Gaines Foster and David Blight: Two Views on the Lost Cause

In 1961 the nation celebrated the centennial of the American Civil War with a glorification of battlefield heroics entwined within a narrative of a nation reforged in the fires of war. However, Robert Penn Warren critiqued this vision with The Legacy of the Civil War. Warren argued that both sides used the war as an alibi for post-war failures, including corruption and racial injustice. At the same the Lost Cause was coming under attack in the work of historians such as Bruce Catton who popularized the Northern war experience. However, it was not until Gaines M. Foster wrote Ghosts of the Confederacy, that the Lost Cause was given a chronology and placed within the context of the New South, particularly how it functioned within Southern society. While still an important text, Foster’s analysis has since been both refuted and expanded upon, and among the works to do both is David W. Blight’s Race and Reunion.

Ghosts of the Confederacy

Foster broke down the Lost Cause into three phases. The earliest forms of remembrance were reserved for the dead, and centered upon cemeteries. At the same time the Virginians, led by Jubal Early, attempted to shape how the South interpreted the war. However, Foster contended that Early and his vocal associates were of only marginal importance because of their elitist trappings and refusal to embrace any kind of reconciliation. Instead, the true expression of the Lost Cause arrived after 1880, as veteran associations sprang up and New South leaders embraced remembrance celebrations. These gatherings commanded great crowds and were influential because they called for reconciliation, were inclusive of veterans from all classes, offered a sanctuary from the turbulence of industrialization, and healed deep wounds to the Southern psyche by celebrating the courage of the average soldier. Nevertheless, this movement declined after 1900, as the gatherings took on a more elitist flavor and organizations, such as The Sons of Confederate Veterans, seemed more interested in the high social standing of its members. In addition, the Spanish-American War caused the North to embrace the valor of the Southern soldier, healing one of the more persistent psychological wounds.

Veterans at New Market in 1926. (VMI Archives)

By mostly concentrating upon society and organizations, Foster posited that the Lost Cause was only truly successful when it became a broad celebration. It was neither a coherent myth nor a civil religion. By necessity then, he diminished the significance of Early, who failed to reach a broad audience, but nevertheless crafted many of the ideas behind the Lost Cause. However, the Lost Cause’s main function was that it provided a satisfying and easy way for Southerners to reconcile the war’s harsh lessons. Thus the Lost Cause neither made the South wiser, but nor did it create a sacred legend. Instead the war was “sanitized and trivialized” and the later use of Confederate symbols lacked depth. Tacitly, it seemed then that Foster agreed with Wilbur Cash’s contention that the war did not have quite as profound effect upon the South as it would at first appear.

David Blight, in Race and Reunion, placed reconciliation within the context of an integral conflict over the legacy of the war and America’s development. Race and Reunion was, in Blight’s words “a story of how in American culture romance triumphed over reality, sentimental remembrance won over ideological memory.” A new narrative of reunion trumped the emancipationist legacy, which according to Blight is the central issue of the war and its aftermath. The failure to embrace the war’s “true meaning” meant that Americans North and South never came to grips with the reality of the war.

In many ways Blight’s work was the opposite of Foster’s. Blight placed questions of race at the center of sectional reunion, concluding that the nation was reforged and at the same time denied the achievement of emancipation by depriving blacks of equality. Foster did acknowledge that the Lost Cause supported white supremacy, but he did not place questions of race at the center. Foster’s work placed class and the need for reassurance in the war’s aftermath as the most important aspects of the Lost Cause. He found that the Lost Cause served a vital social function, at least for a time.

In terms of style the books are truly at polar opposites. Blight’s writing is emotional and evocative, and he cannot hide his disgust at the victory of the Lost Cause. Foster’s work is by contrast direct and he rarely uses any linguistic flourishes. However, Blight can be rambling, writing a long (and arguably very strained) passage on the work of Ambrose Bierce. Foster is well organized and succinct. There are no questionable asides.

This does not mean that Foster and Blight do not have points of agreement. Blight and Foster each use a myriad of sources from blue-gray reunions, to monument commemorations, and debates between generals. Most of all, both historians found the Lost Cause vision of the war to be inaccurate and harmful to the nation. Blight argued that reconciliation only healed tensions among whites, and because blacks were excluded from the narrative, the nation was never truly united, leaving the question of racial equality to later generations. Foster contended that the Lost Cause voided any chance at the South coming away from the war wiser, and in that way the Lost Cause’s other victim were the very white Southerners who popularized it. The major difference, and what continues to make Ghosts of the Confederacy intriguing, is that Foster thinks the Lost Cause fulfilled a vital social function in the late nineteenth century, but one that never matured beyond shallow Confederate symbols. It certainly makes the story of the Lost Cause more complex than the simple narrative provided by the new Just Cause consensus.

