A St. Louis Globe-Democrat article concerning dedication of a Jackson, Mississippi, monument to Confederate soldiers in June 1891 has "Lost Cause" in its headline.[1]
A St. Louis Globe-Democrat article concerning dedication of a Jackson, Mississippi, monument to Confederate soldiers in June 1891 has "Lost Cause" in its headline.[1]
Custis Lee (1832–1913) on horseback in front of the Jefferson Davis Memorial in Richmond, Virginia on June 3, 1907, reviewing the Confederate Reunion Parade
Custis Lee (1832–1913) on horseback in front of the Jefferson Davis Memorial in Richmond, Virginia on June 3, 1907, reviewing the Confederate Reunion Parade
Members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy around a Confederate monument in Lakeland, Florida, 1915
Members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy around a Confederate monument in Lakeland, Florida, 1915

The Lost Cause of the Confederacy (or simply the Lost Cause) is an American pseudohistorical[2][3] negationist myth[4][5][6] that claims the cause of the Confederate States during the American Civil War was just, heroic, and not centered on slavery.[7][8] First enunciated in 1866, it has continued to influence racism, gender roles, and religious attitudes in the Southern United States to the present day.[9][10] Many facets of the Lost Cause's false historiography – such as Robert E. Lee's heroic status as the best general in the war – have also become accepted throughout much of the U.S., although contemporary historians have made considerable inroads in chipping away at the Lost Cause mythos.

Beyond forced unpaid labor and denial of freedom to leave the slaveholder, the treatment of slaves in the United States often included sexual abuse and rape, the denial of education, and punishments like whippings. Families were often split up by the sale of one or more members, usually never to see or hear of each other again.[11] By turning a blind eye to these realities, Lost Cause proponents re-imagine slavery as a positive good and deny that alleviation of the conditions of slavery was the central cause of the American Civil War, contrary to statements made by Confederate leaders, such as in the Cornerstone Speech.[12] Instead, they frame the war as a defense of states' rights, and as necessary to protect their agrarian economy against supposed Northern aggression.[13][14][15] The Union victory is thus explained as the result of its greater size and industrial wealth, while the Confederate side is portrayed as having greater morality and military skill.[12] Modern historians overwhelmingly disagree with these characterizations, noting that the central cause of the war was slavery.[16][17][18]

There were two intense periods of Lost Cause activity: the first was around the turn of the 20th century, when efforts were made to preserve the memories of dying Confederate veterans, and the second was during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, in reaction to growing public support for racial equality. Through actions such as building prominent Confederate monuments and writing history textbooks, Lost Cause organizations (including the United Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans) sought to ensure Southern whites would know what they called the "true" narrative of the Civil War, and therefore continue to support white supremacist policies such as Jim Crow laws.[9][19] In that regard, white supremacy is a central feature of the Lost Cause narrative.[19]


They say that history is written by the victors, but the Civil War has been the rare exception. Perhaps the need for the country to stay together made it necessary for the North to sit silently and accept the South's conception of the conflict. In any case, for most of the past 150 years, the South's version of the war and Reconstruction has held sway in our schools, our literature and, since the dawn of feature films, our movies.

— Mick LaSalle, The San Francisco Chronicle, 2015[20]

Though the idea of the Lost Cause has more than one origin, it consists mainly of an argument that slavery was not the primary cause, or not a cause at all, of the Civil War.[8] Such a narrative denies or minimizes the statements of the seceding states, each of which issued a statement explaining its decision to secede, and the wartime writings and speeches of Confederate leaders, such as CSA Vice President Alexander Stephens's Cornerstone Speech, instead favoring the leaders' more moderate postwar views.[21] The Lost Cause argument stresses the idea of secession as a defense against a Northern threat to a Southern way of life, and says that the threat violated the states' rights guaranteed by the Constitution. It asserts that any state had the right to secede, a point strongly denied by the North. The Lost Cause portrays the South as more adherent to Christian values than the allegedly greedy North. It portrays slavery as more benevolent than cruel, alleging that it taught Christianity and "civilization". Stories of happy slaves are often used as propaganda in an effort to defend slavery; the United Daughters of the Confederacy had a "Faithful Slave Memorial Committee" and erected the Heyward Shepherd monument in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. These stories would be used to explain slavery to Northerners. The Lost Cause portrays slave owners being kind to their slaves. In explaining Confederate defeat, an assertion is made that the main factor was not qualitative inferiority in leadership or fighting ability but the massive quantitative superiority of the Yankee industrial machine.[22] At the peak of troop strength in 1863, Union soldiers outnumbered Confederate soldiers by over two to one, and the Union had three times the bank deposits of the Confederacy.[23]


19th century

Henry Mosler completed his best known painting, The Lost Cause, three years after the end of the Civil War.
Henry Mosler completed his best known painting, The Lost Cause, three years after the end of the Civil War.

The defeat of the Confederacy devastated many white Southerners economically, emotionally, and psychologically. Before the war, many proudly believed that their rich military tradition would avail them in the forthcoming conflict. Many sought consolation in attributing their loss to factors beyond their control, such as physical size and overwhelming brute force.[15]

The University of Virginia professor Gary W. Gallagher wrote:

The architects of the Lost Cause acted from various motives. They collectively sought to justify their own actions and allow themselves and other former Confederates to find something positive in all-encompassing failure. They also wanted to provide their children and future generations of white Southerners with a "correct" narrative of the war.[15]

The Lost Cause became a key part of the reconciliation process between North and South around 1900[further explanation needed] and formed the basis of many white Southerners' postbellum war commemorations. The United Daughters of the Confederacy, a major organization, has been associated with the Lost Cause for over a century.[24]

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.[25]

Louisiana State University history professor Gaines Foster wrote in 2013:

