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Five myths about the Lost Cause

The spot in the U.S. Capitol's crypt where a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee had been, now sits empty, after the monument was removed to be replaced with a statue of Black civil rights pioneer Barbara Johns, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Ken Cedeno/Reuters)

Some of the most enduring misconceptions around the Confederacy are part of a mythology, known as the Lost Cause, that developed after the Civil War. These ideas are generally understood as the means by which former Confederates came to terms with such a thoroughly crushing defeat. Over time, the narrative has expanded and been used to combat movements for racial justice, most recently Black Lives Matter and the calls for removal of Confederate monuments. Here are some of the myths at the heart of the Lost Cause ethos.

Myth No. 1

The Civil War was not fought over slavery.

One of the most enduring ideas holds that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights. Confederate veterans were among the first to make this claim about “the rights of the States against the encroachments of the Federal power,” as one war vet wrote, and to this day, the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) maintain this position.

Yet these original veterans and the SCV both engaged in a bit of historical amnesia, since documents about what led Southern states to secede are clear that the Civil War erupted over the issue of slavery. From Alexander Stephens’s 1861 “Cornerstone Speech” to state ordinances of secession, slavery was at the heart of their argument to leave the Union. Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, said that not only did slavery form the “cornerstone” of the foundation on which the new Confederate government was laid, but also that it was the “immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.” Mississippi’s declaration of secession, like those of other states, did not mince words: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.”

Myth No. 2

The South lost simply because the North had more resources.

In his speech at the unveiling of the Confederate monument in Augusta, Ga., in 1878, Charles Colcock Jones Jr. averred, “We were overborne by superior numbers and weightier munitions.” And in her “Catechism for Southern Children,” written in the early 20th century, Mrs. J.P. Allison of Concord, N.C., posed the question “If our cause was right why did we not succeed in gaining our independence?,” to which children were to respond, “The North overpowered us at last, with larger numbers.”

But the South’s military defeat was also driven by social and class divisions, as well as poor morale. As the war dragged on and losses stacked up, there were desertions and the emancipation of enslaved people — the primary source of labor supplying Confederate armies. Devotees of the Lost Cause tend to disregard these other factors.

Myth No. 3

Robert E. Lee abhorred slavery.

Some Americans point to the Confederacy’s most heralded military leader, Gen. Robert E. Lee, as an opponent of slavery. Conservative journalist Stephen Moore, once a Trump nominee to serve on the Federal Reserve Board, claimed that “Robert E. Lee hated slavery.” As recently as December, in response to the removal of Lee’s likeness from Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol, Twitter users perpetuated the myth, including one who tweeted: “Lee abhorred slavery. . . . he also taught the slaves he inherited to read, which was illegal.”

In reality, Lee benefited from the institution of slavery through his marriage into one of the wealthiest slaveholding families in Virginia. He was also known to be a cruel master who not only beat people he owned but, like other enslavers, treated them as property — selling them and separating families. Even in the last year of the war, 1865, Lee wrote that “the relation of master and slave . . . is the best that can exist between the white & black races.” Such words and actions offer a vivid contrast to another myth, which asserts that Lee was a noble and kindly gentleman.

Myth No. 4

Confederate monuments only recently became controversial.

In the aftermath of the deadly violence in Charlottesville in 2017, when white nationalists descended on the city under the pretense of protesting the removal of a Lee statue, journalists spilled a lot of ink on what these monuments represented. They wondered why Americans “suddenly” cared about them or asked, as one did, “Why are they being targeted now?,” suggesting that this event, and the Charleston church massacre of 2015, marked the beginning of the controversy across the South.

The truth is that they have long been controversial and despised by Black Southerners, for whom these statues symbolized their second-class citizenship. In 1932, for example, when the leading African American newspaper, the Chicago Defender, asked its readers about their support for a federal law that would abolish Confederate monuments, the collective response was a resounding “yes.” As a reader from Nebraska wrote, “If those monuments weren’t standing, the white South wouldn’t be so encouraged to practice hate and discrimination against our people.” During the Jim Crow era, it was difficult for African Americans to publicly protest the monuments as they have in the past few years, out of fear for their lives, but they have long protested statues located in their communities, especially after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Myth No. 5

Removing a Confederate monument is erasing history.

After the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, President Trump said removing the Confederate monument to Lee, or any such statue, was “changing history.” And as Texans began to reexamine their state’s memorial landscape, Sen. Ted Cruz (R) weighed in to suggest that it was a bad idea to “go through and simply try to erase from history prior chapters, even if they were wrong.”

Removing a Confederate monument, of course, does not erase history. These statues, which have represented only one point of view (a revisionist narrative of the Confederacy) throughout their existence, have never taught the first history lesson, although they have been used to reemphasize the racial status quo. The vast majority are, simply put, artifacts of the Jim Crow era, when most of them were built. Their history, like that of the “Whites only” signs of segregation, has not been lost. We will always know the history of Confederate monuments through photographs, postcards, dedication speeches and, most important, books written by historians.

Twitter: @sassyprof

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