“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.