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How the Lost Cause was won

Posted by Thomas Nephew on May 8th, 2010

Race and Reunion, David Blight, 2001
Harvard University Press
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With the end of April came also the end, for this year at least, of “Confederate History Month,” unfortunately resuscitated by Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell after a long dormancy under the previous two governors.  Amidst an outcry that apparently surprised the Regent University law graduate, McDonnell hastily reworded his proclamation with a grudging nod to the impropriety of slavery and the possible existence of other points of view on the matter of a rebellion leading to the country’s bloodiest war.

One might reasonably ask why there are no  “Union History Month” or “Victory over Treason and Slavery” celebrations — and that, more or less, is what David Blight did in his book “Race and Reunion,” published in 2001.  Covering the period from the Emancipation Proclamation to the 50th anniversary of Gettysburg — and the release of the notorious film “Birth of a Nation” — it’s a fascinating read.  It’s also  — still, going on ten years later — a useful, jolting reminder of just what was lost as remembering the Civil War became more about rehashing every last engagement, and about getting over it, past it, and around it, than about reflecting why it happened — let alone reflecting on the unfinished business of the human and civil rights of black Americans.


Click above to order this
book or others by Blight.

Reconciliation — on southern terms
Blight’s research led him to soldiers’ remembrances in periodicals of the time such as Century and Harper’s; to the annals and publications of the Southern Historical Society and the Confederate Veteran, and to the schedules and membership rolls of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.  But he also paid attention to the writings and speeches of Frederick Douglass and W.E.B DuBois, the short stories of Ambrose Bierce, and the novels of the unjustly forgotten Albert Tourgee (“only fools forget the causes of war”) or Nelson De Forest — as well as the celebration of Klan terror by authors like Thomas Dixon, Jr, or the perhaps more insidious romanticization of the antebellum South by authors like Thomas Nelson Page or Joel Chandler Harris (“Uncle Remus”).

The book tells stories you’ve still almost certainly never heard before: the first Memorial  Day (that is, “Decoration” Day) — held by black Charlestonians to honor and restore the graveyard of Union prisoners of war on the site of the city’s “Race Course,” now Hampton Park; the unveiling of Richmond memorials to Robert E. Lee in 1896, and to Stonewall Jackson in 1875; the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition of 1895, when Booker T. Washington gave his “Atlanta Compromise” speech — widely acclaimed at the time, but half wishful thinking, half sadly understandable surrender; the fiftieth anniversary of Gettysburg, but with blacks in attendance only as blanket distributors and latrine cleaners.*  The Washington Post — apparently already a runaway gusher of idiotic political commentary –  marked that occasion by noting that slavery and secession were “no longer discussed argumentatively,” but were “disposed of for all time“; moreover, slavery was something for which “no particular part of the people was responsible unless, indeed, the burden of responsibility should be shouldered by the North for its introduction” (emphasis added by Blight.)

What had happened by 1913 was a “Lost Cause” regional movement as potent, committed, and persistent as the abolition movement had been.  What’s more, it arguably had a greater reach (at least within the U.S.), in that ex-Confederates could and did safely peddle their redefinition — for that’s what it was — of the causes and legacy of the Civil War throughout the country, for good money and to plentiful applause.

The first mention of “The Lost Cause” appears to be a book of that title by one Edward Pollard published in 1866, followed by “The Lost Cause Regained” in 1868.  In the former, Pollard announced a “war of ideas”; in the latter, Blight writes,

…he counseled reconciliation with conservative Northerners on Southern terms.  Those terms coalesced in a central idea.  “To the extent of securing the supremacy of the white man,” wrote Pollard, “and the traditional liberties of the country … she [the South]  really triumphs in the true cause of the war.” (p 260).