Scholars have reached a fair amount of agreement about the role the Lost Cause played in those years, although the scholarship on the Lost Cause, like the memory itself, remains contested. The white South, most agree, dedicated enormous effort to celebrating the leaders and common soldiers of the Confederacy, emphasizing that they had preserved their and the South's honor.[26]

The term "Lost Cause" first appeared in the title of an 1866 book by the Virginian author and journalist Edward A. Pollard, The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates.[27] He promoted many of the aforementioned themes of the Lost Cause. In particular, he dismissed the role of slavery in starting the war and understated the cruelty of American slavery, even promoting it as a way of improving the lives of Africans:

We shall not enter upon the discussion of the moral question of slavery. But we may suggest a doubt here whether that odious term "slavery" which has been so long imposed, by the exaggeration of Northern writers, upon the judgement and sympathies of the world, is properly applied to that system of servitude in the South, which was really the mildest in the world; which did not rest on acts of debasement and disenfranchisement, but elevated the African, and was in the interest of human improvement; and which, by the law of the land, protected the negro in life and limb, and in many personal rights, and, by the practice of the system, bestowed upon him a sum of individual indulgences, which made him altogether the most striking type in the world of cheerfulness and contentment.[28]

However, it was the articles written by General Jubal A. Early in the 1870s for the Southern Historical Society that firmly established the Lost Cause as a long-lasting literary and cultural phenomenon. The 1881 publication of The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government by ex-Confederate President Jefferson Davis, a two-volume defense of the Southern cause, provided another important text in the history of the Lost Cause. Davis blamed the enemy for "whatever of bloodshed, of devastation, or shock to republican government has resulted from the war". He charged that the Yankees fought "with a ferocity that disregarded all the laws of civilized warfare". The book remained in print and often served to justify the Southern position and to distance it from slavery.[29]

Early's original inspiration for his views may have come from Confederate General Robert E. Lee. When Lee published his farewell order to the Army of Northern Virginia, he consoled his soldiers by speaking of the "overwhelming resources and numbers" that the Confederate army had fought against. In a letter to Early, Lee requested information about enemy strengths from May 1864 to April 1865, the period in which his army was engaged against Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant (the Overland Campaign and the Siege of Petersburg). Lee wrote, "My only object is to transmit, if possible, the truth to posterity, and do justice to our brave Soldiers." In another letter, Lee wanted all "statistics as regards numbers, destruction of private property by the Federal troops, &c." because he intended to demonstrate the discrepancy in strength between the two armies and believed it would "be difficult to get the world to understand the odds against which we fought". Referring to newspaper accounts that accused him of culpability in the loss, he wrote, "I have not thought proper to notice, or even to correct misrepresentations of my words & acts. We shall have to be patient, & suffer for awhile at least.... At present the public mind is not prepared to receive the truth."[30] All of the themes were made prominent by Early and the Lost Cause writers in the 19th century and continued to play an important role throughout the 20th.[31]

In a November 1868 report, U.S. Army general George Henry Thomas, a Virginian who had fought for the Union in the war, noted efforts made by former Confederates to paint the Confederacy in a positive light:

[T]he greatest efforts made by the defeated insurgents since the close of the war have been to promulgate the idea that the cause of liberty, justice, humanity, equality, and all the calendar of the virtues of freedom, suffered violence and wrong when the effort for southern independence failed. This is, of course, intended as a species of political cant, whereby the crime of treason might be covered with a counterfeit varnish of patriotism, so that the precipitators of the rebellion might go down in history hand in hand with the defenders of the government, thus wiping out with their own hands their own stains; a species of self-forgiveness amazing in its effrontery, when it is considered that life and property—justly forfeited by the laws of the country, of war, and of nations, through the magnanimity of the government and people—was not exacted from them.

— George Henry Thomas, November 1868[32]

Memorial associations such as the United Confederate Veterans, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and Ladies Memorial Associations integrated Lost-Cause themes to help white Confederate-sympathizing Southerners cope with the many changes during the era, most significantly Reconstruction.[33][34] The institutions have lasted to the present and descendants of Southern soldiers continue to attend their meetings.

In 1879, John McElroy published Andersonville: A Story of Rebel Military Prisons, which strongly criticized the Confederate treatment of prisoners and implied in the preface that the mythology of the Confederacy was well established and that criticism of the otherwise-lionized Confederates was met with disdain:

I know that what is contained herein will be bitterly denied. I am prepared for this. In my boyhood I witnessed the savagery of the Slavery agitation – in my youth I felt the fierceness of the hatred directed against all those who stood by the Nation. I know that hell hath no fury like the vindictiveness of those who are hurt by the truth being told to them.[35]

In 1907, Hunter Holmes McGuire, physician of Confederate general Stonewall Jackson, published in a book papers sponsored by the Grand Camp of Confederate Veterans of Virginia, supporting the Lost Cause tenets that "slavery [was] not the cause of the war" and that "the North [was] the aggressor in bringing on the war". The book quickly sold out and required a second edition.[36]

Reunification of North and South

American historian Alan T. Nolan states that the Lost Cause "facilitated the reunification of the North and the South".[37] He quotes historian Gaines M. Foster, who wrote that "signs of respect from former foes and northern publishers made acceptance of reunion easier. By the mid-eighties, most southerners had decided to build a future within a reunited nation. A few remained irreconcilable, but their influence in southern society declined rapidly."[38] Nolan mentioned a second aspect: "The reunion was exclusively a white man's phenomenon and the price of the reunion was the sacrifice of the African Americans."[39]

The historian Caroline Janney stated:

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.[40]

The Yale historian David W. Blight wrote:

