Ed Bonekemper’s Lost Cause Fact-Check (part one)

BonekemperPart 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.

5 Responses to Ed Bonekemper’s Lost Cause Fact-Check (part one)

  1. I recently re-read Foote’s 3 volume narrative history and I did not find it to be supportive of the lost cause myth. You may have been influenced by his aw-shucks demeanor on the Ken Burns epic Civil War.

    1. Actually, in the foreword to one of his volumes, Foote admitted to a pro-Southern bias. And while he may not have fully embraced every aspect of the Myth, he was firmly in bed with the numerical/economic disadvantage excuse.

  2. Edward Bonekemper makes the common mistake of confusing the cause of secession (slavery) and the cause of the war (preserving the Union). For example, he cites as contradictions Jefferson Davis’ reason for resigning from the U.S. Senate as slavery, and Davis’ post-war explanation that the cause of the war had nothing to do with slavery. While Davis seems guilty of exaggeration when he said that slavery had nothing at all to do with the war, he is correct that war was caused by Lincoln’s refusal to allow the southern states rebellion to split the Union. The South seceded because Lincoln’s election threatened that new states would no longer be admitted to the Union as slave states, so eventually the slave-states would be outvoted in Congress by the growing number of free states. Lincoln had promised his administration would not end slavery in the existing slave states, only block the admission of any new states as slave states. Later, well after the war had been underway, Lincoln issued the emancipation proclamation freeing slaves (but only in the rebel states) to hinder the southern war effort as well as to encourage northern blacks to enlist.

    The attack on Ft. Sumpter is generally considered the first battle of the Civil War. But was the South intending to start a war? South Carolina’s government no longer considered their state to be a part of the USA, thus regarding the Fort as being an armed camp of a foreign power (i.e., the USA) in the midst of their territory. They asked the fort Commander to vacate the fort, but he received orders from President Lincoln to stay and be prepared to defend the fort. Lincoln believed secession was illegal. He was determined to preserve the Union, but was reluctant to fire the first shot (he was uncertain how much of the North would support war). South Carolina unwisely obliged him by firing the first shots (in hindsight, a major strategic blunder). The South was not looking for war. While the average southerner might have thought they were superior on a man-to-man than the northerners, the leadership must have know that a sustained war would favor the north, which is why they were so desperate for support from Great Britain. (The British textile mills depended on Southern cotton, but Britain was by then an anti-slave nation and hesitated.) The war ensued as an invasion of the South by Union troops, with southerners fighting to defend their homelands from the invaders, whether or not they were slaveholders. Robert E. Lee did make two attempts to invade the North, but those were intended merely to obtain finances and supplies for his troops as well as to get northern civilians, disturbed by the war being brought to their homes, to pressure Lincoln to a peace treaty.

    1. The assertion you make in your opening is a classic example of a distinction without a difference. The war began because the Southern States seceded. Why did the Southern States secede – SLAVERY.

      1. The difference is that some non-slave-owning Southerners fought to protect their homeland from “invaders” and some Union soldiers were more interested in preserving the Union than in emancipating the slaves. Lincoln himself did not threaten emancipation until it seemed like a way to weaken the rebellious states, and the Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery in slave states that had remained in the Union. The platform that Lincoln ran on was to confine slavery to the existing slave states and not allow it in new territory. Cotton barons reputedly needed to extend slavery to new territory because (without modern fertilizers) cotton growing depleted the soil of nutrients needed to grow cotton.

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