Jefferson Davis probably generated the greatest sheer tonnage of Lost Cause argumentation in his 1200 page “Rise and Fall of the Confederate States.”  Blight notes that Davis added or echoed other parts of Lost Cause ideology: his claim that the South was simply trying to protect its rights against the “unlimited, despotic power” of the federal government; what Blight calls the “almost omnipresent” feature of Lost Cause rhetoric that (in Davis’ words), “slavery was in no wise the cause of the conflict, but only an incident.” Far from being an evil, it was a positive good for blacks who “increased from a few unprofitable savages to millions of efficient Christian laborers.” Davis, Blight writes, continued:

Their servile instincts rendered them contented with their lot, and their patient toil blessed the land of their abode with unmeasured riches.  Their strong local and personal attachment secured faithful service… Never was there happier dependence of labor and capital on each other. The tempter came, like the serpent of Eden, and decoyed them with the magic word of “freedom” … He put arms in their hands, and trained their humble but emotional natures to deeds of violence and bloodshed, and sent them out to devastate their benefactors.

Faithful service… happy dependence… strong attachment.  Southerners like Davis were strongly motivated to misrepresent slavery as the good old days of race relations; it obviously helped destigmatize the “peculiar institution,” but it also helped channel the terms of reconciliation Pollard had written about: could and should such an allegedly inferior race really be given all the keys to citizenship and equality?  Here strongly motivated Southern arguments might often win the day among relatively unmotivated Northern audiences: what good was Reconstruction really — that wearying occupation of a hostile territory, on behalf of black people many in the audience didn’t know, or particularly like, or think particularly highly of?

“Everyone was right, no one was wrong”
Blight has done an incredible service by compiling and publishing this close re-examination of the 1863-1913 period.  This is obviously not a happy tale, it’s a profoundly disappointing, even tragic one, and reading it all but turns one’s own sense of pride or joy (however vicarious and unearned) about Appomattox or the Emancipation Proclamation into ashes in one’s mouth.

Blight — a fair, thorough, and scrupulous historian and writer — leaves little doubt what his feelings are in passages like this one, describing the events of Gettysburg’s 50th anniversary:

The veterans, as well as the gazing crowds, had come to commemorate a glorious fight; and in the end, everyone was right, no one was wrong, and something so transforming as the Civil War had been rendered a mutual victory of the Blue and the Gray by what Virginia governor Mann called the “splendid movement of reconciliation.” [...]  Wilson’s “righteous peace” was far more the theme than Lincoln’s “rebirth of freedom.”  At this remarkable moment when Americans looked backward with deepening nostalgia and ahead with modern excitement and fear, Jim Crow, only half-hidden, stalked the dirt paths of the veterans’ tent city at Gettysburg.  He delivered supplies, cleaned the latrines, and may even have played the tunes at the nation’s feast of national memory.  Jim Crow stalked the streets and backroads of the larger nation as well, and he had recently arrived with a new mandate in the bureaucracies of the federal government. The Civil War had become the nation’s inheritance of glory, Reconstruction the legacy of folly, and the race problem a matter of efficient schemes of segregation. (pp. 367-368)

The “last full measure of devotion” — for something as threadbare as this?  Did it have to be this way?

For want of a Lincoln
For one thing, how contingent was all or at least much of this history on a single, tragic event?  I asked Blight this myself once, at a reading of the book at Politics and Prose in nearby DC.  It’s been a long time, but as I recall I asked something along the lines of “how much did all of this depend on Booth’s successful assassination of Lincoln?  Might Reconstruction not have been more successful with one of our greatest presidents at the helm at its outset than with one of our most inept?”

Blight said he didn’t think so; my recollection is that he didn’t elaborate much on that judgment — to one audience member, after one book reading event among many.  However, Blight does indirectly discuss this a bit more in one of his 2008 “The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877” lectures at Yale.**

via Academic Earth; transcript.  David W. Blight, The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877
(Yale University: Open Yale Courses), http://oyc.yale.edu (Accessed April 2, 2009).
License: Open Yale Courses Terms of Use.