The Lost Cause became an integral part of national reconciliation by dint of sheer sentimentalism, by political argument, and by recurrent celebrations and rituals. For most white Southerners, the Lost Cause evolved into a language of vindication and renewal, as well as an array of practices and public monuments through which they could solidify both their Southern pride and their Americanness. In the 1890s, Confederate memories no longer dwelled as much on mourning or explaining defeat; they offered a set of conservative traditions by which the entire country could gird itself against racial, political, and industrial disorder. And by the sheer virtue of losing heroically the Confederate soldier provided a model of masculine devotion and courage in an age of gender anxieties and ruthless material striving.[41]

In exploring the literature of reconciliation, the historian William Tynes Cowa wrote, "The cult of the Lost Cause was part of a larger cultural project: the reconciliation of North and South after the Civil War". He identified a typical image in postwar fiction: a materialistic, rich Yankee man marrying an impoverished spiritual Southern bride as a symbol of happy national reunion.[42] Examining films and visual art, Gallagher identified the theme of "white people North and South [who] extol the American virtues both sides manifested during the war, to exalt the restored nation that emerged from the conflict, and to mute the role of African Americans".[43]

Historian and journalist Bruce Catton argued that the myth or legend helped achieve national reconciliation between North and South. He concluded that "the legend of the lost cause has served the entire country very well", and he went on to say:[44]

The things that were done during the Civil War have not been forgotten, of course, but we now see them through a veil. We have elevated the entire conflict to the realm where it is no longer explosive. It is a part of American legend, a part of American history, a part, if you will, of American romance. It moves men mightily, to this day, but it does not move them in the direction of picking up their guns and going at it again. We have had national peace since the war ended, and we will always have it, and I think the way Lee and his soldiers conducted themselves in the hours of surrender has a great deal to do with it.

New South

Main article: New South

Historians have stated that the Lost Cause theme helped white Southerners adjust to their new status and move forward into what became known as "the New South". Hillyer states that the Confederate Memorial Literary Society (CMLS), founded by elite white women in Richmond, Virginia, in the 1890s, exemplifies that solution. The CMLS founded the Confederate Museum to document and to defend the Confederate cause and to recall the antebellum mores that the new South's business ethos was thought to be displacing. By focusing on military sacrifice, rather than on grievances regarding the North, the Confederate Museum aided the process of sectional reconciliation, according to Hillyer. By depicting slavery as benevolent, the museum's exhibits reinforced the notion that Jim Crow laws were a proper solution to the racial tensions that had escalated during Reconstruction. Lastly, by glorifying the common soldier and portraying the South as "solid", the museum promoted acceptance of industrial capitalism. Thus the Confederate Museum both critiqued and eased the economic transformations of the New South and enabled Richmond to reconcile its memory of the past with its hopes for the future and to leave the past behind as it developed new industrial and financial roles.[45]

The historian Jacquelyn Dowd Hall stated that the Lost-Cause theme was fully developed around 1900 in a mood not of despair but of triumphalism for the New South. Much was left out of the Lost Cause:

[N]either the trauma of slavery for African Americans nor their heroic, heartbreaking freedom struggle found a place in that story. But the Lost Cause narrative also suppressed the memories of many white southerners. Memories of how, under slavery, power bred cruelty. Memories of the bloody, unbearable realities of war. Written out too were the competing memories and identities that set white southerners one against another, pitting the planters against the up-country, Unionists against Confederates, Populists and mill workers against the corporations, home-front women against war-besotted, broken men.[46]

Statues of Moses Jacob Ezekiel

The Virginian Moses Jacob Ezekiel, the most prominent Confederate expatriate, was the only sculptor to have seen action during the Civil War. From his studio in Rome, where a Confederate flag hung proudly, he created a series of statues of Confederate "heroes" which both celebrated the Lost Cause in which he was a "true believer",[47] and set a highly visible model for Confederate monument-erecting in the early 20th century.

According to journalist Lara Moehlman, "Ezekiel's work is integral to this sympathetic view of the Civil War".[47] His Confederate statues included:

Kali Holloway, director of the Make It Right Project, devoted to the removal of Confederate monuments, has said that:

What stands out most is the lasting impact of Ezekiel's tributes to the Confederacy—his homage to 'Stonewall' Jackson in West Virginia; his 'loyal slave' monument in Arlington; his personification of Virginia mourning for her soldiers who died fighting for a treasonous nation created in defense of black chattel slavery. Confederate monuments, including Ezekiel's highly visible sculptures, were part of a campaign to terrorize black Americans, to romanticize slavery, to promote an ahistorical lie about the honor of the Confederate cause, to cast in granite what Jim Crow codified in law. The consequences of all those things remain with us.[53]

Works of Thomas Dixon Jr.

No writer did more to establish the Lost Cause than Thomas Dixon Jr. (1864–1946), a Southern lecturer, novelist, playwright, filmmaker, and Baptist minister.[citation needed]

Dixon, a North Carolinian, has been described as

a professional racist who made his living writing books and plays attacking the presence of African Americans in the United States. A firm believer not only in white supremacy, but also in the "degeneration" of blacks after slavery ended, Dixon thought the ideal solution to America's racial problems was to deport all blacks to Africa.[54]: 510 

Dixon predicted a "race war" if current trends continued unchecked that he believed white people would surely win, having "3,000 years of civilization in their favor".[55] He also considered efforts to educate and civilize African Americans futile, even dangerous, and said that an African American was "all right" as a slave or laborer "but as an educated man he is a monstrosity".[56] In the short term, Dixon saw white racial prejudice as "self preservation",[57] and he worked to propagate a pro-Southern view of the recent Reconstruction period and spread it nationwide. He decried portrayals of Southerners as cruel and villainous in popular works such as Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), seeking to counteract these portrayals with his own work.[54]: 510 

