What is the Lost Cause School?

People throw around the term “Lost Cause” as a label to cover what I assume are a set of tenets, arguments, and assumptions that frame a particular perspective about the Civil War era.  Clearly not all people agree what it means or what it covers: while Joan Waugh labeled William A. Dunning a Lost Cause historian, most Reconstruction historians (including me) see what is called “the Dunning school” as distinct from the Lost Cause (and limited to Reconstruction).  However, one thing that has been characteristic of Reconstruction historiography is that quite often any overview of Reconstruction starts by outlining “the Dunning school” in order to refute it (this “school” is now a century old, and I wonder how many Reconstruction scholars have actually read Dunning).

What does “the Lost Cause School” mean to you?  What are its fundamental principles, its bedrock beliefs?  How has it shaped the writing of American history?  Or are we simply creating another Other, a straw man of sorts, grounded in reality but assumed to be so much more, as a way to discount scholarship simply by giving it a name and then referring to it in disparaging terms?

12 thoughts on “What is the Lost Cause School?

  1. Al Mackey May 5, 2011 / 9:06 am

    I thought it was defined pretty well in a book of essays from not too long ago edited by Gary Gallagher and Alan Nolan, “The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History,” which included an essay from some guy named Simpson who seemed to know what he was writing about. 😉

    It includes the denial of slavery as the root cause of secession and the war, the abolitionists as provocateurs, the claim that slavery was about to fade away, the claim that the war was over tariffs, the claim that the confederacy wasn’t militarily defeated but rather succombed to overwhelming numbers alone, the “Moonlight and Magnolias” view of the confederate homefront populated with “happy darkies” and martyrs, the view of the typical confederate soldier as always valorous, brave, kind, and law-abiding, the saintlihood of confederate leadership, especially R. E. Lee, and the claim of unilateral secession being a constitutional right. Corollaries would be the view of U.S. Grant as nothing but a drunken butcher and the view of Lincoln as a dictator.

    • Andy Hall May 5, 2011 / 10:55 am

      Confederate homefront populated with “happy darkies. . . .”

      The critical adjunct to that is the “faithful slave,” referred to more recently as the black Confederate soldier, or even more recently, the “Black Southern Loyalist.” It’s insufficient within the Lost Cause to neutralize the effect of slavery; rather, it’s depicted explicitly as a positive, with enslaved African Americans willfully and happily working in direct support of the Confederate cause.

      The other aspect, at least as it manifests itself today, is a knee-jerk reflexivity to project any criticism of the South onto the North (“Lincoln was a racist! Grant owned slaves!”), and to lay full and total responsibility for anything bad at the feet of someone else — “forced” to fire the first shot at Sumter, Atlantic slave trade run out of New York and Boston, etc.

      It’s a very childish, emotionally insecure ideology.

  2. Bob Huddleston May 5, 2011 / 10:25 am

    Se also the recent comments posted here about Bedford Forrest and license plates.

  3. Marc Ferguson May 5, 2011 / 10:25 am

    Here is a description of what I see as the basic positions and beliefs of the “Lost Cause” perspective on the war that I wrote and posted a few years ago:

    The term “Lost Cause” is a reference to efforts on the part of former Confederates, especially Jubal Early, and Confederate sympathizers in the decades following the war to recast the meaning of the war, its causes, and reasons for the South’s defeat. In the “Lost Cause” version, the Confederates fought for a noble, but doomed, cause. The role of slavery as the underlying cause of the war was completely written out of its narrative of the war and its causes. The South was doomed from the outset because of the North’s superior manpower, resources, and industrial capacity. The leaders of the confederacy were noble, valiant, and in all ways superior to those of the Union. Hence, Davis, the statesman, was a man of principle; Lincoln was an unscrupulous politician who schemed to bring about a war in the interests of northern capitalists. Lee was a brilliant, inspiring, and humanitarian general who was never outgeneraled, even against vastly superior forces; Grant was a butcher without imagination who only ever prevailed by throwing his endless supply of soldiers at the enemy with no regard for the cost in lives. Emancipation itself was nothing but a cynical ploy by Lincoln that never freed a single slave. And, of course, the plight of the freedmen after the war was much harsher than it had been under the enlightened and benevolent paternalism of Southern slavery, which in reality was a mutually beneficial social arrangement that had been grossly mischaracterized by Northern abolitionists before the war, who, along with the scheming Northern capitalists, were the true villains of ante-bellum america. The Myth of the Lost Cause became the official ideology of white supremacy in the South, where the war was lost on the battlefield, but the cause was continued in the political, social, and economic arenas of white control over the black population. You see the fruits of this “Cause” with the legal segregation, disfranchisement, economic marginalization, and ongoing public violence of the “Jim Crow” era. The ultimate irony of the term “Lost Cause” is the persistent, and until the Civil Rights era successful, effort to win, through other means, the goals of the Confederacy.