Lincoln giving Second Inaugural Address, 1865***

There he says Lincoln’s aims were to do Reconstruction “as fast as possible, as lenient as possible, and as much as possible under presidential authority rather than Congress’s.” As he goes on to point out, some of this squares pretty well with the famous Second Inaugural Address“with charity towards all, with malice towards none.” Blight naturally also mentions the “10 percent plan” whereby States would be readmitted to the Union — on Lincoln’s war time authority — for the relatively low price of 10 percent of white voters taking a loyalty oath, and drawing up a State constitution accepting emancipation.

While this all sounds like Lincoln was focused on reunion at the expense of newly freed black Americans, leniency and speed also served the goal of preventing guerrilla warfare and turning occupied territories back into States.  And Blight reminds readers of Lincoln’s plea to Douglass in mid-1864 to organize the removal of as many newly freed black Americans as possible to the safety of Union lines, should Lincoln lose the fall election, as he thought he might.

If Lincoln did not plan to forsake black Americans even in defeat, it’s hard to believe someone who declared “all men are created equal” and spoke of “a new birth of freedom” would have forsaken them after victory as much as Johnson did.  I think — of course, maybe I just wish — that faced with the same post war forces Johnson failed to master, Lincoln would have adjusted his thinking to find ways to protect newly enfranchised black American citizens both in deed and in word — to not just care for him who had borne the battle, his widow and his orphan, but also those whom that battle had freed.  Like Douglass, he would have continued to insist that the Civil War was not just a contest of strength, but a contest of ideas — a victory he had won, and one he did not propose to throw away.

But Lincoln was denied that chance.

How the Lost Cause Won
White Southerners were the primary active, restless agents of Reconstruction’s failure.  Black Americans — whether pre-war freedmen or post-war veterans — were not helpless bystanders to the failure of the Reconstruction, but no matter how motivated they were, they were clearly too politically weak to prevent it.

Any hope of pushing America beyond mere emancipation and on to full equality and suffrage rested on the shoulders of those white Americans who had sacrificed the most to gain victory: Union soldiers — particularly those who were already pro-emancipation.  By 1864,  greater proportions of Union soldiers than civilians voted for Lincoln.  Finishing the job meant destroying the power of the South; that meant ending Southern forced labor.   And while that could and did just mean emancipation only to some white soldiers, the valor of black soldiers — and atrocities against them — educated at least some Union soldiers in ways not available to civilians.

But set against that was the experience of death and carnage on a scale not seen before or, arguably, since.  The thousands upon thousands of dead are well remembered; but the living paid a price as well.  A Northern soldier describes a scene from just one battle, Spotsylvania Court House:

The most terrible sight I ever saw was the Rebel side of the breast work we fought over the other day.  There was one point on a ridge where the storm of bullets never ceased for 24 hours and the dead were piled in heaps upon heaps and the wounded men were intermixed with them, held fast by their dead companions who fell upon them contnually adding to the ghastly pile… When I looked over in the morning there was one Rebel sat up praying at the top of his voice and others were gibbering in insanity others were groaning and whining at the greatest rate… it is a terrible terrible business to make the best of it.


The Veteran in a New Field, Winslow Homer (1865).
Metropolitan Museum of Art

There’s no reason to think such instances of complete shell shock didn’t affect Northern soldiers too; that what we now call post traumatic stress syndrome didn’t encompass many more as well; that the profoundest wish of many a soldier would be to please God never ever think about what he had seen and done again.

In her fine book “This Republic of Suffering,” Drew Gilpin Faust points out that the ratio of fighting soldiers per acre of battlefield was never higher than the Civil War; to be a veteran of battles like Gettysburg or Chickamauga was almost certainly to have witnessed, meted out, and suffered carnage unlike those of any other American war, perhaps any other war in history.  Like Winslow Homer’s soldier in “The Veteran in a New Field,” back home and harvesting wheat instead of death, many veterans may have turned away from reflecting on the whys and wherefores of the war to repair their own lives and spirits.  Blight notes that one historian, Gerald Linderman, actually speaks of Civil War veterans “hibernation” period lasting from 1865 to 1880, followed by a “revival” in active remembrance of the war.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes might exemplify the form that remembrance took.   Blight: “Wounded at Antietam, horrified by what he called “an infamous butchery at the battle of Fredericksburg in 1862, and worried for his own sanity during his experiences of the Wilderness campaign in 1864, Holmes had resigned his commission before the war ended.” By 1895 Holmes would celebrate his onetime enemies as men of valor – but of his own and that of his comrades he would say this:

I do not know what is true.  I do not know the meaning of the universe.  But in the midst of doubt, in the collapse of creeds, there is one thing I do not doubt, that no man who lives in the same world with most of us can doubt, and that is that the faith is true and adorable which leads a soldier to throw away his life in obedience to a blindly accepted duty, in a cause which he little understands, in a plan of campaign of which he does not see the use.

Union veterans, that is — veterans who had finished the job assigned to them and won a war.  For Confederate veterans, the need to believe the fight had been worth fighting and the cause (redefined to white supremacy) worth defending  was paramount.

Taken together, determined proponents of racial justice like Frederick Douglass or Thaddeus Stevens certainly had to do their best without the leader (Lincoln) and had to without the purposeful, political activity of many of those white men (Union veterans) who had been the main agents of the abolition of slavery and the defeat of the Confederacy.

Emancipationists turned equal rights proponents had to pursue the cause in a North that even after the victories of Atlanta and the Shenandoah Valley still only gave Lincoln 55 percent of the vote, compared to 78 percent of the soldier vote. Those soldiers, it seems reasonable to suppose, would have followed Lincoln in peace as they had in war.  To employ a metaphor suitable to the times, a powerful ironclad steamship had lost its captain, and then its power; not surprisingly, it then lost its way. 

Great accomplishments — the 14th and 15th amendments* — lay ahead at the end of the Civil War, but they also seemed to expend the remaining anti-slavery, pro-equality political capital and energy available.  As time would show, they could be circumvented and mooted by Jim Crow laws, the terrorism of lynchings and pogroms, and the accretion of legal rulings vitiating their original intent.  Frederick Douglass’s prophecy in war time — “We are not to be saved by the captain, but by the crew” was good enough during war time, and while that captain lived.  By 1875, Douglass would be asking, “If war among the whites brought peace and liberty to blacks, what will peace among the whites bring?” One suspects he knew it was a rhetorical question. There would be almost nothing left over to address the needs for help and the needs for safety of a black population increasingly at the “mercy” of surrounding whites in the South.

New Lost Causes not lost


US stamp, issued 1970.

“Race and Reunion” is a must read for anyone who wants to go beyond Civil War triumphalism and sentimentality, and begin to understand how Reconstruction could fail so badly that Jim Crow laws and lynchings ruled the South for decades upon decades thereafter — and how a treasonous rebellion of slaveholders was insistently, persistently transmuted into mainstream nostalgia for much of the rest of the country …black Americans excepted.

But the subject isn’t “just” of historical interest. Lost Causers look familiar to me: denial that their cause was unjust; denial that they’d lost; resorts to violence and threats of violence; rewriting history and textbooks to echo their claims; grievances about lost, unearned entitlements nursed for year after year.

In a sense, the Civil War’s aftermath still isn’t over.  The veneration of the Lost Cause of southern independence and the simultaneous belittlement of slavery live on directly, but these movements also look like templates for ones like the Tea Party or birthers — people who dress up their racial and political resentments in high-flown “constitutional,” “states rights,” or economic libertarian arguments.  To be sure, it’s not just a Southern phenomenon any more, but I think it’s useful to see where the disease began, and how it first flourished.

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* Blight points out in the lecture series that Ken Burns pulls a fast one in this respect: in “The Civil War” TV documentary, Burns shows black veterans alongside white ones at a Gettysburg reunion — but leaves the strong impression it’s at the major 1913 reunion, when it was actually at the (obviously more sparsely attended) 1938 one.
** The relevant segment (discussion of Lincoln’s wartime Reconstruction plans) begins around 42:00 — though you’d miss Blight’s account of the great, great 1865 letter from ex-slave Jourdon Anderson to his former master, starting at around 35:00.
*** For the the remarkable story of the discovery of this photograph, read NPR’s Kitty Eisele.