He was a noted lecturer, often getting many more invitations to speak than he was capable of accepting.[58] Moreover, he regularly drew very large crowds, larger than any other Protestant preacher in the United States at the time, and newspapers frequently reported on his sermons and addresses.[59]: 389 [60]: 18  He resigned his minister's job so as to devote himself to lecturing full-time and supported his family that way. He had an immense following, and "his name had become a household word."[60]: 30  In a typical review of the time, his talk was "decidedly entertaining and instructive.... There were great beds of solid thought, and timely instruction at the bottom".[61]

Between 1899 and 1903, he was heard by more than 5,000,000 people; his play The Clansman was seen by over 4,000,000.[62] He was commonly referred to as the best lecturer in the country.[63]: 50–51  He enjoyed a "handsome income" from lectures and royalties on his novels,[58] especially from his share of The Birth of a Nation. He bought a "steam yacht" and named it Dixie.[58]

After seeing a theatrical version of Uncle Tom's Cabin, "he became obsessed with writing a trilogy of novels about the Reconstruction period."[63]: 64  The trilogy comprised The Leopard's Spots. A Romance of the White Man's Burden—1865–1900 (1902), The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (1905), and The Traitor: A Story of the Fall of the Invisible Empire (1907). "Each of his trilogy novels had developed that black-and-white battle through rape/lynching scenarios that are always represented as prefiguring total racewar, should elite white men fail to resolve the nation's 'Negro Problem'."[64] Dixon also wrote a novel about Abraham LincolnThe Southerner (1913), "the story of what Davis called 'the real Lincoln'"[63]: 80 —another, The Man in Grey (1921), on Robert E. Lee, and one on Jefferson Davis, The Victim (1914).

Dixon's method is hard-hitting, sensational, and uncompromising: it becomes easy to understand the reasons for the great popularity of these swiftly moving stories dealing with problems very close to people who had experienced the Civil War and Reconstruction; and thousands of persons who had experienced Reconstruction were still alive when the trilogy of novels was published. Dixon's literary skill in evoking old memories and deep-seated prejudices made the novelist a respected spokesman—a champion for people who held bitter resentments.[63]: 75 

Dixon's most popular novels were The Leopard's Spots and The Clansman. Their influential spin-off, The Birth of a Nation movie (1915), was the first film shown in the White House and repeated the next day to the entire Supreme Court, 38 Senators, and the Secretary of the Navy.[65]: 171–172 [66][67][68][69]

From the 20th century to the present

The former flag of Mississippi incorporates the Confederate battle flag design. It was adopted in 1894 after the state's so-called "redemption", and relinquished in 2020 during the George Floyd protests.
The former flag of Mississippi incorporates the Confederate battle flag design. It was adopted in 1894 after the state's so-called "redemption", and relinquished in 2020 during the George Floyd protests.
Flag of Georgia (1956–2001)
Flag of Georgia (1956–2001)

Main articles: Modern display of the Confederate flag and Removal of Confederate monuments and memorials

See also: Confederate Memorial Hall and List of Confederate monuments and memorials

The basic assumptions of the Lost Cause have proved durable for many in the modern South. The Lost Cause tenets frequently emerge during controversies surrounding public display of the Confederate flag and various state flags. The historian John Coski noted that the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), the "most visible, active, and effective defender of the flag", "carried forward into the twenty-first century, virtually unchanged, the Lost Cause historical interpretations and ideological vision formulated at the turn of the twentieth".[70] Coski wrote concerning "the flag wars of the late twentieth century":

From the ... early 1950s, SCV officials defended the integrity of the battle flag against trivialization and against those who insisted that its display was unpatriotic or racist. SCV spokesmen reiterated the consistent argument that the South fought a legitimate war for independence, not a war to defend slavery, and that the ascendant "Yankee" view of history falsely vilified the South and led people to misinterpret the battle flag.[71]

The Confederate States used several flags during its existence from 1861 to 1865. Since the end of the American Civil War, the personal and official use of Confederate flags and flags derived from them has continued under considerable controversy. The second state flag of Mississippi, adopted in 1894 after the state's so-called "Redemption" and relinquished in 2020 during the George Floyd protests, included the Confederate battle flag. The city flag of Trenton, Georgia, which incorporates the Confederate battle flag, was adopted in 2001 as a protest against the Georgia General Assembly voting to significantly reduce the size of the Confederate battle flag on their state flag.[72] The city flag of Trenton greatly resembles the former state flag of Georgia.[73][74]

On March 23, 2015, a Confederate-flag-related case reached the Supreme Court of the United States. Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans centered on whether or not the state of Texas could deny a request by the SCV for vanity license plates that incorporated a Confederate battle flag. The Court heard the case on March 23, 2015.[75] On June 18, 2015, the Supreme Court, in a 5–4 vote, held that Texas was entitled to reject the SCV proposal.[75]

In October 2015, outrage erupted online following the discovery of a Texan school's geography textbook, which described slaves as "immigrants" and "workers".[76][77] The publisher, McGraw-Hill, announced that it would change the wording. Until the 2019-2020 school year, the Texas social studies curriculum required teaching that slavery was a tertiary cause of the Civil War behind "states' rights" and "sectionalism." While the current curriculum describes the "expansion of slavery" as having a "central role" in bringing about the Civil War, sectionalism and states' rights remain part of the curriculum.[78]

Religious dimension

Charles Wilson argues that many white Southerners, most of whom were conservative and pious evangelical Protestants, sought reasons for the Confederacy's defeat in religion. They felt that the Confederacy's defeat in the war was God's punishment for their sins and motivated by this belief, they increasingly turned to religion as their source of solace. The postwar era saw the birth of a regional "civil religion" which was heavily laden with symbolism and ritual; clergymen were this new religion's primary celebrants. Wilson says that the ministers constructed

