Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Myth of the Lost Cause, 1865-1900 by Rollin G. Osterweis

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Historians have a tendency to explain Confederate commemoration as if it was generally accepted across the nation – as if former Confederates ultimately won the war with the pen. In 1973, historian Rollin G. Osterweis attempted to explain this phenomenon. Osterweis analyzed images, literary and otherwise, of moonlight and magnolias, the “obliging old Uncle Remus,” and, the “good, gray Confederate veteran.” He observes a persistent sense of “southerness” despite a humiliating Confederate defeat and several years of infuriating Reconstruction politics. White southerners, Osterweis suggests, used these images a part of their efforts to romanticize and pay tribute to the antebellum South. He further notes, former Confederates clung fervently to a new American nationalism and, ironically, the righteous, fiercely sectional account of the Confederate States of America “[was] continually belied by the conduct of Southerners themselves.” In this way, veterans involved in Civil War commemorations seemingly connected the New South – characterized by “progress,” industry, and steadfast devotion to reunion – to a benign past that, while virtuous, inevitably gave way to modern America. In short, proponents of the New South who had shouldered muskets for the Confederacy looked to a promising future. They carefully recalled a few scattered memories that helped southerners come to terms with their greatest failure, retain a sense of regional dignity, and embrace a reunited nation.

Osterweis concludes that extensive (and nationwide) admiration of southern generalship, southern courage, and southern chivalry reinforced the myth of the superiority of southern armies in “everything except numbers and material,” thus lending credence to the Lost Cause rhetoric of the day. Ultimately, through vastly popular publications such as the Battles and Leaders series, Osterweis claims, “Yankeedom took to its heart the Lost Cause.” Northerners might have admired certain benign aspects of southern culture and even respected their former enemy’s fighting spirit. However, the implication embedded in many treatments on the Lost Cause – that former Confederates “won the war with the pen” – obscures the anxieties articulated by former Rebels clearly perceiving animosity all around them; that they in fact still fought a war with words.

Although I believe that Osterweis misses this glaring problem in postwar commemoration, the book is well worth reading. It is an important piece of the reconciliation story - one that is currently under revision. Sometimes there are a few copies available on Amazon - click HERE to grab one before they are all gone!



1 comment:

  1. "The Lost Cause" became a popular interpretation of the Civil War in the former CSA immediately after Appomattox. Jeff Davis before the war: [Slavery] is a common law right to property in the service of man; its origin was Divine decree." Now JD after the war: "I worked night and day ... to prevent the war, but I could not. The North was mad and blind, would not let us govern ourselves, and so the war came." Note how before the war, the South was fighting to keep their "property," i.e. slaves. After the war it was all about states rights. This persists even today. In the made-for-cable movie "Gettysburg," a Union officer asks a Southern POW why he fights. The reply (heavy southern drawl) "I'm fightin' fer my rights." This "spin", from the movie "Birth of a Nation" to state's rights arguments thrown around today, allow those who fly the Stars & Bars over their capitols to not see that flag as a sign of treason & oppression, but as "heritage." To see a statue of General N.B. Forrest as a tribute to a great General and not the founder of a terrorist organization, as if the two can be separated somehow.