The Lost Cause was at first a subject of scholarly inquiry. It then became one of scorn, used at times as a slur. For a serious student of the war, it is a label few desire as its mythology has gone more underground or even fringe. There is no greater boogeyman in American Civil War history than the Lost Cause.
What defines the Lost Cause is a general belief that the South did not fight the Civil War for the sake of slavery, but for broadly constitutional rights. The sacrifices of the war were valorized and memorialized. Robert E. Lee became a heroic figure, boosted by many into a military genius in the mold of Hannibal Barca. Fallen generals such as “Stonewall” Jackson, “Jeb” Stuart, Leonidas Polk, and Sidney Johnston were fixtures of veneration. It also emphasized the war in Virginia, where the Rebels won most the battles and held out while the rest of the Confederacy was overrun. There are many more aspects, such as negative appraisals of Ulysses S. Grant and James Longstreet, but those are the main ones I have observed.
The Lost Cause was never a monolith. Jefferson Davis’ role varied from being the author of defeat to a semi-Christ figure persecuted at Fort Monroe, or even a great statesmen and thinker. After the war Lost Cause adherents debated between those who embraced reconciliation and those who remained “unreconstructed.” After 1965, there was a split between those who saw it mostly as a way to celebrate Confederate military prowess and those who combined military veneration with an attack on racial equality and government overreach. No ideology, mythology, religion, or memory is wholly consistent, and I am certain Shelby Foote and James Ronald Kennedy would have disagreed on a lot of things.
There has always been a need to identify an enemy and stick them with a label. Non-conformers in the 1500s could be labeled witches and be burned. In our day, it is common to witness the insult Nazi, communist, fascist, socialist, and other labels applied with relative ease and limited knowledge of what those things are. I have heard perfectly reasonable people who could build a cabinet from scratch or recite passages from Macbeth tell me that all Democrats are communists or all Republicans are fascists. In my experience, it is a combination of “guilt by association” with a desire to insult, label, and control. After all, if accused of supporting ideologies that led to mass murder, one may spend their time defending themselves rather than press ahead with a much more interesting debate. I have certainly seen that destroy conversations. To paraphrase John Buford at Brandy Station “Out flew the labels, and most handsomely they were used.”
Being a critic of the Just Cause means accusations of being an adherent of the Lost Cause. However, it relies on a broad definition, can derail debate, and split what I perceive is an already shrinking and misunderstood interest. It also assumes that understanding the Civil War is binary. Eric Foner in Who Owns History? was a bit appalled to find Russian opinions did not conform to the accepted understanding Abraham Lincoln. I found it refreshing, much like the professor of European history who compared Lincoln not to George Washington or Franklin Roosevelt, but rather to Otto von Bismarck and the Count of Cavour. It gets out of the tired Just and Lost Cause grudge-match.
While I find the Lost Cause is a poor interpretation of the Civil War, there is value in it. A few of its major points do hold up to some scrutiny, and nearly all of them are related to military matters. Lee was at the very least a talented commander. The North’s material advantages were considerable and decisive. Confederate soldiers did earn an impressive reputation for prowess. The degree to which you may agree or disagree with those lines of argument is fine. History is an eternal argument. However, none of those statements are fever dreams induced by listening to “The Bonnie Blue Flag,” but based on tangible observations. Support for one, some, or all of them does not make one an adherent of the Lost Cause.
For all the fear and hand-wringing, the Lost Cause feels truly lost. Gone is its once respectable (but never central) place in Civil War memory. Major films no longer use its tropes. The last to do so was Gods & Generals, which is nearly twenty years old and more importantly was a financial and critical flop. Books in its tradition do not receive the boost of a large publication. In academic circles its grip, never that strong after World War II, is completely gone. Yet we know it is still there, perhaps more insidious since it is underground. It reminds one of stories of Nazis living next-door in suburban America, which formed the plot of Stephen King’s Apt Pupil. Furthermore, we know it can come back. Anyone with knowledge of the history of ideas knows that all it takes for an old idea to be reborn is an audience, an era that it speaks to, and a means to disseminate information. Currently, reactionary thinkers long considered dead, such as Robert Filmer and Joseph de Maistre, are seeing a rebirth on the Internet, if not at Yale University.
Fear of a return of the Lost Cause is real enough. You can find Lost Cause supporters online still using tired rhetoric. Yet, I do not find it an interesting line of inquiry. Pompey once told an aging Sulla “More people worship the rising than the setting sun.” The Just Cause is not simply rising. It is above us and illuminates everything. It is the water we swim in and the air we breathe. It therefore interests me much more than a mythology that’s very symbols are even falling in some small Southern towns. The very name “Dixie” is being removed from the name of New Orleans’ oldest beer and has already been removed from the group Dixie Chicks (now called The Chicks). Engaging with the Lost Cause in its contemporary form feels less like a debate and more like an autopsy.