EDIT, 5/10: “and how a treasonous” line added; Stone Mountain stamp added.
* EDIT, 5/14: The 13th Amendment was passed by the House in January, 1865, though its adoption and proclamation came at the end of the year.

SOME OTHER REVIEWS AND DISCUSSIONS OF “RACE AND REUNION”: Ted Ownby (U.Miss), Virginia Magazine of History and Biography Vol 109. No. 3, Virginia Historical Society; Allen B. Ballard (SUNY-Albany), African American Review, Spring 2002 (via bNet); James Percoco, Civil War News; Joan Waugh (UCLA), H-CivWar; Eric Foner, New York Times Book Review.  Other reviews are excerpted at the Harvard University Press web site for the book.

RELATED: Ta-Nehisi Coates blog series (The Atlantic) on “Confederate History Month.” — The Harvard University Press site also provides a Google search link of the book that appears to yield complete index results for the hardback book even if some pages are displayed as “not available.”

6 Responses to “How the Lost Cause was won”

  1. Nell Says:

    Once again, as so often, I’m deeply grateful for your post. The open return of Lost Cause-ism in Virginia feels like a return to the years of my childhood. This is history that we ought to be studying as we begin an actual remembrance of the Civil War.

  2. Nell Says:

    And a million thanks for the pointer to Jourdon Anderson’s letter.

  3. John Emerson Says:

    One of the big turning points was the 1898 Wilmington N.C. Insurrection. The Republican Party (partly black) in collaboration with the Populists had almost frozen the North Carolina Democrats out of Congress (electing a black Congressman, the last one from the South for 50+ years) and had elected a governor. Wilmington was the biggest city in the state had a Republican administration and a thriving black middle class. The Democrats from NC and elsewhere organized military groups which killed an unknown number of people, overthrew the elected city government, and drove the black middle class out of the state. (These were not spontaneous “mobs” — they were led by the Democratic elite, including Josephus Daniels (who later played a role in the Roosevelt Administration.)

    This was a turning point. It was the Populists’ last gasp. Notably, the national Republicans did nothing, but accepted the destruction of the NC Republican party (and effect, the Republican Party through the South) without resistance. It took 50 years before restoring democracy was even discussed, and almost 20 years more before mcuh of anything was done about it.

  4. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Nell! So good to hear from you again! Thanks for the kind words, I’m glad it was worthwhile reading for you. Sometimes I’m afraid I wear on too long. — Yes, that Jourdon Anderson letter is superb, and Blight does it justice in the lecture in the video too. That lecture series is just great, I’m listening to it on my iTouch on my way to and from work lately.

    John, thanks for mentioning that event again. The 1898 Wilmington Insurrection was definitely a milestone in the violent making of a Jim Crow South; you’ve prompted me to have a closer look, via the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission Report. For his part, Blight mentions it as a kind of kickoff to a truly awful decade — 884 lynchings between 1897 and 1906. But blatant terrorization of blacks to keep them from playing a role in post-war Southern politics was widespread well before 1898. Here’s Blight on the 1876 election:

    “So effective was Democratic intimidation of Republicans in Mississippi that a federal official there called the white population ‘one vast mob.’ Cowed Republicans in several states begged the Congress and Grant for protection. Several hundred deputy marshals were dispatched to precincts across the South for the November elections, but their presence turned out to be only symbolic and wholly ineffective against the abuse they encountered. In many largely Republican (meaning black) precincts, few votes were cast.”

    I guess what I’m gleaning from the report is that the 1898 Wilmington riots closed the door on one of the handful of points of light in the darkness that had already claimed most of the South, and maybe one of the few possible ways out of that darkness. That way out was based on both (1) the unique qualities of Wilmington (economically well situated as a key port and railroad terminus; unusually strong black freedmen community *prior* to the Civil War; and perhaps an unusually diverse upper white class of both planters and (often ex-pat) merchants), and (2) the rise the NC Populist/Fusion movement, which is new to me and which I’m still reading up on.

