I’m angry. I believed a story told by people I liked and trusted and now I’ve found out it was a big lie.
I’m a Yankee who was fooled by the myth of the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy.
If I had only watched “You’re Probably Wrong about Confederate Monuments” years ago, I could have saved myself a lot of confusion. Produced by Atun-Shei Films, the funny and educational video stars the same actor playing the roles of Johnny Reb and Bill Yank arguing about what Confederate statues mean and answering common objections to taking them down. Fair warning about strong language and off-color humor.
The video is about the Lost Cause. And that’s what I’m angry about. A little ashamed too.
You know, the Lost Cause? It’s the story that the Civil War (“War Between the States”!) was not about slavery but about states rights, tariffs and preserving a virtuous agrarian way of life against capitalist greed. The story that slavery really wasn’t so bad compared to “wage slavery” in the oppressive factories of the North. The claim that, aside from a few instances of ill treatment exaggerated by abolitionists like Harriet Beecher Stowe, most slave masters were kindly towards the people the called their servants, treating them almost like family.
Even so, according to Lost Cause advocates, slavery was on its way to dying a natural death, and African Americans would be better off today if the North had the patience to just wait for that to happen on its own without meddling in the internal affairs of the South.
Further, the Lost Cause says that the South just wanted its independence, the right of any free people in an enlightened world. This was the very same right expressed by Washington and Jefferson in 1776. But because Abraham Lincoln, an overbearing autocrat whose presidency veered towards tyranny, wouldn’t recognize how constitutional it was for several states to start their own country, the Confederacy had not choice but to defend itself against a “War of Northern Aggression.”
The young nation’s champion was the Christian gentleman and military genius Robert E. Lee, scion of the first families of Virginia who embodied the courage and noblesse oblige handed down from an ancient aristocracy.
Gallantly led by Lee other strategic giants like Stonewall Jackson, along with colorful cavaliers like Jeb Stuart who made the long bloody slog much more sporting, the Southern soldier could outfight ten Yankees. If only he’d been supplied with the quantity of weapons, and if only his depleted regiments were refreshed by the massive numbers of recruits that the Union was able to pull from the immigrant slums of the dirty cities of the North, then Johnny Reb would have triumphed in battle.
Ah, the fighting man in grey. His aim was sure, his heart was true, his yell was rebel and of course, his cause was just.
Against such a valorous warrior, the North only won because they finally found a general in Ulysses S. Grant who was drunk enough to abandon all scruples of civilized warfare and was willing to butcher his men by the thousands. Also, Grant was willing to let loose his demonic minion Sherman to wage total war on the undefended plantations of Georgia.
It all sounds like a pile of garbage now.
Thirty years ago I first came south from Chicago to go to college at Washington and Lee, a school that is half-named for Robert E. Lee himself. After he surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, Lee took a retirement job as president of the struggling college in Lexington, Virginia. After Lee’s death in 1870, the school added his name. After that, it was pretty much settled that the school would serve as the Holy Sepulcher of the Confederacy.
That’s not why I went to Lee’s school. I just wanted a pretty campus and a college experience that was more traditional than I’d get at a state university up North. But I should have known better what to expect.
At the time, I didn’t know much about the Civil War. And I cared even less. Except history buffs, nobody in the North cares about the Civil War. For us it’s ancient history, like the Treaty of Westphalia.
So when I got to Lexington, I was surprised to see how much white Southerners seemed to care about a war that ended more than a century earlier. For them, the news of Pickett’s Charge was current affairs. They acted like Robert E. Lee had ridden down Main Street on Traveler last week.
When I looked around Lexington, across Virginia and around the South, I did notice statues and street names of Confederate generals. And it did seem odd to have all these monuments to fighters for a defunct and discredited regime, like having a statue of General Rommel on a public square in Berlin.
But I dismissed statues of Confederate generals as local color, the kind of decoration you expect when you’re looking for real Southern charm. Like weeping willows or the scent of magnolias or crisp mint juleps on the veranda of a bar in an antebellum mansion where Scarlett O’Hara was surely about to come flowing down the grand staircase. It all seemed harmless enough.
I didn’t know many Black Southerners. But the white ones I knew were mostly friendly and warm. Many were born storytellers. Listening to their tales, I learned to find the charm in a cultivated accent from Tidewater Virginia. When white Southerners told me about the Civil War from what they called the Southern perspetive — and unlike me, they’d really studied this stuff — I thought I was just being polite by listening.
