How the Lost Cause changed American History and Created its Pseudo-History

How the Lost Cause changed American History and Created its Pseudo-History

Larry Holzwarth - July 21, 2020

Simply put, the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, which began in the aftermath of Reconstruction, is the presentation of the belief that Southern secession was legal, just, and a reflection of the true values of America’s Founders. Its proponents suggest the Constitution was a contract, and that the parties involved could legally withdraw from the contract based on the will of the people within the states. Its rise coincided with and supported the enactment of laws in the South legalizing segregation and denying voter’s rights. It flourished again as America entered World War I, in the run-up to World War II, and during the Civil Rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s.

How the Lost Cause changed American History and Created its Pseudo-History
The Lost Cause by Henry Mosler, painted in 1868. Wikimedia

Supporters of the viewpoints presented in the Lost Cause movements led to the creation of a false Southern “legacy”. The film Gone with the Wind presented it in an onscreen introduction describing, “Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and Slave”. The film supported a legacy created during the Lost Cause period, along with monuments to Southern leaders which reflected nobility and moral courage. No less a personage than Robert E. Lee, arguably the Confederacy’s greatest hero, opposed the creation of such monuments. He believed such monuments, and even the preservation of battlefields for posterity, created continued strife, and that it was “wiser not to keep open the sores of war”. Here is the story of the Lost Cause pseudohistory, and its creation of memorials and monuments which still divide the nation.

How the Lost Cause changed American History and Created its Pseudo-History
John C. Calhoun argued forcefully for slavery and the states’ rights to leave the Union to keep the “peculiar institution”. Wikimedia

1. The Lost Cause rooted in the antebellum arguments justifying slavery and secession

Before the Civil War, slavery presented the most divisive issue in the United States. It also existed as the root of the Southern economy. Production of cotton, tobacco, and rice for export to European markets offered the South its greatest source of income. In the pre-industrial South, all three relied on slave labor to be profitable. As the southern states found their influence in the Congress declining, their legislators, particularly their Senators, argued the states had the right to nullify federal laws which had an adverse impact upon them. Failing that right, they argued they had the right to vacate the contract which was the Constitution. Their most vocal argument was that the very Constitution they wanted to exit guaranteed the institution of slavery.

Antebellum arguments, especially by men including South Carolina Senator and one-time Vice President John C. Calhoun, expressed the view that enslaving the black race was a Christian duty. They argued that those held in slavery were inestimably better off than those remaining, in their view, in darkness in Africa. They also espoused the view that blacks were incapable of fending for themselves in society, and were completely dependent on the beneficence of their owners for their survival. First appearing in 1866 as the title of a work on the war by Virginian Edward Pollard (The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates), the movement denied slavery caused the Civil War. The movement quickly gained traction in the defeated South.

How the Lost Cause changed American History and Created its Pseudo-History
Jubal Early was a major contributor to the early formation of the Lost Cause following the war. Wikimedia

2. The contributions of former Confederate leaders furthered the Lost Cause

On May 1, 1869, in New Orleans, an organization which called itself the Southern Historical Society was formed to preserve the records of the Confederacy and the Civil War. Among its original members were Confederate General Braxton Bragg, as well as numerous former officers of the Confederate Army. Determined to preserve the Southern perspective of secession and the Civil War, in the latter part of the 19th century, the group published the Southern Historical Society Papers. Among the leading contributors to the records was former Confederate General Jubal Early.

Early, besides becoming a leading proponent of the Lost Cause, also served as an outspoken supporter of the belief in white superiority, and a defender of slavery. After the war, he wrote in defense of slavery, “The conditions of domestic slavery, as it existed in the South, had not only resulted in a great improvement in the moral and physical condition of the negro race, but had furnished a class of laborers as happy and contented as any in the world”. A monument consisting of the remains of a Civil War era fort and an obelisk erected in 1919 (Lynchburg, Virginia) were named in his honor. Numerous highways and streets throughout the South commemorate the former Confederate general as well.

How the Lost Cause changed American History and Created its Pseudo-History
Major General George Thomas warned his superiors of Southern attempts to rewrite the history of the war for political purposes. Library of Congress

3. Former Union generals recognized and opposed the views of the Lost Cause

In 1868 George Henry Thomas, a Union general and a native of Virginia, wrote in a report to his superiors of the emerging propaganda campaign engineered by former officers of the Confederacy. Observing the insertion of noble values into the Confederate’s reasons for war, Thomas wrote, “This is, of course, intended as a species of political cant, whereby the crime of treason might be covered with a counterfeit varnish of patriotism…” Thomas viewed with growing alarm the terrorist activities of the Ku Klux Klan in the territory he commanded during Reconstruction. His warnings fell on deaf ears in Congress, already concerned more with potential political patronage in the returning Southern states.