Lost Cause ritualistic forms that celebrated their regional mythological and theological beliefs. They used the Lost Cause to warn Southerners of their decline from past virtue, to promote moral reform, to encourage conversion to Christianity, and to educate the young in Southern traditions; in the fullness of time, they related to American values.[79]

On both a cultural and religious level, white southerners tried to defend what their defeat in 1865 made impossible for them to defend on a political level. The Lost Cause, the South's defeat in a holy war, left southerners to face guilt, doubt, and the triumph of evil and they faced them by forming what C. Vann Woodward called a uniquely Southern sense of the tragedy of history.[80]

Poole stated that in fighting to defeat the Republican Reconstruction government in South Carolina in 1876, white conservative Democrats portrayed the Lost Cause scenario through "Hampton Days" celebrations and shouted, "Hampton or Hell!" They staged the contest between Reconstruction opponent and Democratic candidate Wade Hampton and incumbent Governor Daniel H. Chamberlain as a religious struggle between good and evil and called for "redemption".[81] Indeed, throughout the South, the Democrats who overthrew Reconstruction were frequently called "Redeemers", echoing Christian theology.[82]

Gender roles

The United Daughters of the Confederacy helped promulgate the Lost Cause's ideology through the construction of numerous memorials, such as this one in Tennessee.
The United Daughters of the Confederacy helped promulgate the Lost Cause's ideology through the construction of numerous memorials, such as this one in Tennessee.

Further information: United Daughters of the Confederacy

Among writers on the Lost Cause, gender roles were a contested domain. Men typically honored the role of women during the war by noting their total loyalty to the cause. Women, however, developed a much different approach to the cause by emphasizing female activism, initiative, and leadership. They explained that when all of the men left, the women took command, found substitute foods, rediscovered their old traditional skills with the spinning wheel when factory cloth became unavailable, and ran all of the farm or plantation operations. They faced apparent danger without having men in their traditional role as protectors.[83]

The popularization of the Lost Cause interpretation and the erection of monuments was primarily the work of Southern women, centered on the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC).[84]: 198 

UDC leaders were determined to assert women's cultural authority over virtually every representation of the region's past. They did this by lobbying for the creation of state archives and the construction of state museums, the preservation of national historic sites, and the construction of historic highways; compiling genealogies; interviewing former soldiers; writing history textbooks; and erecting monuments, which now moved triumphantly from cemeteries into town centers. More than half a century before women's history and public history emerged as fields of inquiry and action, the UDC, along with other women's associations, strove to etch women's accomplishments into the historical record and take history to the people, from the nursery and the fireside to the schoolhouse and the public square.

— Jacquelyn Dowd Hall[85]

The duty of memorializing the Confederate dead was a major activity for Southerners who were devoted to the Lost Cause, and chapters of the UDC played a central role in performing it.[86] The UDC was especially influential across the South in the early 20th century, where its main role was to preserve and uphold the memory of Confederate veterans, especially the husbands, sons, fathers, and brothers who died in the war. Its long-term impact was to promote the Lost Cause image of the antebellum plantation South as an idealized society which was crushed by the forces of Yankee modernization, which also undermined traditional gender roles.[87] In Missouri, a border state, the UDC was active in setting up its own system of memorials.[88]

The Southern states set up their own pension systems for veterans and their dependents, especially for widows, because none of them was eligible for federal pensions. The southern pensions were designed to honor the Lost Cause and reduce the severe poverty which was prevalent in the region. Male applicants for pensions had to demonstrate their continued loyalty to the Lost Cause. Female applicants for pensions were rejected if their moral reputations were in question.[89]

In Natchez, Mississippi, the local newspapers and veterans had a role in the maintenance of the Lost Cause. However, elite white women were central in establishing memorials such as the Civil War Monument which was dedicated on Memorial Day 1890. The Lost Cause enabled women noncombatants to lay a claim to the central event in their redefinition of Southern history.[90]

The UDC was quite prominent but not at all unique in its appeal to upscale white Southern women. "The number of women's clubs devoted to filiopietism and history was staggering", stated historian W. Fitzhugh Brundage. He noted two typical club women in Texas and Mississippi who between them belonged to the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, the Daughters of the Pilgrims, the Daughters of the War of 1812, the Daughters of Colonial Governors, and the Daughters of the Founders and Patriots of America, the Order of the First Families of Virginia, and the Colonial Dames of America as well as a few other historically-oriented societies. Comparable men, on the other hand, were much less interested in belonging to historical organizations; instead, they devoted themselves to secret fraternal societies and emphasized athletic, political, and financial exploits in order to prove their manhood. Brundage notes that after women's suffrage came in 1920, the historical role of the women's organizations eroded.[91]

In their heyday in the first two decades of the 20th century, Brundage concluded:

These women architects of whites' historical memory, by both explaining and mystifying the historical roots of white supremacy and elite power in the South, performed a conspicuous civic function at a time of heightened concern about the perpetuation of social and political hierarchies. Although denied the franchise, organized white women nevertheless played a dominant role in crafting the historical memory that would inform and undergird southern politics and public life.[92]


[The negroes'] servile instincts 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.

The Lost Cause ideology includes fallacies about the relationships between slaves and their masters.
The Lost Cause ideology includes fallacies about the relationships between slaves and their masters.

