Before the Civil War, the differences between the North and South seemed relatively small. Apart from differing economic and social systems, the two groups were essentially homogeneous, and the “South had little to give it national identity” (Gallagher and Nolan, 22). In order to justify secession and the war it caused, it became the job of the media in the Confederacy to construct a distinct character of the American South and the people who lived there. The South began to cultivate a sense of honor and chivalry for itself, which the North was perceived as lacking. A purpose of the war was to protect this honor. In 1865, the Confederacy surrendered and lost the Civil War, and it became necessary to rewrite the events of the past four years in a way that aligned with the identity created during the war. The former Confederacy needed justification for the loss of life, land and wealth which they had sustained during the Civil War, and they needed to do so without sacrificing the honor which had been their claimed identity during the war years. Following the end of the Civil War, Southern historians and people began to cling to the notion of the Lost Cause, “a public memory of the Confederacy that placed their wartime sacrifice and shattering defeat in the best possible light” (Gallagher and Nolan, 1). The ideas of the Lost Cause have integrated themselves into American history, becoming a part of the public memory of the Civil War for both Southerners and Northerners. The identity of Southerners created during the war and solidified through the creation and spread of the Lost Cause theory is still present in today’s Southern society which today juggles the identities of both American and Southerner.
After the attack on Fort Sumter, the Confederate states called upon their people to join the military and support the noble cause of secession. News articles from this early portion of the war explain the developing ideas surrounding the Confederate identity. The April 25, 1861 issue of the Richmond Inquirer indicated that the troops who had thus far enlisted in the Army of Northern Virginia “all appeared so well,” and these men who “rush to arms at countrycall” are of the highest honor (“The Military”). The same issue of the Enquirer recounts the arrival of other Confederate troops to Virginia in the article “Arrival of Troops from South Carolina.” This article again constructs the image that the average Confederate soldier is far superior to other men, especially those of the North. The article describes that “every man of them looked a hero” both physically and in their actions (“Arrival of Troops from South Carolina”). These types of articles were useful to the Confederacy for many reasons. First, they justified the cultural need for secession for surely this “gallant… and heroic race of men” was culturally unique from its foes in the North. Articles like these also created the identity of Southern men as a genteel and supremely honorable race of men. Ultimately, this was the first step in the formation of a distinct Confederate, and later Southern, identity.
The Confederate media epitomized the Southern man through its description of the leader of the Army of Northern Virginia. The article, “Capt. Robert E. Lee,” also in the April 25, 1861 issue of The Richmond Enquirer, begins by praising Lee for leaving the Union Army and states that all honor is given to Lee and to Virginia. Since Lee was born in the state of Virginia and rejected the offers of the tyrannical North, Robert E. Lee was seen and expressed as a “true Virginian” and true Southerner with Confederate values (“Capt. Robert E. Lee”). Lee is described as having “acknowledged ability… chivalric character… honor” and many other features which represent the values of the Confederacy (“Capt. Robert E. Lee”). This article gives the Confederacy a clear guide to follow in terms of being a true Confederate and places the perceived qualities of Lee – bravery, chivalry, skill and morality – in the forefront of the ideal Confederate man. The praise of Lee helps to construct the image of the man that each Southerner should be, and eventually these descriptions become the image to which the South would cling.
As the war waged on, the Confederacy continued to appeal to its people using the concepts of honor and courage as the main characters of the Confederates in contrast to the oppressive, despotic Union. The September 10, 1863 issue of the Charleston Mercury displays this portrayal of contrasting enemies in both victory and defeat. The article is entitled “Progress,” and it stated that even when the Union had made “material progress” in their invasion of the Confederacy, the Southerners had “made a greater moral progress” (“Progress”). This article also expands upon the image of the valor of Confederate soldier. It claims that, although the Union has won battles, their “success has been a mere affair of mechanics, not of valor” (“Progress”). The article goes on to explain that in battles where combat was man to man, the Confederacy has shown itself to be far superior. These claims exemplify the identity of both the honor and valor of Confederate soldiers and of the moral superiority of the South. These identities are key factors in the way that the Confederates deal with the end of the war and its aftermath.