George Henry Thomas was one of the more tragic stories in an era permeated with them. Raised on a Virginia plantation which included scores of slaves, Thomas experienced first hand the myth of happy and contented blacks loyal to their beneficent masters. He chose to honor his oath to his country at the outbreak of the war, rather than return to serve Virginia. Following a successful career in the Union Army and warning of the development of the propaganda campaign which led to the Lost Cause, Thomas died while commanding the Military Division of the Pacific in San Francisco. None of his relatives attended his funeral, having denounced him in perpetuity for serving against the Confederacy.

How the Lost Cause changed American History and Created its Pseudo-History
The United Daughters of the Confederacy and like-minded groups established memorials to the Confederacy across the South. Wikimedia

4. The emergence of Confederate memorial societies and associations

During the period of Reconstruction, occupying federal troops protected the freedmen and their families in the South from newly formed terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the White League. White supremacists in the south often found allies in corrupt Union officers, susceptible to bribes and other perquisites offered by Southern leaders. Nonetheless, the laws regarding voters’ rights and free land for farms were more or less enforced, to the rage of former Confederates determined to restore the antebellum South. When the last Union occupying troops withdrew at the end of Reconstruction, Southern state governments moved quickly to enact laws suppressing the black vote.

At the same time, the Jim Crow laws began to take shape across the South, numerous societies and associations evolved to present the Lost Cause to white society as it again exerted its domination over southern culture. Groups such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the United Confederate Veterans, the Ladies Memorial Association (with numerous local branches), and like-minded gatherings determined to honor the legacy presented in the Lost Cause grew in influence. At the same time, honoring Confederate leaders as heroes served to establish unity, intimidating those who opposed Jim Crow. It was then the movement to create monuments to former Confederate leaders throughout the South took hold, and it grew well into the 20th century.

How the Lost Cause changed American History and Created its Pseudo-History
The Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. Arlington National Cemetery

5. The Lost Cause facilitated the reconciliation between North and South

By the end of the 19th century, the revision of the causes of the American Civil War had grown too wide acceptance among whites in both North and South. The military leaders of the contending armies, who had fought each other with abandon during the war, re-established the ties of brotherhood in most cases. Army officers leaned on their shared experiences at West Point and in the pre-war Army, and honored their respective leadership. With few exceptions, the leaders of Confederate troops gained respect as American soldiers, who had followed their sense of honor to great sacrifice.

The United States Congress passed a law allowing the honorably discharged dead of the Confederate Army burial at the then new National Cemetery at Arlington in 1873, on the former site of the Lee-Custis plantation. In 1900 a designated section of the Cemetery allowed for Confederate dead to be buried in what became known as the Confederate Cemetery. In 1914, following a campaign spearheaded by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the Confederate Monument, designed to celebrate the images of the Lost Cause, was unveiled at the Cemetery. The monument included two images of enslaved blacks, one depicting a “Mammy” caring for a white child, the other a loyal slave following his owner to war. Both images were stereotypes common to the myth of the Lost Cause.

How the Lost Cause changed American History and Created its Pseudo-History
Moses Jacob Ezekiel in his studio in Rome. Wikimedia

6. Moses Jacob Ezekiel created statues honoring the Confederacy

Moses Jacob Ezekiel, who created the Confederate Monument at Arlington National Cemetery, also created monuments which appeared across the South during the early 20th century. Moses Ezekiel, a Virginian, served in the Confederate Army during the war. Following the war, he expatriated to Prussia for a time, then to Rome, where he maintained his studio for the remainder of his life. The Confederate battle flag hung in his studio for over forty years. No doubt it served as partial inspiration for his works, which he sold to organizations including the United Daughters of the Confederacy and other like-minded groups. Many of the statues he created were sold during the high point of the Lost Cause movement.

Among them were the statue of Stonewall Jackson, installed in the West Virginia State Capitol in 1910; Virginia Mourning Her Dead, installed at Virginia Military Institute (where Ezekiel once studied under Jackson); and The Southern, installed at the Confederate Cemetery, Johnson’s Island, Ohio. Ezekiel’s statues honored Confederate soldiers and leaders, but also presented the images of the Lost Cause, particularly at Arlington. There the symbol of the Confederacy, a woman, was positioned to appear to be protecting the other images on the monument, including the “loyal slaves” as well as the heroic Southern troops. Ezekiel’s statues faithfully reproduced the images of the Lost Cause, and were erected at the height of the Jim Crow era.