  4. Mark Douglas May 5, 2011 / 1:12 pm

    The Lost Cause is just dirty underware cleaned up to appear new. When you see the term “Lost Cause” – it should be “OUR BOGUS EXCUSE”.

    Essentially the South has spent 150 years denying exactly those things in bragged about in 1861. In 1860-61 Southern leaders were screaming from the rooftops to “Expand (slavery) or perish”.

    Even Jeff Davis, writing in the cool reflection of time, admitted it was about the spread of slavery, in his book “Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government”. The “intolerable grievance” was the North speaking badly about the spread of slavery. You can’t make this stuff up.

    The Southern Ultimatums, reported in Southern headlings, March 23, 1861, is a great place to see the focus of the South. Out of Five Ultimatums, a mere five were about the spread of slavery. The people in the territories must “accept and respect” slavery — even though voters in Kansas had voted 98% to 2% to keep slavery out forever.

    John Mosbey said it best, probably. He later wrote that he had NEVER HEARD of any reason but slavery, at the time. Can you imagine, never HEARD of any other reason! After we lost, Mosbey wrote, men made up all kinds of “lofty excuses”.

    Southern leaders were scared to death about slavery –the hyperabundance of slaves was the over riding reality of the day. The Southern extermist had whipped the fear and hate to fever pitch during the election. In fact, Edward Pollard bragged that “all through the canvas” of 1860, the South had warned the North that they would take Lincoln’s election as “an act of WAR”. WAR — war. His word, war. Not my word, his word. WAR.

    Why? Because as the governor of Florida wrote in the Declation of Florida Causes “just stopping the spread of slavery is like burning us to death slowly”.

    But after the War, they changed their excuses. The South literally went to war to STOP states from having the right to decide — their own ultimatums demanded that states, and the people in them, could NOT decide any issues involving blacks! This was not a request, this was a WAR ULTIMATUM.

    After the South lost, they desperately needed excuses and heroes. The Lost Cuase is just that search for excuses. It’s really that simple.

  5. TF Smith May 5, 2011 / 2:20 pm

    What Prof. Ferguson said.

    As a (semi) educated SOH born in the 1960s, the Lost Cause perspective, reliant on Dunning and heavily interwoven with Wilsonian Era white supremacy and “reconciliation”, certainly appears to the cornerstone of Freeman et al, so it reads as being very influential among the profession as late as the mid-century.

    Catton and his peers of the oft-excoriated “Centennial” school appear to have applied a needed correction that allowed the “Abolitionist” school (including, I think, Dr. Foner) to write and work to bring what I think is the accurate picture forward.

    One little factoid that has always informed me is that the first book-length treatment of the USCTs by a white historian in the 20th Century (and which, of course, gives all credit to his three AA predecessors) did not come until the 1950s, IIRC.

    I think that says a lot about how minimized the issue of slavery and AA involvement in the war had become, thanks to Dunning and his school.

    If I have missed any of the appropriate historiographic terms/schools, my apologies.

  6. Ray O'Hara May 5, 2011 / 6:19 pm

    One thing the Lost Cause has grasped at is the Northern reason for fighting as the cause of the war.
    The North was fighting for the Union, Harvard’s beautiful Memorial Hall has “Died To Preserve The Union” in gold above the names of the Harvard boys who died in the war {quite a few too}.
    No mention of slavery anywhere. the LCers use that to say “see it wasn’t about slavery, the North wasn’t fighting to end slavery so how could it have been about slavery?”

  7. JS, Horsham, PA May 5, 2011 / 7:09 pm

    As I’ve noted in a previous post, my junior high and high school instruction on the Civil War and Reconstruction was heavily influenced by the “historians” of the Lost Cause. That the Lost Cause mythology had such traction in Pennsylvania during the late 50s and early 60s has puzzled me for years.

    Can anyone here offer an explanation of how a regional approach to history came to dominate (??) the national understanding of this period?

  8. James F. Epperson May 6, 2011 / 4:46 am

    As the comments indicate, the notion of “Lost Cause” can be amorphous. I think if we want to be strict about things, it was outlined in Early’s speeches and writings; also those of J William Jones (do I have that name right? Unsure). The basic idea is that the Confederacy was noble, the Yankees were evil, and won only because of overwhelming material superiority. And slavery was not the issue. Some folks put the whole “Longstreet lost the war at Gettysburg” mythos into the “Lost Cause” as well.

  9. Ray O'Hara May 6, 2011 / 7:40 am

    After the War the Yankees went home and got on with their lives, satisfied in their victory and with the Union secure.
    The Former Rebels went home and took up pen, making excuses and creating the spin we now cal The Lost Cause.
    as the CSA version was first into print its version became the default narrative.

  10. John Emerson May 9, 2011 / 6:35 pm

    The states where Breckenridge and Lincoln both reached double figures, besides OR and PA, were California, Connecticut, Delaware, and Missouri. In Missouri all four candidates reached double figures.

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