Tenets of the Lost Cause movement include:[95][96]


Confederate generals

The most powerful images and symbols of the Lost Cause were Robert E. Lee, Albert Sidney Johnston, and Pickett's Charge. David Ulbrich wrote, "Already revered during the war, Robert E. Lee acquired a divine mystique within Southern culture after it. Remembered as a leader whose soldiers would loyally follow him into every fight no matter how desperate, Lee emerged from the conflict to become an icon of the Lost Cause and the ideal of the antebellum Southern gentleman, an honorable and pious man who selflessly served Virginia and the Confederacy. Lee's tactical brilliance at Second Bull Run and Chancellorsville took on legendary status, and despite his accepting full responsibility for the defeat at Gettysburg, Lee remained largely infallible for Southerners and was spared criticism even from historians until recent times."[33]

In terms of Lee's subordinates, the key villain in Jubal Early's view was General Longstreet. Although Lee took all responsibility for the defeats, particularly the one at Gettysburg, Early's writings place the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg squarely on Longstreet's shoulders by accusing him of failing to attack at dawn on July 2, 1863, as instructed by Lee. In fact, however, Lee issued no such order and never expressed dissatisfaction with the second-day actions of his "Old War Horse". Because Gettysburg was perceived as the "high tide of the Confederacy", the loss there was seen to have led to the failure of the entire war to achieve independence for the South, the blame for which was hung on Longstreet's disinclination to attack. These charges stuck because Longstreet was already disparaged by many high-profile Southerners due to his reputation as a "scalawag", caused by postwar endorsement of and cooperation with his close friend and in-law, President Grant. Furthermore, Longstreet advised Southerners to co-operate with Reconstruction (to control the black vote) and he also joined the Republican Party and accepted a federal position.[100]

Grant, in rejecting the Lost Cause arguments, said in an 1878 interview that he rejected the notion that the South had simply been overwhelmed by numbers. Grant wrote, "This is the way public opinion was made during the war and this is the way history is made now. We never overwhelmed the South.... What we won from the South we won by hard fighting." Grant further noted that when comparing resources, the "4,000,000 of negroes" who "kept the farms, protected the families, supported the armies, and were really a reserve force" were not treated as a southern asset.[101]

"War of Northern Aggression"

See also: Names of the American Civil War

One essential element of the Lost Cause movement was that the act of secession had been legitimate. Otherwise, all of the Confederacy's leading figures would have been traitors to the United States. To legitimize the Confederacy's rebellion, Lost Cause proponents challenged the legitimacy of the federal government and the actions of Abraham Lincoln as president. This phenomenon was exemplified in a treatise by Mary Scrugham, in which she presented frivolous arguments against the legality of Lincoln's presidency.[102] These arguments include his receiving a minority of the popular vote in the 1860 election and the false assertion that he made his position on slavery ambiguous. The accusations, though thoroughly refuted, gave rise to the belief that the North initiated the Civil War, making a designation of "The War of Northern Aggression" possible as one of the names of the American Civil War.[citation needed]

Thomas Dixon Jr.'s novels

The Leopard's Spots

Main article: The Leopard's Spots

On the title page, Dixon cited Jeremiah 13:23: "Can the Ethiopian change his color, or the Leopard his spots?" He argued that just as the leopard cannot change his spots, the Negro cannot change his nature. The novel aimed to reinforce the superiority of the "Anglo-Saxon" race and advocate either for white dominance of black people or for the separation of the two races.[63]: 68  According to historian and Dixon biographer Richard Allen Cook, "the Negro, according to Dixon, is a brute, not a citizen: a child of a degenerate race brought from Africa."[63]: 68  Dixon expounded the views in The Times of Philadelphia while he discussed the novel in 1902: "The negro is a human donkey. You can train him, but you can't make of him a horse."[103] Dixon described the "towering figure of the freed negro" as "growing more and more ominous, until its menace overshadows the poverty, the hunger, the sorrows and the devastation of the South, throwing the blight of its shadow over future generations, a veritable black death for the land and its people."[103] Using characters from Uncle Tom's Cabin, he shows the "happy slave" who is now, free and manipulated by carpetbaggers, unproductive and disrespectful, and he believed that freedmen constantly pursued sexual relations with white women.[63]: 68  In Dixon's work, the heroic Ku Klux Klan protects American women. "It is emphatically a man's book," said Dixon to The Times.[103]

The novel, which "blazes with oratorial fireworks",[103] "attracted attention as soon as it came from the press", and more than 100,000 copies were quickly sold.[58] "Sales eventually passed the million mark; numerous foreign translations of the work appeared; and Dixon's fame was international."[63]: 70 

The Clansman

Frontispiece to the first edition ofDixon's The Clansman, by Arthur I. Keller.
Frontispiece to the first edition of
Dixon's The Clansman,
by Arthur I. Keller.
"The Fiery Cross of old Scotland's hills!"Illustration from the first edition of The Clansman,by Arthur I. Keller.
"The Fiery Cross of old Scotland's hills!"
Illustration from the first edition of The Clansman,
by Arthur I. Keller.

Main article: The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan

In The Clansman, the best known of the three novels, Dixon similarly claimed, "I have sought to preserve in this romance both the letter and the spirit of this remarkable period.... The Clansman develops the true story of the 'Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy', which overturned the Reconstruction regime."[104]

"Lincoln is pictured as a kind, sympathetic man who is trying bravely to sustain his policies despite the pressures upon him to have a more vindictive attitude toward the Southern states."[63]: 71  Reconstruction was an attempt by Augustus Stoneman, a thinly-veiled reference to US Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, "the greatest and vilest man who ever trod the halls of the American Congress",[63]: 71  to ensure that the Republican Party would stay in power by securing the Southern black vote. Stoneman's hatred for US President Andrew Johnson stems from Johnson's refusal to disenfranchise Southern whites. Stoneman's anger towards former slaveholders is intensified after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and Stoneman vows revenge on the South. His programs strip away the land owned by whites and give it to former slaves, as with the traditional idea of "forty acres and a mule". Men claiming to represent the government confiscate the material wealth of the South and destroy plantation-owning families. Finally, the former slaves are taught that they are superior to their former owners and should rise against them. These alleged injustices were the impetus for the creation of the Ku Klux Klan. "Mr. Dixon's purpose here is to show that the original formers of the Ku Klux Klan were modern knights errant, taking the only means at hand to right wrongs."[105] Dixon's father belonged to the Klan, and his maternal uncle and boyhood idol,[65]: 21  Col. Leroy McAfee, to whom The Clansman is dedicated, was a regional leader or, in the words of the dedication, "Grand Titan of the invisible Empire of the Ku Klux Klan".