By 1865, the Confederacy was in a poor position. U.S. Grant and the Army of the Potomac had invaded Virginia, headed to Richmond, and William T. Sherman had marched through the South, destroying much of the Confederacy along the way. Despite the encroaching Union Army and the possibility of losing the war, the Confederate press continued to maintain the honorable and righteous image of the American South. In the February 11, 1865 issue of the Charleston Mercury, it was reported that to “submit to our enemies now would be more infamous than it would have been in the beginning” (“Spirit of the Army”). Even in the face of losing the war, Confederates preserved the ideals upon which they believed the Confederacy was founded. The article continues that losing to the Union would be “cowardly,” and in losing, they would “acknowledge ourselves wrong in the assertion” of the freedoms they sought (“Spirit of the Army”). This article, probably made to boost morale of the failing Confederate troops and reaffirm their commitment in the face of defeat, appeals to the ideas that had become a key part of Southern society. The article indicates that being cowardly is not an option, and it enforces the idea that the Confederacy was righteous in their fight to keep slavery and secede from the Union. As stated in the article, a loss for the Confederacy would prove them wrong in their attempt to leave the Union, and being wrong or immoral did not fit into the honorable, freedom-loving identity they had carved for themselves during the war. As the war came to a close in April 1865, the Confederacy was left with the question of how to maintain their honor despite being the defeated rebels of the conflict and proponents of slavery, a practice which had been condemned and abolished by the winning Union.
The major components of the Lost Cause theory are rooted in the image the Confederates had constructed for themselves during the Civil War. The theory addresses both the reasons for the Civil War and the way in which the war occurred. Many of the Lost Cause interpretations concerning to start of the war deal with slavery and its role in creating the Confederacy. The first claim of the Lost Cause as to the reasons for the war is that the war did not start over the issue of slavery, and the provocation of slavery as an issue was brought on by the abolitionists of the North (Gallagher and Nolan, 15). This has developed into a common belief about the war. However, this statement is in sharp contrast to the March 6, 1861 Charleston Mercury which claimed, “slavery is the immediate cause of the existence of the Confederacy” (“The Veto”). Many proponents of the Lost Cause also claim that the South would have freed their slaves independently in a matter of time. Historically, there is no evidence of this assertion. In the years leading up to the war, the South was not “relaxing the laws which guarded the system,” but they were actually strengthening the slave system (Gallagher and Nolan, 21). Because slavery is today a shame to the history of the United States, Southerners seeking post-war honor needed to erase the stain of slavery from their history. In making states’ rights or tariffs the agitating issue for the Civil War, the Confederate heritage could still be viewed as honorable and moral.
The Lost Cause also accounts for the military failures of the Confederacy. The Lost Cause espouses the ideal of the southern soldier and southern culture that was created by the Confederate press. In creating an idea of a chivalric, courageous group of men, the public directly following the war could not devalue the effort of these honorable men. The other major foundation of the military aspect of the Lost Cause is the way in which Robert E. Lee was viewed. After the war, Lee, who had turned down the position as general of the Union army, took on a god-like status. Lee has been described as having been “bathed in the white light… from the smile of an approving and sustaining God” (Gallagher and Nolan, 18). Robert E. Lee’s portrayal in the late 1800s, 1900s and today differs very little from the description of him as an “able, brave, experienced, officer: – no man his superior” in 1861 (“Capt. Robert E. Lee). In making their soldiers and leaders seem untouchable, the Lost Cause’s authors and supporters could legitimize the effort of the army while simultaneously admitting defeat.
