Reviewed by Stephen Davis
Just like The Dude in the Coen Brothers film, the Lost Cause abides. Edward Crowther reminds us of this with his collection of a dozen thoughtful essays.
Edward Pollard, the vitriolic associate editor of the wartime Richmond Examiner, coined the term in his history of the war, published in 1866. The Lost Cause Myth, developed by Southerners in the decades after Appomattox, explained Confederate defeat in a less searing way, sidelined slavery, and lionized the soldiers who fought for Southern independence. Historians may fuss over falsehoods in the LCM, but its cluster of ideas, symbols and rituals continues to tug at the emotions of countless Americans, Southerners especially. Or, to paraphrase from another great movie, “This is the South, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
That the Myth retains an allure for scholars as well is suggested in the title of Christopher Moore’s essay, “Confederate Symbology and the Prophecy of J. William Jones”—symbology, as in the study of a set of symbols. “Understanding the roots of white Southern memory is of paramount importance,” writes Professor Moore, author of Apostle of the Lost Cause (2019). Jones edited the Southern Historical Society Papers from 1876 to 1887, indelibly putting his personal impress on the emerging myth, especially in venerating Robert E. Lee as the quintessential Confederate hero.
Another essay, by Colin Chappell, reminds us that the LCM is not just a way of looking at the past. For Southerners it helped them—us, I mean—define a place in the world today. This may seem a trifle absurd—unless you’re a Southerner.
Keith Harper explains the “Confederate catechism,” composed by Leon Tyler, son of the president, in 1920. In nearly fifty questions and answers, Tyler’s catechism offered “a decidedly Southern reading of American history”—more particularly, “justifying secession and vilifying Lincoln.”
More recently the University of Mississippi has ceased the programmed waving of the Battle Flag at football games, as Leigh McWhite explains in her essay. (Let’s see how long the team remains “The Rebels.”)
In his essay on Civil War reenacting and the Lost Cause, Bradley Keefer makes the very good point that reenactors’ appreciation of Civil War soldiers’ service and sacrifice tends to favor “a Lost Cause interpretation of the war, which emphasizes the heroic nature of the soldiers and obscures the influence of slavery on the causes, conduct, or outcome of the conflict.”
Charles Reagan Wilson, author of Baptized in Blood (1980) examines “The Modernization of the Lost Cause.” For several reasons the Myth began to weaken in the 20th Century South. World War I melded the region more into the nation; Confederate veterans and the war generation died out. On the other hand, the GWTW phenomenon, both the book (1936) and the movie (1939) led to “Dixie” being sung with renewed fervor. A few decades later, expropriation of the Battle Flag by segregationists gave it more visibility in the South—but at a cost, as we realize today.
Still, at the end of it all, the Confederate soldier remains for many Americans a figure of fame. In a Flannery O’Connor story (cited by Dr. Wilson), Sally Sash points to her grandfather, a Confederate veteran:
See him! See him! My kin, all you upstarts! Glorious
upright old man standing for the old traditions!
Dignity! Honor! Courage! See him!