But after a while, when I started to wonder if, hey, maybe they were right. Then I congratulated myself on being open minded.
Eventually, I’m afraid to say that I bought into the Lost Cause.
Such Beautiful Statues
Years later, after the church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015, when the news started running stories of Southerners both Black and white who were demanding that Confederate statues come down, I was confused.
After living in Virginia for more than a decade, I was convinced that the Lost Cause was a valid alternative perspective that at least deserved a hearing. I thought that I knew more about the issue than family and friends back up North who still thought the Civil War was about slavery.
Like all responsible white people, I denounced white supremacists after the despicable Unite the Rally in Charlottesville and mourned the death of Heather Heyer.
But I was sympathetic to preservationists in the city who wanted to retain statues of Lee and Stonewall Jackson. That seemed like a way of keeping history alive and honoring the service of Americans on both sides who died in our nation’s most tragic and moving military conflict.
Writing an article about the controversy over the Lee statue in Charlottesville for the International Bar Association, I had the chance to interview several leading preservationists in the city. They seemed eminently reasonable in wanting to keep war memorials up despite the changing mood of the times. Imagine taking down the Vietnam Veterans Memorial just because most Americans decided that they didn’t like the Vietnam war?
I also interviewed activists with the local Black Lives Matter group. They made good arguments too about how the Lee and Jackson statues were originally put up in the 1920s by neo-Confederates largely to intimidate Black citizens. And that the statues still served this ignoble purpose. Very convincing and very disturbing.
But the activists’ solution, to just take down the statues, seemed too harsh.
I liked history. I also liked public art that was traditional and realistic and grand, like you find in Washington or New York or in London, Paris or Vienna. Because old statues add dignity to an urban landscape, I’m often sorry to see monuments taken down from an aesthetic standpoint alone. They cost a lot of money to put up nearly a century ago. They’d cost more to replace today. Nobody’s got that kind of money for new statues. Most cities can barely afford to pay their teachers.
Wasn’t there some way to keep the beautiful statues? Some compromise that would make everybody happy?
The preservationists offered a proposal that aimed to split the difference.
Instead of subtracting Confederate history, they wanted to add Black history. Charlottesville could do that by contextualizing statues of Lee or Stonewall Jackson or generic courthouse Johnny Reb through installing signs about slavery or even erecting counter-statues of Frederick Douglass, U.S. Colored Troops or civil rights leader Julian Bond, who hailed from the local area.
I came to sympathize with their point of view. It seemed like a win-win proposal for Charlottesville and a model that cities across the South should consider.
Boy was I wrong.
Those preservationists were friendly, well-spoken people, sometimes with charming accents. I’m sure they had some good intentions.
But every part of their argument was wrong because the Lost Cause is wrong. Every part of it.
Even if you contextualize a statue of a Confederate general by adding signs about slavery or a statue of a U.S. Colored Trooper, leaving the original statue in place still celebrates a Confederate general. It’s the same with a statue of an ordinary soldier represented by Johnny Reb.
Do Confederates deserve to be honored for their duty and sacrifice? asks Billy Yank in the Monuments video.
Confederates were Americans, but they didn’t fight for America. They fought to destroy American democracy. The United States was founded on principles of the Enlightenment. Liberal democracy, personal liberty, equality for all, even if, for a lot of Americans, those ideals were, and are, a sick joke. The Confederacy existed because of the outcome of a free and fair democratic election. The Confederacy didn’t stand for American values. It stood for might-makes-right.
Billy Yank goes on to point out that, at its best, America stands against the ideology of rule by force. That’s always been the approach of our enemies: George III, Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia — and the Confederacy.
Over the last couple years, I’ve done a lot of thinking about the Civil War and how we should commemorate it. And I’ve changed my mind about so much of it, especially statues. I’m now convinced that Confederate statues, no matter how nice they look, don’t belong in civic spaces anywhere in the United States. Museums or cemeteries are the only appropriate places for them.
We should not celebrate the Lost Cause. We should correct it.
It Was Really about Slavery and Lee Was not a Great General
For an excellent refutation of the claims of Lost Cause propaganda, point by point, see The Myth of the Lost Cause: Why the South Fought the Civil War and Why the North Won by Edward H. Bonekemper. Here I’ll just bring up a few key issues.
First the cause of the war. If you believe every Confederate leader and every ordinance of secession passed before the war by states from South Carolina to Texas, the war was about slavery. For example, on January 9, 1861, here’s why Mississippi’s leaders said they were leaving the Union:
Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin. That we do not overstate the dangers to our institution, a reference to a few facts will sufficiently prove.