  5. Thomas Nephew Says:

    I’ll tell you what, though (and forgive me if this seems pollyannish) – my hat is off to that Wilmington Commission, they pulled off an amazing report and some amazing meetings, judging by this essay/account by Melton McLaurin, Commemorating Wilmington’s Racial Violence of 1898: From Individual to Collective Memory.

    Early in 1998 the Wilmington in Black and White lecture series was repeated in St. Stephens A.M.E. Church, one of Wilmington’s oldest and most influential black congregations, located not far from the site of much of the violence of 1898. The second lecture featured speakers who had not participated in the original series: John Haley, an African American and a historian of race relations from the university, and George Rountree III, a noted local attorney, the grandson of one of the leaders of the 1898 violence, and a former member of the UNC-Wilmington Board of Trustees. Rountree was the first prominent white Wilmingtonian directly descended from one of the leaders of the white Democratic forces in 1898 to participate openly in the foundation’s activities, although Hugh MacRae II, the grandson and namesake of another leader of the 1898 violence, had made substantial financial contributions. Word of Rountree’s participation quickly spread through the community grapevine, and the program, originally scheduled for the church’s educational hall, was moved to the larger sanctuary to accommodate an anticipated larger audience.

    A near capacity crowd with a slight African American majority sat in a hushed, tension-filled atmosphere while John Haley set the stage with a brief, objective account of the events of 1898. He concluded with an introduction of Rountree as the namesake and grandson of the man who had led the rioting in 1898 and introduced legislation in the North Carolina legislature that had disenfranchised the state’s African American citizens some ninety-seven years ago. Rountree then rose to address a hushed audience. He began with a declaration of his support for equality by evoking his appreciation of a childhood mammy, and the silence thickened. He refused to apologize for his grandfather’s actions, insisting that he was the product of his times. He then spoke of his personal relationship to his grandfather, of his boyhood image of this almost God-like figure. What emerged was Rountree’s perception of his grandfather as a devoted family man, dedicated community leader, a man of strong religious beliefs and unyielding moral principles. Such was the man he knew and such was the man he remembered; it was only the times that had been out of joint.

    An audience participation period followed, and Rountree was immediately challenged. Kenneth Davis, an African American employed by Corning and a stalwart in the foundation, rose to tell Rountree of the achievements of a generation of African Americans in Wilmington after the Civil War, achievements his grandfather had snuffed out. His past, and the past of Wilmington’s black community, Davis made clear, was not the past Rountree preferred. Rountree acknowledged Davis’s view of the past, but did not retreat from his position. Inez Easom, a young African American and the descendant of individuals whose lives had been transformed by the rioting, called for reparations to the black community for what it had suffered and lost, and younger African Americans supported her call with muffled shouts of approval. Rountree countered with the notion of private charity to address what he acknowledged were inequalities within the community, saying that he bore no responsibility for what had occurred a hundred years ago. Anne Russell, also a descendant of Wilmington’s old white elite, tried without success to elicit from Rountree an acknowledgement that although he bore no responsibility for those events, he personally had benefited from them. Finally, Kenneth Davis again rose to speak, and, while making clear his disagreement with Rountree’s assessment of his grandfather, thanked him for coming to St. Stephens to share his views with the audience. John Haley drew the presentation to a close, and the members of the over-forty generation of blacks and whites went forward to speak personally to both presenters, while young African Americans left conversing among themselves.

    I mean, good Lord! that must have been just riveting. There’s a movie or a play in that isn’t there?

  6. newsrackblog.com » Blog Archive » The Great Betrayal, judicial activism, and a living Constitution Says:

    [...] to figure out where they almost literally ‘went South,’ at almost every opportunity since reading David Blight’s “Race and Reunion” earlier this year. These two rulings — and the mass killings the latter one ratified — seem to be a key [...]

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