Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Lost Cause: Confederate Symbols Misstating History


"There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind."

                               --Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind  

The Lost Cause is an interpretation of the Civil War that seeks to present the war, from the perspective of Confederates, in the best possible terms. This amelioration is a myth developed by white Southerners, many of them former Confederate generals, in a postwar climate of economic, racial, and social uncertainty. It romanticizes the “Old South” and the Confederate war effort, distorting history in the process.

From its beginnings, many white Americans accepted the Lost Cause, largely as a tool in reconciling the North and the South. The Lost Cause endorses the virtues of the antebellum South, viewing the American Civil War as an honorable struggle for the Southern way of life, while minimizing or denying the central role of slavery. This distorted view still receives wide acceptance.

Yale University history professor Rollin G. Osterweis summarizes the content that pervaded "Lost Cause" writings:
The Legend of the Lost Cause began as mostly a literary expression of the despair of a bitter, defeated people over a lost identity. It was a landscape dotted with figures drawn mainly out of the past: the chivalric planter; the magnolia-scented Southern belle; the good, gray Confederate veteran, once a knight of the field and saddle; and obliging old Uncle Remus.
All these, while quickly enveloped in a golden haze, became very real to the people of the South, who found the symbols useful in the reconstituting of their shattered civilization. They perpetuated the ideals of the Old South and brought a sense of comfort to the New.”
(Rollin G. Osterweis. The Myth of the Lost Cause, 1865–1900. 1973.)
Movies like Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind, along with countless late-Victorian and 20th-century books, have been dedicated to this revisionism.

Caroline E. Janney, author and professor of history, lists six tenets (assertions) for the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War:
1. Secession, not slavery, caused the Civil War.
2. African Americans were "faithful slaves," loyal to their masters and the Confederate cause and unprepared for the responsibilities of freedom.
3. The Confederacy was defeated militarily only because of the Union's overwhelming advantages in men and resources.
4. Confederate soldiers were heroic and saintly.
5. The most heroic and saintly of all Confederates, perhaps of all Americans, was Robert E. Lee.
6. Southern women were loyal to the Confederate cause and sanctified by the sacrifice of their loved ones.

(Caroline E. Janney, "The Lost Cause." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, July 27, 2016.)

Of course, some of these tenets are obviously false and some are, at least, partly true. Without question, the most disturbing falsehoods relate to slavery. These lies misstate history, distort the national memory, and continue to influence hate groups today. Slavery in America ranks with the greatest evils in modern history. In no manner should this servitude ever be placated.

What is the real issue of any view of slavery? Slavery, as a system, legalized and codified the slaveholder’s control over the enslaved person’s body.

Not only did slavery strip away all personal freedom from its victims, but also it routinely condoned murdering these human beings as a matter of economic policy. Edward E. Baptist – American academic, writer, and associate Professor of History at Cornell University – explains ...

“The worst thing about slavery as an experience, one is told, was that it denied enslaved African Americans the liberal rights and liberal subjectivity of modern citizens. It did those things as a matter of course, and as injustice, that denial ranks with the greatest in modern history.

“But slavery also killed people, in large numbers. From those who survived, it stole everything. Yet the massive and cruel engineering required to rip a million people from their homes, brutally drive them to new, disease-ridden places, and make them live in terror and hunger as they continually built and rebuilt a commodity-generating empire – this vanished in the story of a slavery that was supposedly focused primarily not on producing profit but on maintaining its status as a quasi-feudal elite, or producing modern ideas about race in order to maintain white unity and elite power.

“And once the violence of slavery was minimized, another voice could whisper, saying that African Americans, both before and after emancipation, were denied the rights of citizens because they would not fight for them.”

(Edward E. Baptist. “We still lie about slavery: Here’s the truth about how the American economy and power were built on forced migration and torture.” Salon. September 07, 2017.)


Now, we struggle with the remains of the Lost Cause. Symbols of the Confederacy still dapple the country, especially the South. They stand as remnants of American history and the storied Old South though their very existence is undeniable linked to a period of shame – a time when the evil of slavery was a reality.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, public lands hold 1,500 symbols memorializing the Confederacy. These include 718 monuments and statues and about 200 public schools, cities, counties and U.S. military bases named for Confederate icons.

Should we take down all Confederate statues and monuments, and should we rename these public institutions? Do such memorials belong on public land? Are they more than just commemorations to historical figures? Do these symbols of the Confederacy continue to divide the American public and encourage White supremacy?

Supporters of the works claim they represent Southern heritage, which perhaps should be more thoroughly examined in the light of the Lost Cause. It’s difficult to imagine memorials to other enemies of the United States existing anywhere inside our borders. After all, Confederate leaders fought against the Constitution, against unity and in support of slavery. 
How can we heal together? Bishop E.W. Jackson, founder and president of Staying True to America’s National Destiny, said he supports the effort to relocate Confederate monuments to museums and other educational institutions, where they can be celebrated in private by those who wish to honor their ancestors.

And, still, vast numbers of White Americans hold romanticized, twisted views of plantation days. We have been indoctrinated into accepting slavery as less than the evil it was by watching technicolored scenes of Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler and the pleasant life of the “darkies” at Tara. We glory in this story of survival in the Civil War and Reconstruction, and we feel losing it somehow robs us of a storied myth.

Yet, it is fiction. More than that, it is cruel, potentially dangerous fiction that still generates adulation of a wicked Lost Cause.

Bob Cesca, Managing Editor of The Daily Banter, leaves us with some food for thought that is sure to rankle the digestive system of proponents of this Lost Cause ...

“It seems overly obviously to say this out loud, but men like Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Beauregard were willing traitors against the republic – officers who took up arms against the United States after an illegal act of secession. And they did so in the name of preserving slavery, the backbone of the Southern economy built upon the subjugation of men and women who were considered subhuman at that time. I hasten to note, though, that Lost Causers still to this day believe the war was fought over 'states’ rights,' begging the question: States’ rights – to do what, exactly? To own slaves, of course."
(Bob Cesca. “Tear down those Confederate monuments! Maybe we can finally cure America’s Civil War hangover.” Salon. May 22, 2017.)

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