The only right that Southern states fought over starting in 1861 was the right to allow slavery. Tariffs is just a puny distraction quickly dismissed by historians.
And, if this even needs to be said in 2021, slavery was super bad. No matter how kindly the enslaver, nobody wanted to be a slave. Nearly as bad was the labor system instituted by white Southerners after the war that was the return of slavery in all but name.
The cause of the South was slavery and that cause was not just. Southern white men may have fought valiantly, but they fought in what Ulysses S. Grant correctly termed one of the worst causes ever.
Robert E. Lee had good qualities. But he fought not merely because he could not bear to unsheathe his sword against his native Virginia, as he claimed. Lee fought to preserve and extend slavery. In the Civil War, Virginians from General Winfield Scott to General George Thomas to Admiral David Farragut stuck with the Union. Unlike these Virginians who remained loyal to the Stars and Stripes, disloyal Lee was committed to the social system of slavery, as historian Ty Seidule has demonstrated.
And Lee didn’t even fight that well. His overaggressive generalship may have cost the South the war. The North won not because of superior men and materiel — plenty of more powerful nations have lost wars to weaker foes, from the surrender at Yorktown to the fall of Saigon. Or, for that matter, the fall of Kabul.
The North won largely because of the superior generalship of Ulysses S. Grant, neither drunkard nor butcher, but the only real military genius to come out of the Civil War. British military historian John Keegan ranks Grant with Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington as one of the greatest generals in history.
If you don’t believe that Grant was better than Lee, then watch another Atun-Shei video, “Did the CONFEDERACY Have BETTER GENERALS?!?!?!”
The Southern Perspective is More than the Lost Cause
As to the “Southern perspective” on the war, I’ve since learned that the Lost Cause has become a minority report. Maybe its values always were a minority perspective, even at the peak of the slaveocracy.
In 1860, the demographics of the South were simpler than they are today. Back then, the South had Protestant white people, rich and poor, along with African Americans, mostly enslaved, but also some freemen. The 5.5 million Southern whites may have agreed on a common story, even if it worked to keep most white people poor and powerless under the thumb of rich planters.
But history shows that the 3.5 million enslaved Black people of the South begged to differ. So even right before the Civil War, support for slavery, white supremacy and the Confederacy was limited only to about 60% of the Southern population. It was even less than that if you subtract free Black Southerners and middling white farmers in upland areas who resented the power of the planter class and resisted Confederate rule, such as those who formed the state of West Virginia in 1863 or those in the Deep South depicted in the 2016 film starring Matthew McConaughey, The Free State of Jones.
Today’s South is a more diverse place than it was in 1860, with the old groups of African Americans and whites plus many new groups including Latinos and other immigrants. For many Southerners today, the Lost Cause is not their cause and the supposed “Southern” perspective is not their viewpoint. Yet, these Southerners have as much right to call the region their own as do white people whose great-great-grandfathers surrendered with Lee at Appomattox.
The Final Surrender
I’m embarrassed to admit that I ever entertained the Lost Cause version of history. I hope that white Southerners will educate themselves with facts about the Civil War and dump the Lost Cause. But if some white people in the South and elsewhere continue to spread the Lost Cause and try to fool credulous Yankees like me, then I hope that Americans of good faith can arm themselves with the truth as self-defense. They can start by watching Billy Yank in the Monuments video.
The Lost Cause poisons racial relations today. The South has always been more than Lee, Jackson, and Davis. Letting them go as icons (don’t worry, they’ll still be in the history books) won’t be losing either the history or the unique identity of the South. It will be abandoning lying propaganda that never worked well for most Southerners, Black and white alike. The Lost Cause certainly doesn’t help the region today to prosper under American values of freedom, equality and democracy rather than Confederate values of hierarchy, white supremacy and rule by force.
When Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House in April 1865, it wasn’t just the North that emerged victorious. In fact, the South won too. The real South, the people of the South, then and for generations to come. When Confederates were defeated, all Americans won.
“There’s a lot to be ashamed of in American history,” says Billy Yank in the Monuments video. “Slavery. Native American Genocide. The Monroe Doctrine. Manifest Destiny. The Mexican War. Vietnam. Iraq. White supremacy. The list goes on. But there’s a lot to be proud of too. A lot of things to celebrate. And the cause of the Union during the Civil War is one of them.”