Characters like Robert E. Lee and the portrayal of Confederate soldiers turns the focus in the Confederate defeat from the inabilities of the South to the total dominance of the Union. Rather than focusing on the actual outcome of the war, the Lost Cause evaluates the valiant effort of the South in an unwinnable war. The North’s mechanical and population superiority are the most commonly used reasons for the South’s loss in the Civil War. Many Lost Cause supporters claim that defeat was inevitable. This relieves some of the shame of losing because “if the Confederacy could not have won, it somehow did not lose” (Gallagher and Nolan, 17). These major points of the Lost Cause theory of the Civil War were created purposely and quickly. They have been able to work their way into the American narrative because they were generated immediately following the war. The events of the past two centuries have only helped to reinforce these ideas as Americans attempted to make sense of a bloody war between its own people.
In order to justify their rebellion and maintain their honor, the South began creating a new account of the Civil War almost immediately after surrendering. Southern writers like Jubal Early went to work to create a printed account “celebrating the Confederacy’s military resistance” (Gallagher and Nolan, 34). Early and his colleagues realized the power they could have and the image they would repair by distributing their version of the war. By the end of 1866, Early had already published his memoir of the war A Memoir of the Last Year of the War for Independence, in the Confederate States of America. Jubal Early dispensed his account of the Civil War through the Southern Historical Society and their publications as well. His major points were that General Lee was the most important role model of the war, Confederate armies put up the best fight they could against a much larger Union army, U.S. Grant “paled in comparison to Lee as a soldier,” Stonewall Jackson was the second most important figure of the war and Virginia was the most important location of the Civil War (Gallagher and Nolan, 40). These interpretations of the war are the basis for the larger argument of the Lost Cause, and this representation of the Civil War has become a part of the larger US public memory.
With the Confederate take on the war firmly carved out in Early’s work, people of the South began to collectively remember the war in this way. By the 1880s and 1890s, the US started to celebrate and remember the Civil War. A decade earlier, the country was attempting to reconstruct itself and the public largely blocked the terrible memories of the 1860s. During the 1880s and 1890s, many veterans’ organizations were formed and army reunions became common throughout the country. This helped to expand upon the ideas of the Lost Cause as Confederate soldiers and Northern soldiers met up to “clasp hands across the bloody chasm” (Gallagher and Nolan, 94). The Lost Cause Theory was aided by these reunions because Northern visitors to Confederate conferences largely ignored addressing controversial issues such as slavery or the shortcomings of the Confederate army. These reunions were large public forums for former soldiers to express their views on the war. Since a majority of the reunions took place in the South, it was the Southern view of war that was most often discussed. Reunions gave Southerners a chance to “instruct younger generations on the ‘truths’ of Southern history,” and they gave an extremely public platform on which the Lost Cause rested (Gallagher and Nolan, 105). The Lost Cause became a convenient theory that helped to bind the country together after the Civil War and the difficulties of Reconstruction because it allowed for the defeat of the Confederate Army, but maintained honor for them as well. Celebrations of the public memory of the war like reunions and reenactments enforced the image of the chivalry and honor of the South and its people that had been constructed during the war and spread after it.
Another manifestation of the Lost Cause and Confederate identity that has developed over the twentieth century is the Confederate and Southern heritage groups. These groups engage in “historical, memorial and educational activities” which promote the Lost Cause and maintain Southern identity (Gallagher and Nolan, 186). Groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy express views of the South in terms of the ideals and traditions of the South, excluding the outright racist views which were such a part of the foundation of the Confederacy. Many of these groups have come into conflict with various groups because of their inability to recognize the racism that is inherent in certain parts of the South’s history. These organizations have propagated the idea of Southerners as “fiercely independent as well as suspicious of… a strong central government,” and they also promote the Lost Cause account of the Civil War (Richardson, 244). These groups, still popular in today’s Southern society, maintain the Confederate identity that makes the South so distinct among other regions of the United States.