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12 Responses to Gaines Foster and David Blight: Two Views on the Lost Cause

  1. Laura Ukura-Leir says:

    I’m interested in the economics of Secession. It has been my understanding that Southern cotton planters who were earning an enormous amount of money on their cotton crops. The Federal government began to inordinately tax cotton as a way to pay for the Mexican War. Cotton was the cash cow. The South rebelled against the excessive taxation. Any takers on this thought? How about this one – Lincoln didn’t issue The Emancipation Proclamation til 2 years into the war. The reason being the interest of European nations in the outcome of the war. Any takers on this thought.

    • Bob Vance says:

      I think Caroline Janney’s book Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation, supersedes, or at least greatly calls into question, both Gaines and Blight’s views and augments.

      • Sean Michael Chick says:

        I have met her and she gave a talk about Pickett’s widow and her efforts at reconciliation. I cannot say if what she said there really superseded Foster and Blight, but I have not read her book and she did not bring it with her. How does she counter Foster and Blight?

    • Laura, I’m interested in your idea that the Feds began to “inordinately tax cotton”. We know it wasn’t an export tariff, as such tariffs are barred by the Constitution. How have you understood it was “taxed”?

  2. John Pryor says:

    I’ve never read Foster’s book, but having tried to force myself through Blight’s turgid treatise, I have to more closely ally myself with Foster. The unfortunate thing is that Blight’s oral style is as mindnumbing as his writing style. Thank God for fast forward on DVR.?

  3. Rod says:

    I heard it said recently “the Lost Cause Myth is a recent connotation used by both Neocon and Leftist Historians to publicly dispute, marginalize, invalidate and disenfranchise, the Confederate memory “Lost Cause” perspective of the War.” Having spent the past few years focusing on the major tenets of the so labeled “Lost Cause Myth,” I’ve have to agree that the accusation itself is more myth than the narrative of the Confederate vets and their apologists. Spending some time perusing primary sources beyond those popularized by those pushing the current fashionable narrative can be mind opening!

  4. Michael Turnbull says:

    I think Blight makes a good case…race was excluded from the Lost Cause mythology although slavery underlay all the causes of the war. Everything in the post-war South had been destroyed except White Supremacy. As far as I’m concerned you can also posit that the Lost Cause Myths provided cover for the largest, longest, and most horrific domestic Southern terrorism we’ve ever had in this country…we still had 70 black lynchings in 1912 so it’s hard to give an end date to the terror. And I’m not excusing the North on this either…it was easier to shake hands across a stone fence than it was to do the work required to truly reconcile the whole nation, blacks and whites

    And with two young African Americans recently found hanging from trees out in California under suspicious circumstances we can’t even say that lynchings are over yet. I hate to dismiss the theory that the Lost Cause’s other “victims” were “the very white Southerners who popularized it” but I find it hard to sympathize.

    I think what you are seeing today in this country proves Blight’s point in spades: “reconciliation only healed tensions among whites, and because blacks were excluded from the narrative, the nation was never truly united, leaving the question of racial equality to later generations”. So here we are.

    • Lyle Smith says:

      I agree with Blight as well on this point, race was excluded from both reconciliation and the Lost Cause. The two go hand in hand. Slavery in the United States wasn’t written about seriously as an academic subject until the 1930s.

    • Sean Michael Chick says:

      I find Blight’s overall argument strong, but with certain limitations. I do not think the Lost Cause was as strong as he argued, he short-changed the Union’s memory of the war, and his part about Bierce misses the point of Bierce. Another is the “hard to sympathize” point you make. The decline in general sympathy for “the other side” is a pervasive and limits our understanding and our empathy. Instead we are increasingly left with a tale of heroes and villains, and thus our explanation for what happened in the South after 1865 becomes limited. Reading Woodward’s Origins of the New South shows there was more going on than just racism. However, doing so would bring class back into the discussion and allow for some sympathy for non-elite white Southerners. Neither sentiment is en vogue right now.

      I think what we are seeing today though is Blight only in so far as his portrayal of the South has become standard. I cannot put it into words, as the thoughts are unformed, but the racial tensions feel very different than the ones I grew up observing and that I have read about in times past.

      “slavery underlay all the causes of the war.” – I think this has limited our scope of understanding. While it is true slavery underlay the economic, social, and to a lesser degree the political crisis, there are two other causes we do not discuss. One is the American Revolution, which provided us with a legacy of successful treason, separation, and fratricidal violence. The other is the limitations of the Constitution itself. Take away either of those, and I have doubts that there is even a war. I feel these are not discussed because they are embarrassing. We would have to admit that we killed Loyalists (both lynching and in battle), that the fabled Constitution is very flawed, and Washington and his crew were traitors.

  5. Lyle Smith says:

    I’ve met Gaines Foster before. A group I was in, in college invited him to give a talk on the history of the Confederate battle flag. He and I had an interesting conversation about Civil War reenacting beforehand.

    I’ve read both books. I don’t think they’re very far apart when it comes to the crux of the matter. Both are strong works of history.

    Thanks for taking the time to compare the two works side by side. They should be a part of all our home libraries.

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