The Lost Cause Argument

By Deane Barker

This is a view of history that attempts to paint the Confederacy and its role in the American Civil War in the best possible light. It emerged sometime after the war, when southerners were trying to recover from the damage of the war and rationalize why it was fought.

The “lost cause” means that the South was fighting for a just cause and (1) they lost that fight, and (2) the memory of this (supposedly true) cause has been lost.

These main points exist in the Lost Cause argument:

  • The Civil War wasn’t about slavery, it was about the rights of states against the federal government. So, it wasn’t about actually keeping slavery, but about the states’ right to keep slavery. From this perspective, the southern states were standing up to an oppressive government.

  • Slavery wasn’t as bad as it’s commonly portrayed. Slaves were happy, and slave owners were benevolent and treated them well.

  • The Confederacy was defeated simply by numbers; they fought valiantly and honorably, but the Union force was overwhelming. In some cases, the Confederacy is portrayed in quasi-religious terms, as a pious Christian army defeated by a more secular enemy.

The first point can be tricky, because the war was technically fought to prevent the federal government from removing a right of the states – that being the right to keep slaves. But one has to ask: would the South have gone to war over any other right the federal government tried to take away? It’s easy to hide behind an argument about states’ rights in order to blur the larger point that slavery was the proverbial “line in the sand” the South was willing to go to war over.

The second point seems to be patently false.

There’s some truth to the third point. The Confederacy was vastly outnumbered by the Union. When the war started, the northern states had a combined population of 22 million, compared to the southern states population of 5 million (plus 4 million slaves).

The Lost Cause argument has manifested itself in many ways:

  • Formal arguments in books and editorials (for example: The South was Right! published in 1991 with a new edition in 2020)
  • Heritage associations to celebrate confederate soldiers (for example: The United Daughters of the Confederacy)
  • Monuments to confederate generals (see below for a timeline)
  • The perpetuation and celebration of the confederate flag
  • Various movies and other popular entertainment (the 1939 film Gone With the Wind and the 2003 film Gods and Generals are commonly cited as a sympathetic portrayals of the Confederacy)
  • The usage of alternate names for the war to downplay of secession or betrayal (for example: “The War Between the States” or “The War of Northern Aggression”)

The Lost Cause argument started to emerge immediately after the war ended, as the South tried to rationalize the war and soften the blow of their defeat. However, many of these institutions came long after the Civil War had ended. In some cases, they were a form of protest to increasing civil rights and the growing equality of Blacks.

(For example, most Civil War monuments were erected in the early 1900s – a half century after the war ended – then there was another spike during the Civil Rights movement. Here’s a graphic from AFP News.)

One way to look at the Lost Cause argument is as a collective defense or coping mechanism.

Why I Looked It Up

I’ve used the term before, but somewhat loosely. I just wanted to sharpen my understanding of it and make sure I wasn’t missing anything.

Postscript

Added on

From a Raw Story article:

…an unidentified teacher at the [Florida] Middle School is under investigation for showing students a video that gushes about the “valiant, brave fight and the countless sacrifices by our men and women during that known as the Civil War.”

What’s more, the video rebrands the American Civil War as “the War To Prevent Southern Independence,” which is a decidedly pro-Confederacy framing for a conflict that centered on Southern states’ attempts to preserve the practice of slavery.

Postscript

Added on

I asked the English Stack Exchange what we should call arguments like this one and Trump’s claim that the 2020 election was fraudulent. Some answers:

Postscript

Added on

I was in White Bear Lake, Minnesota and I found a Civil War monument specifically dedicated to Union soldiers. It was erected in 1913.

Postscript

Added on

T.S. Eliot wrote this in 1927.

If we take the widest and wisest view of a Cause, there is no such thing as a Lost Cause because there is no such thing as a Gained Cause. We fight for lost causes because we know that our defeat and dismay may be the preface to our successors’ victory, though that victory itself will be temporary; we fight rather to keep something alive than in the expectation that anything will triumph.

His point seemed to be that a “lost cause” is worth fighting for because (1) it might lead to a victory later, and (2) it proves a point, even in the loss.

This is item #404 in a sequence of 771 items.

You can use your left/right arrow keys to navigate