Part one of two
Historians debunked the myth of the Lost Cause decades ago, but it still defines the way many (if not most) Americans remember the narrative of the Civil War. Its influence on popular imagination holds sway over national memory, controls commemorations and remembrances, and provides lively fodder for Roundtable discussions. It’s either America’s Great Romance or it’s alternative history akin to a viral blight.
No matter how you cut it, says historian Edward Bonekemper III, “The Lost Cause is the most successful propaganda campaign in American history.”
Bonekemper, author of half a dozen books and the book review editor for Civil War News, is the latest researcher to explore this “alternative reality” of the war. His new book, The Myth of the Lost Cause: Why the South Fought the Civil War and Why the North Won, explores and explodes that mythology.
“After the war, the South had a lot of explaining to do,” Bonekemper says. “The South was in ruins, and twenty-five percent of men aged 20-45 were dead.” Why? Southerners asked. “Slavery was a difficult answer, so they came up with another one instead,” Bonekemper explains.
Propagated by “the mediocre Jubal Early and the totally incompetent William Nelson Pendleton,” the Lost Cause was “an effort to make themselves look better, make Lee look great, and make the Southern situation look hopeless,” Bonekemper says.
“After the war, the North went back to doing its business,” he says: “continuing to industrialize further, building the Trans-Continental Railroad, settling the West. The North didn’t feel the need to look back at the war.”
As a result, the Lost Cause version of the war had “a thirty-year head start.”
“Grant was a little disturbed by this. He put something in his memoirs. But it largely went uncontested. No one opposed it,” he says. “The North bought into it.”
The North was complicit, he explains, “by cooperating with the South by having reunions and focusing on reconciliation: ‘let bygones be bygones.’ That allowed Jim Crow laws to dominate and kept blacks in subservience into the 1960s.”
It was around that time that historians began to take a harder look at what had become the accepted version of events. Bonekemper points specifically to the work of Bruce Catton and Alan Nevins. “They made good-faith efforts to come up with a more neutral take on the war,” he said.
Even as academics began to more substantially debunk the Lost Cause perspective, other popular writers like Shelby Foote continued to reinforce it—a tradition that continues among some popular historians today.
Complicating the debate were modern movements that embraced the Confederacy in the name of “heritage.”
“Starting in the 1950s with school integration and into the 1960s with Civil Rights in general,” Bonekemper says, “people who opposed those things began waving the Confederate flag in the name of honoring their ancestors. It’s why the issue is still so emotional.”
So why did Bonekemper decide to wade into the fray? We’ll answer that question in part two of our interview as we talk more about his book, The Myth of the Lost Cause.