exchange their butternut rags for Union uniforms.

As a historian I have naturally been interested in the motivations of the men who participate in reenacting. The most common response to my inquiries is a desire to educate the public about life in the 19th century and the experiences of the soldiers. There is much concern for explaining the uniform, accoutrements, and life in camp. Pressing for political and ideological reasons usually produces a response that emphasizes the courage of both sides and deemphasizes slavery—in other words, versions of the Lost Cause.

Reflecting on the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, now largely over, I had hoped that the Lost Cause would finally be put to rest. I have always thought that much of the romance of the war was due to the influence of the old myth. To truly come to terms with the Civil War, we must acknowledge the centrality of slavery as a cause and pull General Lee from his pedestal. By avoiding the hard realities of that war, it makes it all the easier to avoid the hard realities of modern war.

Don’t get me wrong: I admire the reenactors that want to be historically accurate and the skill with which they educate the public about life in the mid-19th century. But at the same time I am troubled by the message the public takes away from such encounters. After all, there is little discussion about the causes of the war between the public and reenactors.

But in viewing a Confederate encampment reenacted, there are missing elements that the public does not know are missing – the servants. A typical Confederate camp in the 1860’s would have included many slaves there to serve their masters in camp and on the march. And of course, there are very few African-Americans that would take part in a reenactment playing the part of the slaves. The result is that the public sees only part of the experience of Confederate soldiers in camp, and inadvertently the Lost Cause is perpetuated.

Perhaps the Lost Cause can be eradicated by the 175th anniversary of the war. Perhaps.

About Derek Maxfield

Associate Professor of History Genesee Community College
This entry was posted in Emerging Civil War. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Lost Cause Alive and Well

  1. Joseph Glatthaar’s “Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse” offers a fantastic breakdown of the Army of Northern Virginia’s evolving demographics. Unfortunately, I don’t have my copy of the book with me. I know he talks about the percentage of slaveholders in Lee’s army, but does he talk at all about the number of actual slaves that traveled with the army? And if so, does he break that down by officers and enlisted me? I would be interested in the data that would illustrate “many slaves there to serve their masters in camp and on the march.”

  2. I should have been more clear about the servants that would travel with the Confederate armies. There were many African-Americans in the service of the Confederate armies as cooks, teamsters, laundresses, etc. – not necessarily slaves there to serve their masters.

  3. Amanda Warren says:

    As to “the motivations of the men who participate in reenacting”: having just attended such an event as a spectator this past weekend, I can quote the exact words of the man portraying the Southern commanding general: “We do this to honor those of both sides who fell here in battle.”

    There was no shortage of Yankees at this event in the Deep South; on the contrary, Union infantry lines, cavalry and artillerymen were spectacular in their numbers. African-Americans were represented not only in the Union ranks but alongside Confederates as well. The event demonstrated that you are mistaken in stating categorically, “Of course, there are very few African-Americans that (sic) would take part in a reenactment playing the part of the slaves.” In fact, during the educational days leading up to the public event, numerous African-Americans depicted enslaved people, and one participant wore a t-shirt showing a black man in a tintype photo with these words beneath it: “My Ancestor Was A Field Negro.” I read in that statement a sense of pride in her ancestor’s strength and resilience. Not all, or even most, African-Americans feel only one way about the realities of slavery. Your statement, on the other hand, contains a subtle assumption that there should be some shame or reticence on the part of descendants of enslaved people. I would think there would be many different feelings.

    You need not feel so “troubled by the message the public takes away from such encounters” if it is really because “there is little discussion about the causes of the war between the public and the reenactors.” I heard much of such discussion. It may not always have followed the rigid line of thought that you apparently deem the only correct one, but doesn’t true and honest discussion allow for multiple viewpoints?

  4. Thanks for your comment. I think you may have misunderstood what I was saying. First, I thought I had made clear that I was talking about my experience in upstate NY and concerns for the resilience of the Lost Cause. In upstate NY you would expect more Union reenactors than Confederate, since during the war NY furnished more soldiers for the Union cause than any other state. All of my observations and concerns were about what is/was happening in NY and not in all of America in general. As for my “subtle assumption,” I think you are reading too much into my comment.
    Let me reiterate that I have much respect for living history. It is a power vehicle for education. My concern is that there is not enough discussion about the causes of the war, in my opinion, and that the things that are missing from a reenactment can lead people to misunderstand history.

