The Lost Cause1

The Lost Cause is the name commonly given to a literary and intellectual movement that sought to reconcile the traditional Southern white society to the defeat of the Confederate States of America in the Civil War. White Southerners sought consolation in attributing their loss to factors beyond their control and to betrayals of their heroes and cause.  Those who contributed to the movement tended to portray the Confederacy's cause as noble and most of the Confederacy's leaders as exemplars of old-fashioned chivalry, defeated by the Union armies not through superior military skill, but by overwhelming force. They also tended to condemn Reconstruction.

The term Lost Cause first appeared in the title of an 1866 book by the historian Edward A. Pollard, The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates. However, it was the articles written for the Southern Historical Society by Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early in the 1870s that established the Lost Cause as a long-lasting literary and cultural phenomenon.

Early's original inspiration for his views may have come from General Robert E. Lee.  In his farewell order to the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee spoke of the "overwhelming resources and numbers" that the Confederate army fought against.

The Lost Cause theme was taken up by memorial associations such as the United Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The Lost Cause helped Southerners to cope with the social, political, and economic changes after the Civil War especially in the oppressive Reconstruction era.

Some of the main tenets of the Lost Cause movement were that:

  • Confederate generals such as Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson represented the virtues of Southern nobility. This nobility was contrast most significantly in comparisons between U.S. Grant and Lee. The Northern generals, were characterized as men with low moral standards who engaged in vicious campaigns against Southern civilians such as Sherman's March to the Sea and Philip Sheridan's burning of the Shenandoah Valley in the Valley Campaigns of 1864.
  • Losses on the battlefield were inevitable and were blamed on Northern superiority in resources and manpower.
  • Losses were also the result of betrayal and incompetence on the part of certain subordinates of General Lee, such as General James Longstreet.  Longstreet was the object of blame because of his association with Grant, conversion to the Republican Party, and other actions during Reconstruction.
  • While states' rights was not emphasized in the declarations of secession, the Lost Cause focused on the defense of states' rights, rather than preservation of slavery as the primary cause that led eleven Southern states to secede.
  • Secession was seen as a justifiable constitutional response to Northern cultural and economic aggressions against the Southern way of life.
  • Slavery was fictionally presented as a benign institution, and the slaves were treated well and cared for and loyal and faithful to their benevolent masters.

The most powerful images and symbols of the Lost Cause were Robert E. Lee and Pickett's Charge. Following the war Lee acquired a god-like persona. He was deified as a leader whose soldiers would loyally follow him into every fight no matter how desperate. Thus he became the figure head of the Lost Cause.  He was cast as the ideal of the antebellum Southern gentleman, an honorable and pious man who selflessly served Virginia and the Confederacy. Lee's military brilliance at Second Bull Run and Chancellorsville took on legendary status. In a position of such honor, Lee was not subject to criticism by veterans and historians.

Although Lee accepted responsibility for the defeat at Gettysburg, Southerners refused to blame him. Seeking a scapegoat for the pivotal defeat,  Jubal Early blamed Lt. Gen. James Longstreet. Early's accused Longstreet of failing to attack early in the morning of July 2, 1863, as instructed by Lee.  Lee never expressed dissatisfaction with the second-day actions of his "Old War Horse."

Grant rejected the Lost Cause argument that the South had simply been overwhelmed by numbers. Grant argued, “This is the way public opinion was made during the war and this is the way history is made now. We never overwhelmed the South ... What we won from the South we won by hard fighting.”

In the annotated bibliography of Douglas Southall Freeman's definitive four-volume biography of Lee, published in 1934, Freeman acknowledged his debt to the Southern Historical Society Papers and Early by stating that they contain "more valuable, unused data than any other unofficial repository of source material on the War Between the States."  Lee's subordinates were primarily to blame for errors that lost battles. While Longstreet was the most common target of such attacks, others were criticized as well. Richard Ewell, Jubal Early, J.E.B. Stuart, A.P. Hill, George Pickett, and many others were frequently attacked and blamed by Southerners in an attempt to deflect criticism from Lee. While others refused to blame, Lee, in keeping with his nobility, accepted total responsibility for his defeats and never blamed any of his subordinates.

The Lost Cause view of the Civil War also influenced the 1936 novel Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell and the 1939 film of the same name. There Southerners were portrayed as noble, heroic figures, living in a romantic and conservative society, who tragically succumbed to an unstoppable, destructive force. Another prominent use of the Lost Cause perspective was in Thomas F. Dixon, Jr.'s 1905 book The Clansman, later adapted to the screen by D.W. Griffith in his controversial movie Birth of a Nation in 1915.  In both the book and the movie, the Ku Klux Klan is portrayed as continuing the noble traditions of the South and the CSA soldier by defending Southern culture in general and Southern womanhood in particular against alleged depredations and exploitation at the hands of the Freedmen and Yankee carpetbaggers during Reconstruction.

Today, historians are reviewing and reinterpreting both Lee and other aspects of the Lost Cause. 



1 Much of the material comes from Lost Cause of the Confederacy. We have added some editorial comments to this material.

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Revised 12/09/2016