The so-called “lost cause”–a long- debunked effort by supporters of the Confederacy–remains a vibrant underpinning among those opposed to the removal of Confederate war memorials, which is likened to “erasing history” or, in the words of some, “erasing white history.”
This frame of thought promotes and sustains a belief that the military action of the Civil War was a just and heroic effort to protect a homeland. In fact, its ideology was used to perpetuate racism and racist power structures during the Jim Crow era in the South. Endorsing the supposed virtues of the antebellum South, the cause views the war as a conflict that primarily was waged to save the Southern way of life and to defend “states’ rights,” such as the right to secede from the Union, in the face of overwhelming “Northern aggression.” At the same time, the Lost Cause minimizes or completely denies the central role of slavery and white supremacy in both the buildup to and outbreak of the war.
The cause masks the cruelty of slavery tied to an economic system and, to the contrary, promoting it as a means of improving the lives of Africans. According to Jefferson Davis, president of the confederacy, Never was there happier dependence of labor and capital on each other. Davis buttressed his conclusive observation:
“The servile instincts of slaves rendered them contented with their lot, and their patient toil blessed the land of their abode with unmeasured riches. Their strong local and personal attachment secured faithful service … never was there happier dependence of labor and capital on each other. The tempter came, like the serpent of Eden, and decoyed them with the magic word of ‘freedom’ … He put arms in their hands, and trained their humble but emotional natures to deeds of violence and bloodshed, and sent them out to devastate their benefactors.
While most Americans today, including Southerners, see the Civil War for what it was, there are others who persist in asserting fantasy that denies the historical record in favor of a romantic notion that allows a denial of cruelty. Organizations such as Sons or Daughters of the Confederacy will continue to pursue rear-guard efforts to cast the Lost Cause as an ideal of American culture. Some are stepping forward to be the recipients of statutes and memorials in the process of being removed from public places. As these repatriated pieces are no longer to be maintained at public expense, it remains to be seen whether private funds or admission fees to view will meet that need.
The murder of George Floyd and the ensuing waves of protests across the nation, largely led by the slogan Black Lives Matter, has turned a microscope on the tendrils of racism that course through our society. Military installations that for decades upon decades boasted the names of Confederate officers or leaders have come under examination. At a recent congressional hearing, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff characterized those officers as traitors, having “turned their backs on their oath” and committing an act of treason against the United States. In those stark words, the Lost Cause retains no residual honor.
The loss of the Lost Cause is no loss at all. Individuals are, of course, free to hold whatever beliefs they wish. But they are not free to insist upon public displays of anti-American values which, at the same time, are losing favor. And that is as it should be.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley has condemned Confederate leaders as traitors and said he supports a review of Army bases named after those who fought against the Union, a viewpoint that puts him at odds with the commander-in-chief.
“The American Civil War … was an act of treason at the time against the Union, against the Stars and Stripes, against the U.S. Constitution — and those officers turned their backs on their oath,” Milley said. “Now, some have a different view of that. Some think it’s heritage. Others think it’s hate.”
As debate continues over whether and which Confederate memorials should be removed, what also is diminished is the “glory” of the Lost Cause. Reality is not nearly as cruel or inhuman as slavery or Jim Crow. Measures to sweep celebration of immorality into the dust bin of history are both welcome and necessary. A single moment’s reflection is persuasive that the loss of the Lost Cause is no loss at all. Individuals are, of course, free to hold whatever beliefs they wish. But they are not free to insist upon public displays of anti-American values which, at the same time, are losing favor. And that is as it should be.