How the Lost Cause changed American History and Created its Pseudo-History
Thomas Dixon Jr., a prolific writer of Lost Cause literature and plays. Wikimedia

7. The Lost Cause was perpetuated through entertainment

During the period between the end of Reconstruction and the Second World War, images of the antebellum and post-war South emerged through novels, lectures, plays, and the medium of film. Among the earliest proponents of the Lost Cause was North Carolina-born Thomas Dixon Jr., who also bore the distinction of being an ordained Baptist minister. Dixon produced novels and plays which depicted the mythical South of being a land of noble cavaliers, genteel and gracious ladies fair, and loyal slaves, some of whom were considered part of the family. Those who were not remained unflinchingly supportive of their masters, with only a few “trouble causers” upsetting the apple cart.

Dixon’s novels and plays were wildly popular in the South in the first decades of the 20th century, and his lecture tours were well attended. Those who went learned of his predictions of an inevitable race war, if the Jim Crow laws weren’t strictly enforced. During the period of his greatest popularity, statues and monuments honoring and ennobling the Confederacy and its leaders appeared throughout the South, most of them funded by groups such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The group, and others like it, also lobbied schools at all levels of education to adopt the tenets of the Lost Cause in teaching history, and throughout the South commissioned text books to support the mythical belief that the South had never fought for slavery, but rather to defend itself against Northern aggression.

How the Lost Cause changed American History and Created its Pseudo-History
The graver of Robert E. Lee at Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Virginia. Pinterest

8. Monument Avenue, Richmond, Virginia

Robert E. Lee died on October 12, 1870, from the effects of a stroke suffered two weeks earlier. Lee’s interment took place at Lee Chapel, on the campus of Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Within weeks of his death, various groups in Richmond, the former Capital of the Confederacy, explored the means of honoring him for his defense of the city throughout the Civil War. Although Lee was the subject of much criticism for his conduct of the war from former Confederate generals including George Pickett and James Longstreet, he became the symbol of the Lost Cause in the years following his death. By the time of the unveiling of the equestrian statue of Lee in Richmond in May, 1890, he was revered in the South, and widely admired in the North.

The statue was the first of five dedicated to leaders of the Confederacy, all of whom graduated from the United States Military Academy before taking up arms against their country. Another statue honored Matthew Maury, a former US Naval officer who resigned and served in the Confederate Navy. During the war, Maury lobbied for European intervention in both France and Great Britain. All of the statues were erected as Virginia stood against integration in public schools. The elements of the Lost Cause appeared in public schools throughout the state, including those attended by black students. The statues came to be seen as symbols of intimidation representing white supremacy to some, while others viewed them through the lens of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy.

How the Lost Cause changed American History and Created its Pseudo-History
Unidentified Confederate veteran wearing the Southern Cross of Honor. Wikimedia

9. The Southern Cross of Honor

In 1899 the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), then holding membership of approximately 17,000, established an award which only veterans of the Confederate military could wear. The award consisted of a cross suspended from a bar, without a cloth ribbon. It was inscribed with the Confederate motto Deo Vindice (God our Vindicator) and an image of the Confederate Battle Flag. The award was granted to eligible Confederate veterans through the UDC, the first being issued in 1900. It continued to be awarded until 1951, when Confederate Admiral Raphael Semmes received the medal posthumously.

The United States Department of Veterans Affairs continued to allow the award to be displayed on the gravestones of Confederate veterans into the 21st century, and supplies stones so marked as replacement markers for Confederate dead in national cemeteries. The medal was never officially authorized for wear on the uniforms of the United States military, though several former Confederate cavalrymen who served in the United States Army during the Indian Wars of the late 19th century wore theirs, a sign of defiance against the senior officers of the “Yankee” army in which they served.

How the Lost Cause changed American History and Created its Pseudo-History
The Birth of a Nation presented the tenets of the Lost Cause on film. Wikimedia

10. The Birth of a Nation

In 1915 two of Thomas Dixon’s most famous and popular novels, The Leopard’s Spots and The Clansman, served as the basis for a new form of entertainment. D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation first appeared in 1915, depicting the Lost Cause of the South on film for the first time. Centered on the Civil War and Reconstruction, Griffith’s presented the latter as an abysmal failure. Symbolically, the film served as a paean to reconciliation between the white North and South, necessary for the survival of American society as a means of re-establishing control over black Americans. The rise of the Ku Klux Klan was presented as a necessity to protect Southern white womanhood from the indiscriminate ravages of the freed blacks in the South, and by extension, in the North as well.