The Lost Cause and the Confederate identity that exists because of it continued to influence South throughout the twentieth century. An example of this was the fight in the 1990s over the Georgia state flag. In May 1992, the Governor of Georgia, Zell Miller, supported the removal of the Confederate flag from the state flag of Georgia (Richardson, 322). However, he faced a great amount of opposition to this move, which he saw as simple and necessary. Miller stated that the flag was “the last remaining vestige of days that are not only gone, but are also days that we have no right to be proud of” (Richardson, 322). The reaction from the public differed greatly from that of the Governor. While many Southerners, especially African Americans, agreed that the Confederate symbol represented a racist history, many other Southerners saw the symbol as a part of the history of the state that did not promote racism, but rather served as a reminder of the complex past of the region and the legacy left by history (Richardson, 322). This argument between those who view southern heritage as a code word for racism and those who see it as a complex yet rich history waged on for nine years. It was not until 2001 that a compromise flag, which showed the history of all of the state flags on the bottom, was adopted. Many Southerners have grown up hearing the legends of brave soldiers like Robert E. Lee and learning that states’ rights, not slavery, caused the Civil War, and therefore, there has never been a reason for many of them to be ashamed of their past. Clearly, the image of the Confederacy as it was in the 1860s as a moral and righteous group of states is not the way in which the Confederacy and its creation is viewed by historians today.
The construction of a Confederate identity during the Civil War was promoted by the theory of the Lost Cause. The theory allowed Southerners to cling to the notion of an honorable and traditional Southern attitude which morphed into a cultural “self-understanding” (Gallagher and Nolan, 186). The Lost Cause helped extend the constructed identity of Southern people which had been created by the media during the Civil War. This has created in the South a unique identity that continues to live on in contemporary times. The Southern identity that exists today recognizes an extreme respect for “ideals of nobility, valor and … Southern traditions” (Richardson, 243). This constructed identity is important in the South because of the outcome of the war. Contemporary proponents of the Southern identity wish to correct the “twentieth century arguments about Southern history [which] often focus on the negative aspects of slavery and the plantation economy of the antebellum period” (Richardson, 245). No other area of the nation was faced with the dilemma of justifying both their secession from the Union and their loss in the Civil War. It is this need for justification both during and after the war that helped to create both a distinct Confederate identity and the theory of the Lost Cause. Today, these ideas exist throughout the nation, and they have become both a part of the national story and a point of much contention throughout the country.
As the 150th anniversary of the Civil War began in 2010, 150 years after the election of Abraham Lincoln and the secession of Southern states that followed, the existence of the Confederate identity in the South once again became evident on a national scale. As events were planned and speeches made, the unique image of Southerners, both in the past and today, was revived. Many of the celebrations in Southern states that deal with the Civil War celebrate events of the Confederacy, and questions concerning these practices have arisen. The issue with the two sides lies in the legacy of, slavery and the need to insert that piece of the South’s history into the public discussion instead of disguising it as the Lost Cause has done for years. The question has become whether the Southerners who cherish their historically rooted image can embrace the ideas of the Confederacy and its legacy without embracing ideas of racism and white superiority.
In honor of the anniversary of the Civil War, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, or SCV, is attempting to gain the right to have license plates which bear the Confederate flag in three states – Florida, Kentucky and Texas (Latshaw). The SCV sees this as an attempt to refocus the views of Confederate soldiers. The plates, according to the SCV “promote a positive image of the Confederate States of America” and attempt to “divest ourselves of the negative associations” that people have with the Confederacy (Latshaw). These Southerners wish to celebrate the identity that they have acquired through the past two centuries’ reworking of the Civil War and the image of the Confederacy that has come out of it. However, groups such as the NAACP see these state-sanctioned license plates as endorsement of Confederate ideals. To those whose Southern heritage is not that of the white Southerner, the Confederate image is not one deserving of honor and celebration. For many, the “emblem is a hurtful symbol,” representative of the struggle by the Confederate States of America to carry on the institution of slavery.
