font-family: 'Arizonia', cursive; Michael Stichauf - "As I understand it now...'til it changes": 150 Years After it's End, the Civil War is Still Being Fought in the Public Discourse

Saturday, August 8, 2015

150 Years After it's End, the Civil War is Still Being Fought in the Public Discourse

When will the "Lost Cause"

theory stop being cover for racist, hateful rhetoric and actions?

Since the recent confrontation over the Confederate flag in South Carolina, I've really come to realize that a great many of us are still fighting the Civil War in this country. With the one hundred fifty year anniversary of the war, the controversy over its causes has come out of the shadows and become part of our public discourse. There are those from the South, along with their sympathizers, who still believe in this thing called, the "Lost Cause". It's this "Lost Cause" belief which baffles all sound-minded individuals whenever they run across these, "true believers".

You don't need to go too far to see that the Civil War (as well as its cause) has become a popular topic of discussion. It's written about in magazine articles and academic journals and we see many of our most distinguished professors and scholars doing lecture tours and book tours to promote their most recent publications. The best evidence that it has entered into the public discourse are the periodic "dust-ups" which occur in regards to the Confederate flag- for example; the flag at the South Carolina State House. In fact, the Civil War has become such a controversial topic of discussion that people who aren't happy with the recent discoveries and recent reviews of old theories, which they hold dear to their hearts, have resorted to calling the new theories, "Revisionist History". Their disgust is so intense that they utter that phrase in such a derogatory way that the "ist" in "Revisionist" is left dripping from their lips. The most divisive of these arguments, though, are the ones put forth by the proponents of that old standby, "The Lost Cause". So incredibly ridiculous is this theory and its advocates that they actually stretch the bounds of sincerity when you listen to them.

The "Lost Cause" theory and today's "true believer"

Today's "True Believers"
The "Lost Cause" belief is one held by White Southerners and their sympathizers who refuse to admit that the South started the Civil War because they wanted to preserve slavery. They will tell you that the South seceded because of "States Rights" or tariffs (or any number of other reasons) and when asked why they fought they will tell you, "... it's because "Billy Yank" was over here" (the South). The "Antebellum South" was a region, they'll tell you, that was built upon chivalry and honor. When you ask them about that nasty habit they had of owning other human beings they tell you that, back then, it was for their (the slaves') own good. They'll tell you that, back then, the slave system was one of benevolence and paternalism. They'll also tell you that, back then, their slaves were faithful and knew they needed the white man's oversight! My emphasis on the phrase, "back then", is because even the "Lost Cause" believers of today know that they need to be careful to try and hide their racism. Sure, maybe some of them aren't racists. In their arrogance, they may even admit to themselves that in this day and age, there's no way around African-Americans having equal rights as the white man. Yet, when you talk to them, their expressions while espousing these thoughts tend to stretch the bounds of belief. When you think about the fact that these are people who are "Lost Cause" believers, you can't be blamed for making this deduction.

The earliest use of the theory

Jubal Early

As best as we can tell, the earliest use of the phrase, the "Lost Cause" was in the title of a book written in 1866 by historian, Edward A. Pollard, "The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates". Yet, it was two of "The Confederate States of America's" favorite sons, General Jubal Early and its President, Jefferson Davis who solidify the "Lost Cause" belief in the memory of every Southern, "true believer". Early's articles in
Jefferson Davis
the 1870s and Davis' 1881 book, "The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government" gave every beaten and dishonored Antebellum Southern citizen a reason to feel that they had no choice but to fight and that they upheld their honor and their Southern way of life, no matter that the Northern Yankee wouldn't allow them to hold on to that traditional way of life.

Southern Honor 

Honor was a major tenet in the Antebellum, White-Supremacist South. Being superior to the black race was a part of that honor and the institution of slavery was that honor's outward expression. An "honorable gentleman" was a gentleman who took care of those inferior to him. Just as it is today in a man's idea and conception of himself; a man (honorable gentleman) is one who takes care of his children. In the Antebellum South, an "honorable gentleman" owned slaves and provided them food and clothing and discipline because those inferior "children" he owned, needed that help. Honor, slavery and the other ideas that made-up the backbone of the Antebellum South's identity are a tangled web of lies, half-truths and misconceptions, crafted in such a way as to give them an air of legitimacy. This identity needed to be crafted in this fashion in order for them to embrace a brutal and immoral practice, such as slavery, as the basis for their existence- as well as the basis for their secession! 

