Quotulatiousness

August 24, 2017

Teaching history in the South – the “Lost Cause” school of historiography

Filed under: Education, History, Politics, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 06:00

Warren Meyer gives some background on how most people in the Southern US were taught the history of the “War Between the States”:

The Lost Cause School: I want to provide some help for those not from the South to understand the southern side of the statue thing. In particular, how can good people who believe themselves not to be racist support these statues? You have to recognize that most folks of my generation in the South were raised on the lost cause school of Civil War historiography. I went to one of the great private high schools in the South and realized later I had been steeped in Lost Cause. All the public schools taught it. Here is the Wikipedia summary:

    The Lost Cause of the Confederacy, or simply Lost Cause, is a set of revisionist beliefs that describes the Confederate cause as a heroic one against great odds despite its defeat. The beliefs endorse the virtues of the antebellum South, viewing the American Civil War as an honorable struggle for the Southern way of life, while minimizing or denying the central role of slavery. While it was not taught in the North, aspects of it did win acceptance there and helped the process of reunifying American whites.

    The Lost Cause belief system synthesized numerous ideas into a coherent package. Lost Cause supporters argue that slavery was not the main cause of the Civil War, and claim that few scholars saw it as such before the 1950s. In order to reach this conclusion, they often deny or minimize the writings and speeches of Confederate leaders of the time in favor of later-written revisionist documents. Supporters often stressed the idea of secession as a defense against a Northern threat to their way of life and say that threat violated the states’ rights guaranteed by the Union. They believed any state had the right to secede, a point strongly denied by the North. The Lost Cause portrayed the South as more profoundly Christian than the greedy North. It portrayed the slavery system as more benevolent than cruel, emphasizing that it taught Christianity and civilization. In explaining Confederate defeat, the Lost Cause said the main factor was not qualitative inferiority in leadership or fighting ability but the massive quantitative superiority of the Yankee industrial machine.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia (via Wikimedia)

Obviously this was promoted by the white supremacists after the war, but in the 20th century many well-meaning people in the South who are not racist and by no means want to see a return of slavery or Jim Crow still retain elements of this story, particularly the vision of the Confederacy as a scrappy underdog. But everything in these two paragraphs including the downplaying of slavery in the causes of the Civil War was being taught when I grew up. It wasn’t until a civil war course in college (from James McPherson no less, boy was I a lucky dog there) that I read source material from the time and was deprogrammed.

The comparisons of the current statue removal to Protestant reformation iconoclasm seem particularly apt to me. You see, growing up in the South, Confederate generals were our saints. And the word “generals” is important. No one I knew growing up would think to revere, say, Jefferson Davis. Only the hard-core white supremacists revered Jefferson Davis. Real lost cause non-racist southerners revered Robert E. Lee. He was our Jesus (see: Dukes of Hazard). Every town in the south still has a Robert E Lee High School. Had I not gone to private school, I would have gone to Houston’s Lee High (I had a friend who went to college at Lehigh in New Jersey. Whenever he told folks in the South he went there, they would inevitably answer “yes, but where did you go to college.”) So Lee was by far and away at the top of the pantheon. Then you had folks like Stonewall Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart who were probably our Peter and Paul. Then all the rest of the generals trailing off through the equivalents of St. Bartholomew or whoever. We even had a Judas, General James Longstreet, who for a variety of reasons was reviled by the Lost Cause school and was blamed for many of Lee’s, and the South’s, losses.

If you want to see the Southern generals the way much of the South sees them, watch the movie Gettysburg, which I like quite a bit (based on the book Killer Angels, I believe, also a good read). The Southern Generals are good, talented men trying to make the best of a losing cause. Slavery is, in this movie, irrelevant to them. They are fighting for their beloved homes in the South, not for slavery. The movie even has Longstreet saying something like “we should have freed the slaves and then fired on Fort Sumter.”

The movie Gettysburg is excellent, but if you don’t know much about the actual battle, you might end up thinking the entire conflict revolved around the 20th Maine…

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