Greetings Cosmic Americans!
Historians of Civil War memory write often of the phrase “Lost Cause,” so much so that it has become an agreed upon fact – that southerners commemorating the war understood – or the very least, spoke of the conflict as a war lost from the beginning…a noble pursuit against insurmountable odds that illuminated the honor of the southron people, fighting for what they “thought” was right. Fair enough: many former Rebels couched their commemorative rhetoric in exactly these terms. But was this a consensus among ex-Confederates? Perhaps not. Evidence suggests that within the broader context of the commemorative ethos, many former Rebels disputed this phrase – in fact denounced it. Below is an excerpt from my soon (hopefully) to be released book on the subject of Civil War commemoration and reconciliation. It offers a number of challenges to the Lost Cause argument from prominent former Rebels, not all of whom can simply be written off as unreconstructed anachronisms:
The idea that Confederates fought for principles “they knew to be right” rather that principles they “thought” right (or just) pervades the commemorative literature of the era and shows how the words of men such as [George L.] Christian reflect a broader sentiment among Confederate veterans. Statements concerning the rightness of Confederate principles mirror arguments made shortly after the close of war and follow a familiar pattern in to the twentieth century. As one Confederate veteran suggested in 1867, no one would ever “question the correctness of the principles we have laid down.”
John Herbert Claiborne, a former surgeon with the Army of Northern Virginia and author of several books and articles on the Civil War, took such a stance and professed before a gathering of veterans early in the 1890s. “Away the maudlin confession that we fought for what we thought was right! We fought for what we knew was right,” Claiborne argued, “We yielded, not convinced, but conquered.” Claiborne, a prominent postwar politician who held multiple honorary degrees and served on numerous medical boards, wrote often of the war. Of particular interest was his effort to bolster the Confederate fight in print: a comprehensive collection of reminiscences in which Claiborne lambasted the northern fighting man.
While former Confederates talked themselves hoarse telling and retelling the stories associated with the somewhat less vitriolic Lost Cause rhetoric, they also resurrected Confederate principles that they insisted had not perished in 1865. John S. Beard, for example, agreed in typical form with many ex-Confederates arguing, “that the Southern armies really exhausted themselves gaining victories over the Northern armies. I say all of this is matter of such notorious history that it cannot be denied.” The term “lost” however, rankled some who had followed their states out of the Union. Well into the twentieth century, former Confederates gathered in town squares, meeting halls, and other public places not only to “grasp the fraternal hand [and] revive our olden friendships,” but to “reassert the justice of the cause which was never lost, only delayed for a time, that future wisdom and patriotism may lay deeper and stronger a willing union of the states that shall be perpetual.”
In an undated Memorial Day address, published in 1906 with a collection of speeches and other writings paying tribute to Confederate women, Alabaman John Levi Underwood fleshed out the “cause not lost” theme succinctly. Underwood was an ordained Presbyterian minister who had enlisted as a private in the 20th Alabama in 1861 and eventually became the regiment’s chaplain. As a veteran, Underwood focused on highlighting Confederate resonance in the postwar United States. “People are prone to allude to all Lee fought for as a ‘Lost Cause,’” he stated, yet “Lee has accomplished what he fought for.” Underwood clearly stood behind the United States, rejoicing that echoes of the Confederacy remained. “Who would dare to-day to wipe out a State’s individuality?” he asked, “and do we not find to-day, instead of a centralized power in Congress adjudicating things pertaining to the States, the States themselves settling these matters?”
Bradley T. Johnson, an exceedingly vocal former Rebel, had made such claims at least since the 1870s. “I do not believe that we fought in any ‘lost cause,’” he told the members of the Association of Confederate Soldiers and Sailors of Maryland in June 1874 to great applause, “I denounce the phrase as unworthy of our people and their position. Our cause was that of every lover of liberty, in all time, the world over, the right of a people to govern themselves, and it never has been, never can be ‘lost.’” Later in the century, he assured his followers that all joined, or would soon join former Confederates in celebration of a cause above reproach. “There can never be two rights and two wrongs,” he argued late in the 1890s, “this is so of every question of morals and of conduct.” But for anyone confused regarding the righteousness and soundness of the Confederate cause, he quickly pointed out, “The world is surely coming to the conclusion that the cause of the Confederacy was right.” All “true men and women…will never believe that ‘we thought we were right.’ They will know that we were right, immortally right and that the conqueror was wrong, eternally wrong.”
Elaborating further, Robert E. Lee. Jr., reminded the veterans gathered for a reunion in Richmond in 1907 of what they must certainly have accepted as fact. “Let us not be content with the lukewarm and, if you please, molly-coddling expression that the Confederate soldier fought for what he believed to be right. If precedent is a guide, if argument has any convincing force, if approving consciences any solace, if subsequent approbation by those who once disagreed with him any justification, if duty magnificently performed any indication, then we can assert without fear of any successful contradiction that the Confederate soldier fought and died for what he knew to be right.”
I expect that many will disagree – but the above testimony makes one wonder if those who “knew” their cause was right thought that their cause was indeed lost; that perhaps there was fight left in the South beyond the battlefield, whether political, economical, or social. I welcome any and all comments.