In April of 1865, following four years of bloody and arduous battle, Confederate General Robert E. Lee issued his Farewell Address – effectively ending the American Civil War.
The Confederate States of America had suffered a humiliating defeat and were left grappling with questions about how to collectively justify their own actions and find something positive in what could otherwise be regarded as an all-encompassing failure.
The Lost Cause grew out of this postbellum context and eulogised the Confederate war effort as having been a just and heroic one – a struggle to protect “states’ rights” in the face of overwhelming Northern aggression. In presenting the conflict in this way, the Lost Cause both obscured and denied the principal role of slavery in leading to the outbreak of war.
Part ideology, part social movement, the Lost Cause of the Confederacy has promoted an ahistorical interpretation of the American Civil War.
Here are 10 key facts about the Lost Cause of the Confederacy:
1. The Lost Cause was popularised by an 1866 book of the same name
Written by Virginian Edward A. Pollard in 1866, ‘The Lost Cause’ was a seminal work that set out the southern tradition of reimagining the role of the Confederacy in the American Civil War. Pollard falsely claimed that slavery had not been the chief reason for southern secession, arguing instead that the war had been waged over the preservation of state sovereignty.
Aided by articles written by General Jubal A. Early for the Southern historical Society, by 1870 the Lost Cause was firmly established as a cultural phenomenon in the South.
2. The phenomenon facilitated the reunification of North and South
During the Reconstruction era, the Lost Cause became part of a broader cultural project that aimed to reunify the North and South. The promotion of a Lost Cause narrative of the Civil War allowed white southerners to adjust to the changes in post-war society caused by emancipation and the imposition of federal authority.
Lincoln’s main priority at the end of the Civil War was to keep the Union together, and so the Lost Cause myth went unrefuted at the federal level.
3. The Lost Cause falsely claimed enslaved African Americans enjoyed slavery and had willingly fought for the Confederacy
In order to justify racist power structures in the Jim Crow era and defend slavery as just, advocates of the Lost Cause perpetuated the belief that enslaved African Americans were happy and treated well by southern planters.
Black men who accompanied their masters into the Confederate army were instructed to do so, and there is no evidence to suggest that any Black people voluntarily fought for the rebel cause.
4. An American women’s patriotic society was established to promote the Lost Cause ideology
Established in Nashville in 1894, the United Daughters of the Confederacy set out to preserve Confederate culture for generations to come. The women who made up the group descended from elite antebellum families and they spread a pro-southern version of the war as ‘real history’. They pressured the government into erecting Confederate monuments in prominent public spaces and succeeded in memorialising any place remotely relevant to the Confederacy.
By the early 20th century, the United Daughters of the Confederacy had 100,000 members in chapters spread across the country and had established the Lost Cause as a historical fact in the South.
5. At the turn of the century, there was a Confederate monument ‘boom’
Three decades after the end of war, Confederate veterans were dying. As a result, there was a push to find ways to commemorate the Confederate war effort. Most Confederate monuments were erected in this period during the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s height of influence, promoting the honour of the Confederate cause for generations in the South to come.
6. President Woodrow Wilson unveiled a Confederate monument in Arlington Cemetery
In 1914, 28th President Woodrow Wilson dedicated the ‘Confederate Memorial’ in Arlington National Cemetery to cheering crowds. The monument was sculpted by former Confederate soldier Moses Jacob Ezekiel who was commissioned by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to design it.
7. The Lost Cause ideology was circulated through school textbooks
The Lost Cause movement was promoted in children’s textbooks. In 1920, southern historian Mildred Rutherford published a pamphlet entitled ‘A Measuring Rod for Textbooks’, announcing the formation of a textbook review committee. The group were committed to spreading the ‘truths of Confederate history’ and sought to prevent Northern influence from reaching classrooms.
8. Pulitzer Prize-Winning Novel ‘Gone with the Wind’ embodied Lost Cause themes
Transformed into the 1939 film classic, Margaret Mitchell’s best-selling novel ‘Gone with the Wind’ portrayed southerners as noble, heroic figures and concretised Lost Cause mythology in the minds of 20th century Americans.
9. Lost Course discourse was deployed at the height of the Civil Rights Movement
Although the heyday of the Lost Cause took place between the 1870s and World War One, its legacy has remained a powerful influence over the South into the 20th century.
For some white southerners, the successes of the classic civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s became another ‘lost cause’, with prominent politicians like Eugene “Bull” Connor of Alabama embracing Lost Cause ideology.
10. The ideologies of the Lost Cause still remain prevalent in American society today
The basic assumptions of the Lost Cause have proved durable for many in the modern South. Evidence that Lost Cause ideology remains can be located, not only in the tangible form of Confederate monuments, but during controversies surrounding the display of the Confederate flag.
In the summer of 2020, Black Lives Matter protestors across the United States invariably targeted Confederate statues – monuments to the Lost Cause cult of white supremacy. The challenge by protestors to the presence of Confederate monuments on the American landscape is part of a long history of controversy.
The Lost Cause has been one of the most successful disinformation campaigns in world history, and its themes continue to be intrinsic to the narratives of the American Civil War today.