What the "Lost Cause" Says About Our Relationship With History

I think a great deal about the Civil War and the way I learned its history.  In recent years that history has been thrust in front of my eyes with some regularity.  More accurately, I’ve been repeatedly confronted by our complete lack of any full understanding of that war, disinterest in learning much more about it, and the conspicuous misconceptions or gaps in knowledge that I harbor, myself.  We don’t know much about the Civil War, and in many many cases build our knowledge from false information, but more disturbing is our lack of interest in changing that.

Our collective understanding of the Civil War, as well as the events leading up to it and immediately following its conclusion, is perverted beyond much relationship to history by a narrative advanced in its wake on behalf of neo-Condederate partisans like the United Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy.  That narrative, popularly dubbed the “Lost Cause,” minimized the role of slavery in secession, the centrality of white supremacy and slavery to the prospective new nation, the role freedmen played in securing their own freedom, the moral force that drove Lincoln and many Union partisans, particularly late in the war, and the progressive successes of Reconstruction.  

It exalts the character of its generals and officers (many of whom went on to drive the racialized terror that led to the collapse of Reconstruction), romanticizes plantation society, reduces slavery to a paternalistic symbiosis, praises the strategic and tactical brilliance of its generals, and wildly exaggerates the strategic advantages of the Union (in order to minimize those brilliant generals’ occasional failures).  What emerges is a picture of an idealistic South free of whips and chains and slave coffles, well on its way to abolishing slavery on its own until it was mercilessly invaded and brutally occupied by self-serving conquerors with no claim to a moral cause.

That scrubbing of all guilt from the South (and, in its own way, the North) is an extreme manifestation of the American (though not uniquely so) impulse to cleanse itself of difficult history or ambiguous outcomes.  It is extreme but does not stand alone.  The concerted effort to scrub secession clean of the stain of slavery, to spritz away from the very advent of the Confederacy the stench of white supremacy, and to minimize the brutality perpetrated against blacks in fields of cotton and fields of battle illustrates America’s desire for history to be easy, even at the expense of its value.

Looking at Robert E. Lee’s re-enslavement of freedmen in his campaigns in union territory; or remembering Nathan Bedford Forrest’s massacre at Fort Pillow or the Klan atrocities he inspired requires wrestling with how we exalt and defend men for their military service who committed what would be called the most heinous of war crimes were they perpetrated by any other.  To say nothing of the cause for which they volunteered that service.  I don’t argue that that’s easy.  It’s not.  Staring at Forrest’s name carved into a publicly funded monument in Nashville beside a quote wherein he encourages his soldiers to reconstruct peacefully, fundamentally challenges everything from my basic sense of decency to my understanding of what my country stands for.

In his essay “Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War” Ta-Nehisi Coates takes a long look at the “Lost Cause.”  He argues that this willful ignorance protects white Americans from the discomfort of dealing with the hard truths the war brings into focus (while simultaneously reserving memory of the war for whites at the exclusion of descendants of the slaves, freedmen, abolitionists, and USCT troops that featured so prominently).  Coates outlines the valuable lessons the Civil War has to offer and makes clear the challenges they pose:

“For realists, the true story of the Civil War illuminates the problem of ostensibly sober-minded compromise with powerful, and intractable, evil.  For radicals, the wave of white terrorism that followed the war offers lessons on the price of revolutionary change.  White Americans finding easy comfort n the nonviolence and the radical love of the civil rights movement must reckon with the unsettling fact that black people in this country achieved the rudiments of their freedom through the killing of whites.”

The Civil War challenges White America’s idea of itself.  It challenges our image of ourselves as fundamentally just, reasonable, and good.  This is a challenge for which we are utterly unprepared and for which we have no use.  This is certainly, in large part, to maintain a level of comfort to which we are accustomed.  But to say that we preserve that comfort at the expense of history’s usefulness is to illuminate only half of the truth.  The other half is to notice that we frequently employ our misrepresentations, misunderstandings, and half-baked conceptions in service of other ends.  We ignore history and blind ourselves to its lessons in part to maintain our complacency, but we make ignorance or misrepresentation of history useful to other ends.  We weaponize our ignorance.

We ignore recent history when we push a narrative that makes Donald Trump the candidate of the working class when he lost the working class handily.  

We ignore the lessons of our parents when we use some mythical unifying character of Martin Luther King and the SNCC as a cudgel to silence protesters of today without engaging their chosen issues.

We ignore the history of rampant discrimination in the programs on which we built our massive middle class when we dismiss radical progressive remedy as absurd or divisive.

We ignore black codes, Jim Crow, convict leasing, lynching, the advent of the death penalty, and massive racial disparities in policing, prosecution, conviction and sentencing that long predate even the war on drugs when we admonish protesters to “just listen to the police and you’ll be fine.”

The tally is staggering.

In his explosive 1963 essay The Fire Next Time James Baldwin speaks to this tendency to shut our eyes tight against history:

"The American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed the collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world's most direct and virile, that American women are pure."

Coates writes in his own essay about everything his obsession with Civil War history taught him about his place in his country’s history.  My (on again off again and not nearly as deep, no doubt) obsession demonstrates the effort my country will expend to ensure that history tells a convenient story.  My reading of the Civil War and the degree to which history diverges from popular understanding, places in stark relief the lengths to which my country will go to define that place for him.