South Carolina Secession Statement

Right from the start, the first state to secede from the Union, South Carolina, stated in its "Secession Statement" that its reason for secession was;
"The Constitution of the United States, in it's fourth Article, provides as follows: "No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up, on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due."
The statement continues;
"For many years these laws were executed. But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution.
"Thus the constituted compact has been deliberately broken and disregarded by the non-slaveholding States, and the consequence follows that South Carolina is released from her obligation."
Plainly put, because many of the non-slaveholding states had decided
not to return escaped slaves and abide by Article Four of the Constitution, South Carolina was taking its ball and going home! It's right there in South Carolina's "Secessionist Statement"- because the laws that protected slavery wouldn't be administered, wholeheartedly by many of the Northern States, South Carolina WAS SECEDING! It's this particular fact that really causes me and many of my like-minded friends to scratch our heads when we hear people deny the fact that slavery was the cause of the Civil War! "Slavery" is verbatim, what the South Carolinians stated when they gave notice to the "Government of the United States of America", as to why they were seceding!

More "Lost Cause" Theory 

Lost Cause Propaganda

What the "Lost Cause" theory does is give every Southerner a reason to feel good about a calamity that took place at the behest of a minority class of citizen who had no regard for the rest of the Southern citizen's well-being. It tells every Southerner that they seceded and fought their war because the North was violating their "States Rights", their ability to decide their own destiny and their own laws. It also gives the South a reason as to why they lost that war. It tells them that they were simply out-numbered by the amount of men that the North was able to muster under arms and that, despite their far superior officers and soldiers, there were just too many Yankees in too many Southern areas. Nowhere is there any mention of slavery.

This is what the South
fought to preserve-
As many of my readers know, I'm not one of the masses who fell victim to the propaganda put forth, over the years, that the Civil War was fought over states' rights, tariffs and that all too convenient "Lost Cause" theory. As the years went on and I came to meet people from other regions of the country, I realized that not everyone believed the War was about slavery. I don't know how many of my readers have run into this realization but after all the scholarship, lectures and book reviews that I've encountered in the last few years, my perception of the war being about slavery has only strengthened and I simply can't understand how anyone who is being honest with himself can view it in any other fashion. 

Information, learning and this generation

Since the start of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, C-span has aired a series in order to chronicle the War in a timeline fashion. For instance, over the weekend of April 12, 2011, C-span aired shows and lectures that dealt with the firing on Fort Sumter which occurred on April 12, 1861. This C-span series has been an incredible adventure for me and many of my Civil War friends. As far as we are concerned, this series has done more for educating individuals about the War than all the writers and professors combined could have done on their own. Earlier, I mentioned the phrase, "revisionist history" as being used as a derogatory label that "Lost Cause" supporters have slapped on anyone and anything that believe that states' rights and tariffs were just smoke screens to shield the true reason behind the war- slavery! Personally, I don't believe that this phrase needs to be viewed in a derogatory fashion. History, and the study of it, thrives when there are new interpretations of the events and the individuals who were a part of them. Each generation of historians and academicians owe it to their students, and the public at large, to give our history a fresh review through objective scholarship and study. We live in unprecedented
times with the internet and cable TV. Never, in our history, have so many individuals had access to the amount of information that we have access to today. Never, in our history, have so many individuals had access to the amount of television channels that we have access to today. These television channels, essentially, function as classrooms or places of learning, which the previous generations didn't have access to. C-span is one such channel. On weekends and holidays, C-span becomes a virtual classroom and it's through channels such as C-span that more people than ever before turn to for their learning of history. Being of the generation which spans the time before the internet and cable TV, and after, I know there is a definite difference in my educational experiences pre-internet and cable and post-internet and cable. I believe that today we are the most informed and the smartest generation than ever before. 

