The Civil War matters because history matters, and that was a particularly intense, instructive period.
History matters because it endeavors to understand and appreciate the past, illuminate the present, and envision the future.
Historians seek to expound stories of our ancestors as objectively and accurately as possible, treating them as individuals with a common human nature operating within a specific historical context, or at least they should.
Historians sometimes fail in this mission when objectivity is lost as the narrative becomes hijacked by fears, prejudices, and agendas. A good example is the Lost Cause, that interpretation both public and academic that sought to explain the war in terms most favorable to former rebels as well as to those unrepentant political and social pathologies that caused the conflict.
Lost Cause ideology distorted perspectives for a century, delaying resolution of deep national divisions. It failed in its premises and in its methodology. As a theoretical approach to history—historiography—the Lost Cause has itself become history.
This history of history also matters because the propensity to commit such errors is immortal, as demonstrated by current discourse often involving the same subjects. A comparison between then and now is instructive; we can learn from the past to not repeat the mistakes of the past.
In its central premise, the Lost Cause sought to marginalize slavery as a war issue in favor of more defensible secondary or extraneous causes. Recent scholarship is correcting this aberration, filling in the story while assigning the institution its proper, central role in the Civil War narrative.
But another historical interpretation also has arisen, which goes to the opposite extreme, declaring slavery the all-encompassing theme for all American history, apparently explaining and motivating every act and every actor. This approach is no less subjective or agenda driven than the Lost Cause; it just reverses the script.
The richness and complexity of human experience refutes single causality. The Civil War has multitudes of fascinating and instructive stories to tell, which even with slavery hovering in the background, need not directly reference the institution or depend on it for meaning. They too are important. Even some threads of the Lost Cause were not necessarily wrong, just misplaced in the warp and woof of dense historical fabric.
The Lost Cause relied on subjective group identities and group rights with an artificial gloss of scientific objectivity, denying individual agency and declaring one amorphous group superior to another. It espoused racist assumptions concerning the inferiority of African Americans (and other marginalized groups) in order to perpetuate an antebellum oligarchy. This terrible idea lives on in “white supremacy.”
But again, we have a new and contrary concept, equally pernicious, of “white privilege,” which assumes the fundamental inferiority of all Americans of European descent—dead, living, and unborn—seemingly to advance the interests of new political oligarchy. How are these approaches different, except to reverse the color identities of the superior/inferior groups?
Then and now, labels most often applied—“white,” “black,” and the totally undefinable “person of color”—have little objective meaning, depending as they do on superficial physical features. Such designations can only make vague reference to probable and usually remote ancestry on one continent or another with perhaps some guesses as to cultural heritage.
They have no rational historical purpose; they say nothing certain about any individual of any color or their capabilities, hopes, fears, or prejudices. These labels are, however, imbued in public discourse with a great deal of emotional meaning—anger, fear, envy, hate, and greed—which is perhaps the intended purpose.
Black and white are extremes that describe no human being or human endeavor. Categorical distinctions are necessary, but they must not erase individual agency and should be made with more objective, less polarizing terminology.
The Lost Cause wanted to assuage the guilt of slavery’s adherents; the current obsession with slavery and “white privilege” assigns guilt to all persons of lighter skin color for all time.
The Lost Cause justified regimes of anger, fear and terror to keep former enslaved persons in their place. Current public discourse on race often employs anger, fear, and occasionally terror as demagogic tools to manipulate public perceptions and to subvert political opponents.
History as a method should be an inductive process, but the Lost Cause did the opposite. It started with favored premises, selected sources and facts to accommodate them, deduced conclusions, and demanded adherence and actions based on them.
Anyone questioning the conclusions, much less the premises, were declared apostate and illegitimate. That’s political ideology and demagoguery masquerading as history, and it’s still going on from “xxxx supremacy,” to “xxxxophobic,” and “white privilege.”
For example: One premise being advanced is that American slavery began in 1619 when Europeans first imported Africans. But slavery was common in Native American cultures as it was in all tribal and agricultural societies everywhere throughout recorded history. Different in form and practice to be sure, but not in substance. Slavery is universal human sin, not “America’s Original Sin.” If the premise is false, all conclusions derived from it are irrelevant.
The wonder is, not that slavery existed in America, but that the founders deliberately established the first society in history based on principles that rendered slavery illegitimate, principles that were documented and ratified by the people as the law of the land. Then in less than two generations, Americans abolished this timeless, abhorrent practice after stupendous sacrifice while building the freest and most egalitarian nation ever.
Given our nature, historical and historiographical conflicts like these will always be with us. One can begin to understand Lost Cause attempts to rewrite the past as a coping mechanism for extreme trauma along with the less admirable motivations. No such excuse exists now. That’s why the Civil War matters.