The depiction of the Klan's burning of crosses, as shown in the illustrations of the first edition, is an innovation of Dixon. It had not previously been used by the Klan, but was later taken up by them.

"In Dixon's passionate prose, the book also treats at considerable length the poverty, shame, and degradation suffered by the Southerners at the hands of the Negroes and unscrupulous Northeners."[63]: 72  Martial law is declared, US troops are sent in, as they were during Reconstruction. "The victory of the South was complete when the Klan defeats the federal troups throughout the state."[63]: 72 

To publicize his views further, Dixon rewrote The Clansman as a play. Like the novel, it was a great commercial success; there were multiple touring companies presenting the play simultaneously in different cities. Sometimes, it was banned. Birth of a Nation is actually based on the play, which was unpublished until 2007,[clarification needed] rather than directly on the novel.

The Birth of a Nation

Another prominent and influential popularizer of the Lost Cause perspective was D. W. Griffith's highly-successful The Birth of a Nation (1915), which was based on Dixon's novel. Noting that Dixon and Griffith collaborated on Birth of a Nation, Blight wrote:

Dixon's vicious version of the idea that blacks had caused the Civil War by their very presence, and that Northern radicalism during Reconstruction failed to understand that freedom had ushered blacks as a race into barbarism, neatly framed the story of the rise of heroic vigilantism in the South. Reluctantly, Klansmen—white men—had to take the law into their own hands in order to save Southern white womanhood from the sexual brutality of black men. Dixon's vision captured the attitude of thousands and forged in story form a collective memory of how the war may have been lost but Reconstruction was won—by the South and a reconciled nation. Riding as masked cavalry, the Klan stopped corrupt government, prevented the anarchy of 'Negro rule' and most of all, saved white supremacy.[106]

In both The Clansman and the film, the Klan is portrayed as continuing the noble traditions of the antebellum South and the heroic Confederate soldier by defending Southern culture in general and Southern womanhood in particular against rape and depredations at the hands of the freedmen and Yankee carpetbaggers during Reconstruction. Dixon's narrative was so readily adopted that the film has been credited with the revival of the Klan in the 1910s and 1920s. The second Klan, which Dixon denounced, reached a peak membership of 2-5 million members.[107] The film's legacy is widereaching in the history of American racism, and even the now-iconic cross burnings of the KKK were based on Dixon's novel and the film made of it. The first KKK did not burn crosses, which was originally a Scottish tradition, "Crann Tara", designed to gather clans for war.[108]

Later literature and films

The romanticization of the Lost Cause is captured in film, such as The Birth of a Nation, Gone With the Wind, Song of the South, and Tennessee Johnson—the latter of which the San Francisco Chronicle called "the height of Southern mythmaking". Gods and Generals reportedly lionizes Jackson and Lee.[20] CNN reported that these films "recast the antebellum South as a moonlight and magnolia paradise of happy slaves, affectionate slave owners and villainous Yankees".[109]

Post-1920s literature

In his novels about the Sartoris family, William Faulkner referenced those who supported the Lost Cause ideal but suggested that the ideal itself was misguided and out of date.[110]

The Confederate Veteran, a monthly magazine published in Nashville, Tennessee, from 1893 to 1932, made its publisher, Sumner Archibald Cunningham, a leader of the Lost Cause movement.[111]

Gone with the Wind

The Lost Cause view reached tens of millions of Americans in the best-selling 1936 novel Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell and the Oscar-winning 1939 film based on it. Helen Taylor wrote:

Gone with the Wind has almost certainly done its ideological work. It has sealed in popular imaginations a fascinated nostalgia for the glamorous southern plantation house and ordered hierarchical society in which slaves are 'family,' and there is a mystical bond between the landowner and the rich soil those slaves work for him. It has spoken eloquently—albeit from an elitist perspective—of the grand themes (war, love, death, conflicts of race, class, gender, and generation) that have crossed continents and cultures.[112]

David W. Blight wrote:

From this combination of Lost Cause voices, a reunited America arose pure, guiltless, and assured that the deep conflicts in its past had been imposed upon it by otherworldly forces. The side that lost was especially assured that its cause was true and good. One of the ideas the reconciliationist Lost Cause instilled deeply into the national culture is that even when Americans lose, they win. Such was the message, the indomitable spirit, that Margaret Mitchell infused into her character Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind ...[113]

Southerners were portrayed as noble, heroic figures, living in a doomed romantic society that rejected the realistic advice offered by the Rhett Butler character and never understood the risk that they were taking in going to war.

