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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