The Lost Cause myth never went away. It’s been around since Reconstruction to varying degrees. This was the myth justifying the cause of the Confederacy, with valorization of the men who fought to protect it. It was the construction of an ideal of a South worth fighting for in the face of Northern aggression. It’s the argument that the South didn’t fight for slavery, but for the right of states to make their own decisions for themselves. Full stop.
The formation of the myth of the Lost Cause is fascinating (if you’re a nerd such as myself, at least). This was the result of attempts to cast the Civil War as a holy war, with the Confederacy as God’s chosen people. Churches in the South held fasts and prayer vigils for the Southern leaders and the cause of the Confederacy. The divine will was co-opted and directly aligned with Southernness. And, at the beginning, this was fine, because everything was going so well. But, then the tide turned. As the South began to face more and more setbacks in the battlefield, and the war began to look increasingly hopeless, this created a fear of defeat, of course, but also created a theological crisis. Some suggested that a lack of sincere piety on the part of Southerners was leading to God’s wrath (I think it’s worth noting that no one in authority ever seemed to consider slavery as a cause of God’s wrath, many just assumed people weren’t fasting right or were drinking too much). As time wore on, however, others began to recast this looming defeat as the South’s moment in exile. The cause may be lost, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t a cause worth fighting for, this was still part of God’s plan for God’s people. They were able to retain the vision of themselves as God’s chosen, without actually repenting for anything.
The South that was shaped by the Lost Cause made the generals of the Confederacy into heroes like knights of old. The myth of the Southern gentleman riding gallantly off to war (think Gone With the Wind), fighting with honor and integrity, unlike the soldiers of the North. The war came to be painted as a struggle to preserve and retain a forgotten way of life, a better way of life than those in the North sought to force upon the South. These brave men of the South fought to protect their families and their land and a way of life they held dear.
But the catch is that, at the end of the day, the myth of the Lost Cause is still a myth. It holds no actual legitimacy, it’s a revisionist approach to history. And yet, what is incredibly disconcerting is that we are now seeing legitimation of the Lost Cause from the highest office in this country. Donald Trump’s responses in the wake of Charlottesville have been less than unifying. They’ve also been less than comforting for those who would like to see him as easily condemning neo-Nazis (“very fine people on both sides”) as he condemns journalists who give him bad coverage (“truly bad people”). But, even more, his response to the suggestion of removing Confederate statuary from public spaces is little more than parroting the narrative of the Lost Cause. Take, for example, this excerpt from the President’s speech in Phoenix last night:
“They’re trying to take away our culture. They are trying to take away our history. And our weak leaders, they do it overnight. These things have been there for 150 years, for 100 years. You go back to a university, and it’s gone. Weak, weak people.”
Further, look at this string of tweets from August 17:
“Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You can’t change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson – who’s next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish! Also the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!”
Ignoring for the moment the fact that what is being called for is placing these statues in museums or other appropriate contexts so that we can learn from them as a result of a moment in history (precisely what the President asks for here), what he says is in direct support of the Lost Cause myth. The majority of these statues were erected during periods of heightened Klan activity amid the enactment of Jim Crow legislation around the turn of the 20th century, and again during the Civil Rights movement. These are not beautiful monuments to heroes who fought to save their country. In actuality, they represent a bitter reminder of a war that tore this country in two over the institution of slavery.
President Trump has a penchant for seeking out spaces where he can control the narrative of events. Again, looking at Phoenix last night, the President was able to defend his Charlottesville response to a crowd he knew was on his side, and was able to alter his statements, including leaving out his comment about how there was violence committed “on many sides.” Further, he was able to demonize the media and claim they were turning off cameras and ignoring his statements, because no one in the room could dispute him.
Trump covets the ability to scrub the past and control the narrative, and he has the platform and the power to do it. And he’s using that platform to legitimize and normalize a mythic revision of history that justified Jim Crow and the effort of every Southern politician who ever opposed Civil Rights. The Lost Cause is not some sort of benign retelling of history. It is dangerous. And it’s not as much of a fringe belief as we would like to think. Now, more than ever, we need to listen to the lessons of history and not allow this sort of sanitized history to return to a place of broad acceptance in this country.