The Illusion of “The Lost Cause”

By Matt Slattery
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in The Charger in March 2002. Its author, Matt Slattery, wrote it shortly before his death in December 2001. Even at 90 years of age Matt was still looking at new ideas about his and our favorite hobby, the American Civil War. Matt will be missed.

In 1865, the Civil War ended and the North had won. Had the South lost? Their generals had to admit it. Their armies were broken, their cities demolished, their railroads a wreck. Was all this acceptable to the Confederates? They ignored it (as best they could) by not writing about it, not speaking about it. Instead, they trumpeted The Lost Cause.

Of the thousands of books written by southerners to the end of the 19th Century, only one — a lone one— dealt with the war factually; that was Douglas Southall Freeman’s four-volume R.E. Lee: A Biography. A scattering of others (including Jefferson Davis’) were self-serving scripts of the losing generals. What is significant is that all but a handful of books were fiction.

Veterans’ organizations and women’s adjuncts numbered their members in the hundreds of thousands and they held boisterous meetings. Individually they had no choice but to see around them what their politicians and slave owners had let them into. Those who wrote and spoke of the battles had a single subject — “IF.”

  • IF, Longstreet had sent his troops earlier up the hill at Gettysburg,

  • IF, Joe Johnson had taken his stand north of Atlanta,

  • IF, Stonewall Jackson had not galloped ahead of his troops at Chancellorsville.
The soon-to-be-canonized Robert E. Lee

There were a thousand “IF’s.” But even these were in a distinct minority against the volumes on moonlight and magnolias. It was not the war which had been lost, it was the illusion of a way of life which had never really existed.

And an overwhelming personal drama transpired — the various commanding generals, although respected, were pushed into the background while a single one was brought forward — Robert E. Lee. At first it was respectful but it rapidly swelled to adoration.

They had raised him to sainthood and the surprising thing was that it was not for his achievements on the battlefield but for his personal character, his kindness, his modesty. On the other hand, among the leaders most vilified was General James Longstreet — not for “losing” Gettysburg but because he became a Republican and a close friend of now-President U.S. Grant.

Following World War I, there came a renaissance in southern literature. These were skilled and nationally acknowledged writers but they only made a fuller scale presentation of the Lost Cause, the paradoxes rooted in the southern mind, the perception that they were a counterculture, an alternate to the American. Aged and gentle ladies of the United Daughters joined with diehard racists and canny politicians to create from imagination a land that never was. By 1960, 7,000,000 copies of Gone With The Wind evidenced the national acceptance of the Grand Old South and the plantation mythology.

Since the Second World War, there has been a distinct erosion of the Lost Cause. The influx of industry, television and the interstate highway has broken down the vestiges of regionalization and we have black politicians in state offices and black athletic stars in the southern colleges.

Confederate flag license plate

But The Lost Cause has not died. There are still the Confederate emblems on automobiles. It is their way of carrying on the fiction, though their owners have never read about the Civil War nor have they any concept of the Confederacy. It does tend to show that the South retains a folk culture heavily endowed with memory and legend and this is the essence of The Lost Cause.