Song of the South

The 1946 Disney film Song of the South is the first to have combined live actors with animated shorts.[114] In the framing story, the actor James Baskett played Uncle Remus, a former slave who apparently is full of joy and wisdom despite having lived part of his life in slavery. There is a common misconception that the story takes place in the antebellum period and that the African-American characters are slaves.[115][116] One critic said, "Like other similar films of the period also dealing with the antebellum South, the slaves in the film are all good-natured, subservient, annoyingly cheerful, content and always willing to help a white person in need with some valuable life lesson along the way. In fact, they're never called slaves, but they come off more like neighborly workers lending a helping hand for some kind, benevolent plantation owners."[114][20][109] Disney has never released it on DVD[114] and the film has been withheld from Disney+.[117] It was released on VHS in the United Kingdom several times, most recently in 2000.[117]

Gods and Generals

The 2003 Civil War film Gods and Generals, based on Jeff Shaara's 1996 novel, is widely viewed as championing the Lost Cause ideology with a presentation favorable to the Confederacy[118][119][120] and lionizing Generals Jackson and Lee.[20]

Writing in the Journal of American History, the historian Steven E. Woodworth derided the movie as a modern-day telling of Lost Cause mythology.[118] Woodworth called the movie "the most pro-Confederate film since Birth of a Nation, a veritable celluloid celebration of slavery and treason". He summed up his reasons for disliking the movie:

Gods and Generals brings to the big screen the major themes of Lost Cause mythology that professional historians have been working for half a century to combat. In the world of Gods and Generals, slavery has nothing to do with the Confederate cause. Instead, the Confederates are nobly fighting for, rather than against, freedom, as viewers are reminded again and again by one white southern character after another.[118]

Woodworth criticized the portrayal of slaves as being "generally happy" with their condition. He also criticized the relative lack of attention given to the motivations of Union soldiers fighting in the war. He excoriates the film for allegedly implying, in agreement with Lost Cause mythology, that the South was more "sincerely Christian". Woodworth concluded that the film through "judicial omission" presents "a distorted view of the Civil War".[118]

The historian William B. Feis similarly criticized the director's decision "to champion the more simplistic-and sanitized-interpretations found in post-war 'Lost Cause' mythology".[119] The film critic Roger Ebert described the movie as "a Civil War movie that Trent Lott might enjoy" and said of its Lost Cause themes, "If World War II were handled this way, there'd be hell to pay."[121]

The consensus of film critics of the movie was that it had a "pro-Confederate slant".[120]

Later use

Professor Gallagher contended that Douglas Southall Freeman's definitive four-volume biography of Lee, published in 1934, "cemented in American letters an interpretation of Lee very close to Early's utterly heroic figure".[122] In that work, Lee's subordinates were primarily to blame for errors that lost battles. While Longstreet was the most common target of such attacks, others came under fire as well. Richard Ewell, Jubal Early, J. E. B. Stuart, A. P. Hill, George Pickett, and many others were frequently attacked and blamed by Southerners in an attempt to deflect criticism from Lee.

Hudson Strode wrote a widely read scholarly three-volume biography of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, published in the 1950s and 1960s. A leading scholarly journal that reviewed it stressed Strode's political biases:

His [Jefferson Davis's] enemies are devils, and his friends, like Davis himself, have been canonized. Strode not only attempts to sanctify Davis but also the Confederate point of view, and this study should be relished by those vigorously sympathetic with the Lost Cause.[123]

One Dallas newspaper editorial in 2018 referred to the Texas Civil War Museum as "a lovely bit of 'Lost Cause' propaganda".[124]

While not limited to the American South specifically, the Stop the Steal movement in the wake of the 2020 US presidential election has been interpreted as a reemergence of the Lost Cause idea and a manifestation of white backlash.[125][126][127][128]

Contemporary historians

Contemporary historians overwhelmingly agree that secession was motivated by slavery. There were numerous causes for secession, but preservation and expansion of slavery was easily the most important of them. The confusion may come from blending the causes of secession with the causes of the war, which were separate but related issues.

According to the historian Kenneth M. Stampp, each side supported states' rights or stronger federal power only when it was convenient for it to do so.[129] Stampp cited Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens as an example of a Southern leader who, when the war began, said that slavery was the "cornerstone of the Confederacy", but after the defeat of the Confederacy said, in A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States, that the war had been not about slavery but about states' rights. Stephens became one of the most ardent defenders of the Lost Cause myth.[130]

Similarly, the historian William C. Davis explained the Confederate Constitution's protection of slavery at the national level:

To the old Union they had said that the Federal power had no authority to interfere with slavery issues in a state. To their new nation they would declare that the state had no power to interfere with a federal protection of slavery. Of all the many testimonials to the fact that slavery, and not states' rights, really lay at the heart of their movement, this was the most eloquent of all.[131]

Davis further noted, "Causes and effects of the war have been manipulated and mythologized to suit political and social agendas, past and present."[132] The historian David Blight said that "its use of white supremacy as both means and ends" has been a key characteristic of the Lost Cause.[19] The historian Allan Nolan wrote:

[T]he Lost Cause legacy to history is a caricature of the truth. The caricature wholly misrepresents and distorts the facts of the matter. Surely it is time to start again in our understanding of this decisive element of our past and to do so from the premises of history unadulterated by the distortions, falsehoods, and romantic sentimentality of the Myth of the Lost Cause.[133]

The historian William C. Davis labeled many of the myths that surround the war "frivolous" and these myths include attempts to rename the war by "Confederate partisans." He also stated that names such as "War of Northern Aggression" and "War Between the States" (the latter being an expression coined by Alexander Stephens) were just attempts to deny the fact that the American Civil War was an actual civil war.[134]

The historian A. Cash Koeniger argues that Gary Gallagher has mischaracterized films that depict the Lost Cause. He wrote that Gallagher

concedes that "Lost Cause themes" (with the important exception of minimizing the importance of slavery) are based on historical truths (p. 46). Confederate soldiers were often outnumbered, ragged, and hungry; southern civilians did endure much material deprivation and a disproportionate amount of bereavement; U.S. forces did wreck [sic] havoc on southern infrastructure and private property and the like, yet whenever these points appear in films Gallagher considers them motifs "celebratory" of the Confederacy (p. 81).[135]

See also



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