Our access to information is one of the reasons that I have a problem with the "Lost Cause" theory. I believe that this "theory" perpetuates the belief, especially in our young people who are just learning about the War, that it was a gallant and noble effort worth all the thousands of deaths and injuries that it caused. In order for the sympathizers of this theory to be able to look at themselves in the mirror and tell themselves that all these tragedies were worth it, they need to be able to give their cause a righteous and moral backbone. After all, maybe only the most hardened racists can say, with a straight face, that the continuation of slavery was a very fine reason to secede from the Union and start a civil war between two different sections of a nation. Yet, there are a majority of these "true believers" who know that to say that slavery was a gallant reason to cause the war just isn't something they can do, not in this day and age! Even they know that a cause based on immoral and unjustifiable reasons will not hold up to the scrutiny of history and be taken seriously. It's information that will eventually eat away at and erode the "Lost Cause" theory. No longer will the students in the South be secluded in their learning experiences and be taught that their state's decision to secede from the Union was one based on the fact that the United States' federal government was imposing punishing tariffs on them or that it was because their state's rights were being violated. Information is power and over time, even being taught about the "Lost Cause" theory, Southern students will have access to all the information that they need to make an informed decision. This is why having this issue fought in the public discourse isn't a bad thing. Bringing an issue like this into the light of the day, keeps it from being perpetuated in the darkness of ignorance.

The "Neo-Confederate" Movement

Unfortunately, the access to information does give individuals, who are looking to feed their hatred, the ability to connect with like-minded ideology. Today, "Lost Cause" believers and their sympathizers have a number of websites and publications they can turn to in order to learn what they need to learn to fight their ideological wars. These organizations are generally referred to as "Neo-Confederate" and it has really turned into a movement. Here are a couple of the more popular publications and websites;


The "Lost Cause" as a reunifying instrument

Doing my research for this piece I've come across a few opinions about the "Lost Cause" which suggest that it was also instrumental to helping repair and reunite the two sections of our country, the North and the South. Historian Caroline Janney says;
Providing a sense of relief to white Southerners who feared being dishonored by defeat, the "Lost Cause" was largely accepted in the years following the war by white Americans who found it to be a useful tool in reconciling North and South.
Considering the fact that "Reconstruction" helped to further alienate the South from the North (yet, it needed to be done), it might be safe to say that this "theory" was a much needed tool for a reconciliation- at least initially. And maybe, initially, it did help to bring the two sides closer together again. Unfortunately, as time went on, the South continued to propagate the "theory" and it eventually became a totally divisive instrument throughout the years.

The "Lost Cause continues the White-Supremacist attitude 

Because the theory doesn't do anything to repudiate the institution of
United Daughters of the Confederacy
slavery, the "Lost Cause" has allowed the continuation of the whole "white supremacist" attitude which continues to this day with many of the people of the South. By the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, the "Lost Cause" theory went from, what Yale Professor Roland Osterweiss said, was "... a mostly literary expression of the despair of a bitter, defeated people over a lost identity" to a dearly held belief which allowed them to regain their honor and their place in the new South. Associations such as the "United Daughters of the Confederacy", "United Confederate Veterans" and the "Confederate Memorial Literary Society", which founded the "Confederate Museum", were greatly responsible for solidifying the "Lost Cause" in the minds of future Southern generations. In fact, the "Confederate Museum" portrayed slavery, in its exhibits, as a benevolent institution. It is expressions such as the museum's which gave rise to, and acceptance of, the "Jim Crow" laws which were so dominating in the South until the late 1960s! 

The "KKK" and "The Birth of a Nation"

The "Lost Cause" also helped to allow the beginning of the "Ku Klux Klan" (KKK) in this country as well as a movie called "The Birth of a Nation". A movie with the racist "overtones" that this one has could never be made today. For your interest, I've provided the movie below, in its entirety;

The movie, "The Birth of a Nation" and "Jim Crow" laws were just two more reasons why the "Lost Cause" theory became a divisive issue instead of a reconciling one for the people of the South. "Jim Crow" laws were instrumental in actually recreating the institution of slavery in many of the Southern states in the 20th century. Many African-Americans were unjustly arrested, convicted and imprisoned based on these laws. While they were imprisoned, their labor was hired out to anyone or any institution that was willing to pay for it. Over time, it became one of the biggest industries in the South. It wasn't until late in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's tenure in the White House that any governmental institution tried to do anything about it. Even then, it was a waste of time for our federal government and all attempts at fixing the system were dropped!