Symbols are not the only way that Confederate heritage is displayed. One of the celebrations in the early weeks of the Civil War anniversary festivities was South Carolina’s Secession Gala held on December 20, 2010. This event was a celebration of the anniversary of the secession of South Carolina, the first state to secede from the Union, and the formation of the Confederate States of America. As previously stated, the Confederacy was aware in its founding that the immediate cause for the creation of the CSA was slavery (“The Veto”). However, in the remembrance of such events, that immediate cause is often ignored. Confederate heritage groups who often help run and support these memorial events often claim that “slavery was not the single nor primary cause” of the Civil War (“Civil War’s 150th…). People who oppose these events not only find them offensive, but also in some ways dangerous. They fear that remembering these events without the important aspect of slavery will “glorify the Old South and the Lost Cause” (“Civil War’s 150th…). Confederate heritage, which has become so engrained into the history and culture of the South, has become extremely difficult to celebrate as the country attempts to struggle with the ideas that connect the Confederacy, the American South and slavery.
The major problem facing the Confederate heritage and identity today is that it is, by name, inextricably linked to the Confederacy. However, this has only become an issue in the past twenty years. The Civil War differs from other wars in one major way. Usually the winner of a war is responsible for publishing its history, but “the Lost Cause really was the message about the Civil War well into the 20th century” (“Civil War’s 150th). Before the mid-twentieth century, the idea of the Confederacy was not one which fixated upon the issue of slavery. The reintroduction of slavery as the major cause of the Civil War in the past few decades has created the parallel between the Confederate spirit and slavery. To deal with this, many who wish to cling to their historic Southern identities have to espouse the Lost Cause theory. In order for the controversy of possessing a Confederate identity to die, the Confederacy must be reevaluated. During the next four years as the celebration of the Civil War continues, the Confederate identity will continue to meet with criticism. However, if this generation of the SCV and other similar groups could “tell stories that weren’t told 50 years ago,” the stories that the Lost Cause has buried, the Confederate image could be revamped (Civil War’s 150th). It is possible for Southerners to be proud of the contributions that individuals made in their war effort in today’s America; however, this is not possible without the recognition that the theory that developed out of the justifications of their ancestors possesses some serious flaws.
The South faced a need to differentiate itself from the rest of America at the dawn of the Civil War, and the image that was constructed by Confederate media lived on throughout the war era. In creating for itself a distinct identity that did not coincide with the image of the United States of America, the Confederates separated themselves not only by location and economy but by culture and belief system as well. These images were positive ones, and after the defeat of the Confederate States of America, this positive image was injected into the South’s account of the war. The Lost Cause theory was prominent in American public memory until the second half of the twentieth century. This image, which still exists today, is not fully based on the ideas of the Confederacy, but rather on the idealized identity that had been created as early as 1861. In ignoring the issue of slavery in the celebration of a Confederate identity, those who wish to identify with the past of the South alienate those who are aware of the role that the institution of slavery had in causing the Civil War. The direct relationship between the Confederate identity and the Lost Cause needs to be broken down in order for the identity to live on. While it is still possible for Southerners to celebrate their region’s role in the war, it is no longer acceptable to do so under the guise that the Confederacy was founded on issues other than slavery.
“Arrival of Troops from South Carolina.” Richmond Enquirer. 25 April 1861. Accessible Archives. May 6, 2011.
“Capt. Robert E. Lee” Richmond Enquirer. 25 April 1861. Accessible Archives. May 6, 2011.
“Civil War’s 150th Anniversary Stirs Debate on Race.” Associated Press. 10 Dec. 2010. AL.com. <http://blog.al.com/wire/2010/12/civil_wars_150th_anniversary_s.html>.
Gallagher, Gary W. and Allan T. Nolan. The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2000.
Latshaw, Greg. “Confederate Group Fights for State Specialty Plates.” 9 May 2011. USA Today. May 10, 2011.
“Progress.” Charleston Mercury. 10 Sept. 1863. Accessible Archives. May 6, 2011.
Martinez, J. Michael, Richardson, William D. and McNinch-Su, Ron eds. Confederate Symbols in the Contemporary South. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2000.
“The Military.” Richmond Enquirer. 25 April 1861. Accessible Archives. May 6, 2011.
“Sprit of the Army.” Charleston Mercury. 11 Feb. 1865. Accessible Archives. May 6, 2011.
“The Veto.” Charleston Mercury. 6 Mar. 1861. Accessible Archives. May 6, 2011.