  5. One thing that’s always cracked me up about the Lost Cause mentality: “the South lost because they were overwhelmed by greatly superior manpower and resources.” Um..if you have superior manpower and resources, isn’t that the point? Overwhelm the enemy?

  6. Yes, Tom Schobert does a fantastic “Lee.” He has a great talk called “Four Days After Appomattox.” You would swear he was channeling the General. It is a little eerie.

  7. wdonohue1 says:

    I recently listened to a Robert E. Lee reenactment in Amherst, NY. It was well done, but left Lee on his pedestal, probably because that’s where most of the people present wanted him, as was apparent from their questions and comments. The Lost Cause doctrine also says that the South was actually superior militarily in most ways but just could not cope with Northern industrial and demographic might. That too is a lopsided presentation which does not do justice to either the fundamental faults of Southern politics, military leaders, or armies, nor the performance of the North, its governments, generals, and armies. I suggest Elizabeth Varon’s book, Appomattox, paints a more balanced description.

  8. docwylie says:

    My comment would be to quote one of our great modern military leaders and of course a past President of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhauer:

    “I would say, first, that we need to understand that at the time of the War Between the States the issue of Secession had remained unresolved for more than 70 years. Men of probity, character, public standing and unquestioned loyalty, both North and South, had disagreed over this issue as a matter of principle from the day our Constitution was adopted.

    General Robert E. Lee was, in my estimation, one of the supremely gifted men produced by our Nation. He believed unswervingly in the Constitutional validity of his cause which until 1865 was still an arguable question in America; he was thoughtful yet demanding of his officers and men, forbearing with captured enemies but ingenious, unrelenting and personally courageous in battle, and never disheartened by a reverse or obstacle. Through all his many trials, he remained selfless almost to a fault and unfailing in his belief in God. Taken altogether, he was noble as a leader and as a man, and unsullied as I read the pages of our history.”

    • wdonohue1 says:

      I think you are reading older versions of the Civil War and its leaders. Read Elizabeth Varon’s Appomattox and you will get a more balanced presentation.

      • I have read Varon’s book. It is excellent. But it most certainly is an answer to the Lost Cause. Her section on the surrender clearly is suggesting that Lee is the one that first created the narrative that would turn into the Lost Cause.

      • Amanda Warren says:

        “Older” does not mean untrue.

  9. I would agree with much of what you quoted. Don’t misunderstand me, I admire Lee and believe he was a good man with many redeeming qualities. But I also think that if we venerate Lee unquestioningly we do him a disservice. He was human, and in fact would be very uncomfortable with the adoration and the near worship some show him. If we can admit he made mistakes, like all of us, and that he had failings as well as merits, we are closer to really knowing him.

  10. Bill Holland says:

    Thank you docwylie. Your estimation of Lee was spot on. And many people north and south, American and Non American feel the same way.

  11. docwylie says:

    I appreciate that many, particularly in the North, have issue with assigning any positives to those who led the South during the war. It is akin to those in the South who are repulsed by the veneration of Abraham Lincoln in the North. A simplistic notion, for sure, but sadly will probably always exist.

    • Amanda Warren says:

      I know of no Southerners who “are repulsed by the veneration of Abraham Lincoln.” Absolutely none. He is universally venerated–or at worst, by a few, viewed somewhat neutrally. Perhaps there is some minute, fanatical fringe who feel differently, as was the case in 1865. Most back then, even in the wake of their terrible loss, felt very sorry for his demise.

      However, as you say, “many in the North have issue with assigning ANY positives to those who led the South during the War.” It is not akin.

  12. docwylie says:

    Perhaps I painted with too broad a brush, and do not wish to cast aspersions on those in the South who venerate, or at least do not disrespect, Lincoln. That being said, I am familiar with quite a few Southerners who evidently are part of the minute, fanatical fringe. They must gravitate to social media in numbers disproportionate to the population.

    At this point, I will absent myself from these comments as I do not wish to further offend anyone.

    • Amanda Warren says:

      no offense at all – you are right that a few can be quite vocal and create a skewed impression

  13. There have been many “great” Generals throughout history, of which Lee is many. Very few of those violated their oaths given in the service to their nation/state/rulers, of which Lee is the few.

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