The "Lost Cause" and America's racial divide

The "Lost Cause" theory, as I've attempted to show in my post, has been at the forefront of the huge racial divide we've experienced in this country for over a century and a half, now. Racism and hatred of African-Americans goes as far back as the early 1700s so it's been a part of this country forever. Yet, when the Civil War ended, we had a chance to make a beginning on starting to heal these deep wounds between the races which we caused by our own ignorance. I understand that even the Northern people and the "United States Government" weren't exactly the pillars of tolerance that we'd hoped they'd have been but "Reconstruction" made an attempt at giving the African-Americans a start at equality that they'd never had. For decades, the innocent children of the South were taught hatred and prejudice through their schools and their families and the "Lost Cause" was what was pounded into their heads on a daily basis. Children aren't born as racists and haters. Those are feelings that they are taught. Although the "Lost Cause" doesn't actually mention slavery when it's taught, its mere teaching that it is the reason for the Civil War and the reason that the "Confederacy" lost, allowed for the continuation of a "White-Supremacist" attitude which I explained earlier. 

Progress and the "New South"

Obviously, great strides have been made in the last 40- 50 years. The fact that the killer of Martin Luther King, Jr., James Earl Ray, was brought to justice, was a beginning. Everyone remembers the case of the murders of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner by some hateful, arrogant Mississippi "coppers" and how Cecil Price and his minions were found "not guilty" by a jury of their peers. But this kind of progress was slow to come by. It took thirty years for Byron De La Beckwith to finally be convicted of murder for killing Medgar Evers. In 1964, he was twice tried for the murder and twice, an all-white jury couldn't (or wouldn't) reach a verdict. It wasn't until a new generation Southern prosecutor, who wasn't prejudiced and wanted to show that
De La Beckwith-
not everyone in Mississippi was a racist, had the guts to re-try Beckwith, that he was finally convicted. It's people such as this prosecutor, fresh with new evidence that the "honorable", Antebellum, White-Supremacist "Lost Cause" belief is all "hogwash" who are going to help bring the rest of the South, the people who still want that "Confederate" flag to fly over the state houses of the South, into the 21st century. It's these people who are going to tell those racists, "NO MORE HATRED" in my country! 

The "Lost Cause" is the last bastion for those people bent on continuing the feelings of hatred and racism in this country. I see this "theory" as just a cover for those who don't have the courage to come right out and say that they are racists. Sure, like I said earlier in my piece, there are a small amount of people who believe this theory who aren't prejudiced and full of hate. A small amount only, though. We saw, in the short period of time after the senseless murders by a nut-job, 21 year old racist, who killed nine people at the Baptist church in South Carolina, that some communities can come together racially. Unfortunately, we had those people who, when the controversy over the "Confederate" flag at the South Carolina State house flared up, picketed and protested that the flag that, we all know stood for a nation built on slavery, born out of it's protection of slavery and brought down because the Northern Nation decided that it was time to end slavery, really didn't represent slavery, bigotry, racism and hatred... really, cross our hearts and hope to die, it didn't represent slavery! That's what they tried to tell us. It seems that they were the only ones who believed that theory, for it wasn't too long after the controversy started that their representatives at their State house decided that it was time for that flag to come down! 

My hopes are that we can finally end this "Lost Cause" theory as the cause of the Civil War because, when all is said and done, it's much larger in its importance than just a lesson in a history book. It's become a core belief for Southerners and their sympathizers who want to continue the old, Antebellum, White-Supremacist ways that make them feel superior all because of their ignorance. And it's ignorance, pure and simple, which keeps beliefs such as this one alive and well in this great country of ours. I truly believe in the old saying, "I may not like what you have to say but I'll die for your right to say it". Hopefully, though, not too many more people will have to die for this "Lost Cause" theory to finally die, itself!

And that's, "As I understand it now... 'til it changes".
Thanks for your time,
Michael K. Stichauf.