historian, author, film producer

Time to Drop Lost Cause Thinking about the Civil War

For an op-ed Commentary in today’s Roanoke Times on the Governor of Virginia’s “Confederate History Month” proclamation, see William G. Thomas’ Give up the Lost Cause.

Most recently, the old Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War has found its way into Governor of Virginia Robert McDonnell’s proclamation declaring April “Confederate History Month.” There is something about the mythic Confederate effort that make some in the current political debates look back with admiration–its tired claims of perseverance, crusading against long odds, defense of home, and resistance to overwhelming federal authority have been trotted out at key moments in the last 150 years.

McDonnell’s rather unbelievable omission of slavery from his first proclamation was an indication of just how resistant some people are to the idea that slavery had something to do with the Civil War. The Confederacy’s raison d’etre was to perpetuate slavery, both as a social system and as a “right.” The state’s rights its leaders asserted were to hold slaves and take them where one pleased, as well as to secede from the Union when it suited their interests. Confederate high officials, from Georgia’s Alexander Stephens to Texas’s Louis T. Wigfall, over and over again stated as much.

But slavery was even more at the center of the Confederacy than many whites are willing to admit or understand. Haley Barbour and others have tried to dismiss slavery as unimportant or irrelevant. They try to downplay its role in the Confederacy. But the slave economy was growing stronger in the 1850s not weaker. Slaveholding was expanding not contracting. Few thought it would die out or disappear on its own accord. Indeed, most whites in the South had come to believe that slavery was rational, Biblical, legal, civilized, and modern. In this way slavery was a prime driver of the Southern economy and society. And a large section of the North’s as well. Wealth, property, contracts, wills, estates, and law teetered on the muscle and shoulders of the enslaved black South. We seem to have forgotten the enormity and complexity of this social structure. And for too long many whites have denied the essential appropriation that slavery was–an vast transfer of wealth by the exploitation of labor. Slavery reached and touched everything and everyone in the South. It was the central political issue in secession. It’s time we remember just how important slavery was.

We now know, however, that secession was contradictory and complex, a separation of loyalties not just states. The most urban parts of the South, for example, and the most recognizably modern as well–rich in telegraphs, railroads, mixed economies, finance capital, banks, and advanced political systems–were also the first to secede and the most committed to slavery. Whereas, the most remote and perhaps disconnected places were reluctant Confederates at best. Secession divided whole states, especially Virginia, and the boundaries of “the South” or even of the Confederate States of America were never very clear and consistent. We know also that the new Confederate nation was an example of historical forces converging in unexpected ways: electoral and constitutional breakdown, rapid crystallization of uncertain national loyalties, and inherent contradictions  changing the shape and behavior of modern societies. It is no longer useful to think that the South stood for agrarianism and the North for industrial modernity or their associated respective values. Nor was the South was simply defending itself against Northern aggression. Both societies were too similar to make such views plausible, yet the old Lost Cause ideas persist.

It’s time to drop the Lost Cause.