A few years ago, I heard one of our most respected Civil War historians proclaim that the “Lost Cause” narrative of the Civil War had been obliterated by academics and that this was finally true in mass popular culture, suggesting it is only among fringe groups (that would never change their minds anyway) that it still holds sway. I thought it was a strange and misguided thing to say then, and the events of the years since have certainly proven him wrong.
Yes, a slew of movies and TV shows lately have demonstrated that the Lost Cause is seemingly dead in pop culture: Lincoln, 12 Years a Slave, the Roots remake, Kingdom of Jones, Birth of a Nation (2016), PBS’s Mercy Street, and WGN’s Underground, for examples.
Still, Mercy Street and Underground have been cancelled, and Sophia Coppola’s recent remake of The Beguiled essentially ignored slavery’s connection to the Antebellum south and the Civil War, and rolled out the old-Hollywood trope of southern women vulnerable to the lusts of dastardly Yankees.
More upsetting, the recent controversy over Rebel monuments and memorials has revealed just how deeply divided the nation is in regards to Civil War causation. It also seems that every day the Civil War is back in the news again in some fashion, and usually in ways that demonstrate that the general public is still woefully misinformed about the conflict’s causes.
A perfect recent example is this long diatribe of a blog post from sports journalist Clay Travis. (Who, by the way, recently used Twitter to challenge Ta-Nehisi Coates to a debate on the Civil War. Is there some way we can make that happen?) He gets just about everything in his posting woefully wrong (he especially needs to study up on Southern Unionism), but it is an instructive read because it reveals what I think is pretty mainstream belief about the Civil War among educated people who actually take the time to read. (They’re just reading the wrong things and labeling everything that disagrees with them as a product of the liberal media).
Another recent example is General Kelly’s comments about the Civil War, insisting that the conflict had been caused by a failure to compromise. He also explained Robert E. Lee’s act of treason as honorable because it came at a time when loyalty to state was more sacred than to country (he—and Clay Travis, who makes a similar point—have clearly not read Gary Gallagher’s The Union War). The response of historians to his comments was swift, condemning, and corrective, with the strange exception of Allen Guelzo.
—-Just a quick dismissive of the Guelzo piece: he understands but doesn’t seem to appreciate the importance of the fact that the only compromise the South would have accepted was a guarantee of slavery’s expansion, the resisting of which was the core platform the Republicans had just won an election standing upon. That issue had been put to a vote of the American people, and they decided. Guelzo seems to argue that efforts at compromise after that election largely failed because the Republicans thought southern leaders were merely bluffing when they threatened secession and thus Lincoln decided to call their hand. Um, no. Had the Republicans conceded the only thing the south would have accepted, they would have been repudiating their own election victory, betraying the very people that had voted for them. Most disturbing, Guelzo admits that Lee’s actions were treasonous, yet defends them based on a tortured logic about the “uncertain constitutional relationship between state and national citizenship.” He then asserts that Lee was an honorable man because “no one was ever able to accuse him of ordering wartime atrocities.” Maintaining that position requires Guelzo to do the same thing Lee did: look the other way and say nothing to condemn the soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia when they engaged in hunting down and enslaving free blacks in Pennsylvania and shooting down surrendering African American soldiers in the lines around Richmond and Petersburg.
Just to be clear, I am not accusing Guelzo of embracing the Lost Cause. He definitely does not. But the whole Kelly episode is a recent example of the myth’s continual existence. (I just felt the need to address Guelzo’s response to it).
One last recent example: The other night PBS’s Finding Your Roots featured an episode in which Bryant Gumbel’s family history was revealed to him by preeminent Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates. I won’t go into much of the details, but Gates told Gumbel that one of his ancestors had been a black Confederate soldier!
In fact, he had been a member of the famed Louisiana Native Guards, a group of mostly free blacks that were compelled by economic self interest to offer their services to the Confederacy in the war’s early days. The Rebel government rejected their offer BECAUSE THEY WERE BLACK and the group later fought for the Union.
The myth of “black Confederates” is one of the most ridiculous tenets of the modern “Lost Cause” supporters, and one that the academic community (including myself) has fought aggressively against. Now, a high profile guy like Gates has helped to give it new life by interjecting it into a show that has a large number of educated PBS viewers. It would have taken little energy for Gates to correctly inform Gumbel that because the Confederacy was fighting in the name of white supremacy and the defense of slavery, they rejected the black volunteers, refusing to enlist blacks as soldiers until the war’s very last desperate days.
Yet apparently because of his desire to complicate the motives of African Americans, Gates refused to do. (His discussion of the economic self-interested reasons why those men chose to offer their services to the Confederacy already accomplished the goal of pointing out the complexity of African American motivations during the war). No one has worked more tirelessly to dismantle the black Confederate myth than historian Kevin Levin, and he has been waging a war on his blog Civil War Memory and on other social media platforms against Gates and the Finding Your Roots producers, calling for an apology and a corrective. Yet he is well aware that in order to effectively counter such a high profile guy like Gates, it will take an equally high-profile and respected historian.
Where are you, Eric Foner???
So as just these few recent examples reveal, the war against the Lost Cause rages on. To answer my own question, YES, we still need to keep doing this, and as Levin has suggested, WE NEED MORE ACADEMICS TO GET INTO THIS PUBLIC FIGHT. Teaching your classes and writing your books by themselves are not going to cut it. Join us, won’t you?