The film appeared during a period in which statues honoring Confederate leaders and soldiers appeared in cities and towns throughout the former states of the Confederacy, in part due to the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the war. As more and more Americans in the North came to accept the view of white supremacy expressed by the proponents of the Lost Cause, southern groups led by the UDC established memorials and monuments to the white leaders of the Confederacy. The Birth of a Nation depicted the Confederacy as victims, of white Northern misunderstanding of the problems of race in America, and of Northern aggression as the true cause of the Civil War.

How the Lost Cause changed American History and Created its Pseudo-History
Directions of what was and wasn’t acceptable for teaching the CIvil War inn Southern schools was provided by Lost Cause advocates. Internet Archive

11. A Measuring Rod to Test Text Books, and Reference Books in Schools, Colleges and Libraries

In Atlanta in October, 1919, the Sons of Confederate Veterans resolved “to inaugurate a movement to disseminate the truths of Confederate history”. The result was the establishment of a committee of former officers of the SCV, educators, and clergy who produced the work entitled A Measuring Rod to Test Text Books, and Reference Books in Schools, Colleges and Libraries. Published in 1920, and subsequently updated several times, the Measuring Rod specified how history of the antebellum period, the Civil War, and Reconstruction should be presented in Southern schools. The committee published its findings with the request that all materials used for teaching history adhere to the Measuring Rod, and refuse to adopt any “which do not accord full justice to the South”.

In its foreword, the Measuring Rod urged schools to reject “a book that speaks of the Constitution other than a Compact between the Sovereign States”. It suggested omitting material “that says the South fought to hold her slaves”. It likewise demanded the omission of a text “that speaks of the slaveholder of the South as cruel and unjust to his slaves”. According to the Measuring Rod, texts which glorified Abraham Lincoln, or vilified Jefferson Davis, were unacceptable for use in Southern schools and libraries. Instead, it recommended the use exclusively of texts from a list compiled by the SCV and the UDC. Thus, generations of students in Southern schools were presented the Lost Cause version of the Civil War, rather than the truths about the Confederate constitutions in each state and the role of slavery in the causes of the American Civil War.

How the Lost Cause changed American History and Created its Pseudo-History
Hundreds of monuments to the Confederacy were built across the South as part of the Lost Cause. Wikimedia

12. The UDC erected hundreds of statues honoring the Confederacy across the South

As the nature of its history was revised in Southern schools in the early 20th century, the UDC, as well as other groups commemorating the Confederacy and the Lost Cause, erected statues across the South. Statues to honor the Confederate military appeared on town squares, in parks, in and in front of courthouses and entertainment halls, and alongside roads and streets. Between the turn of the century and the 1920s, hundreds of such memorials were erected, with statues depicting soldiers under arms defiantly facing to the north. Unveilings were social affairs, where noted speakers reinforced the myths of the Lost Cause to students who learned of it in their classrooms.

In Jacksonville, Florida, a memorial to the women of the Confederacy was erected, bearing in its inscription the words, “Those noblewomen who sacrificed their all upon their country’s altar”. Similar noble sentiments appeared on most of the memorials, stressing sacrifice and defense of a cause, with no mention of the true causes of the Civil War. The Confederate Monument of Eastman, in Dodge County, Georgia, was inscribed, “No Truer Patriots Ever Adorned The History Of Any Nation”. The Wilkes County Confederate Monument in Georgia includes in its inscription, “They Fought to Maintain a Just Union; To Defend Constitutional Government; To Perpetuate American Liberties”.

How the Lost Cause changed American History and Created its Pseudo-History
The UDC heartily endorsed the Ku Klux Klan in the early 20th century. National Geographic

13. The United Daughters of the Confederacy praised the Ku Klux Klan

At the annual convention held by the UDC in 1913, a book written by one of its more prominent members and president of the group’s Mississippi division, Laura Martin Rose, came under consideration. The book was entitled The Ku Klux Klan, or the Invisible Empire. In its introduction, the author wrote, “For the purpose of giving the youth of our land true history of this remarkable organization, whose services were of untold value to the South, during a dark period of her history, this book is written”. The author went on to claim complete historical accuracy for the work, “recorded from the lips of the survivors themselves”.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy unanimously endorsed the book, and recommended it as supplementary reading for students throughout the South. In many school districts, it served as mandatory reading in high schools during the 1920s and 1930s. The book unabashedly lauded the Klan of the Reconstruction period as protectors of Southern white women and society in general. Endorsement of the book by the UDC came at a time when the construction and dedication of memorials to the Confederacy throughout the South was at its height. The UDC continued to support the Ku Klux Klan during its second appearance in the early twentieth century, and constructed a memorial to the Klan near Concord, North Carolina, in 1926.

How the Lost Cause changed American History and Created its Pseudo-History
Southern textbooks suggested the horrors of Andersonville were the fault of the Lincoln Administration. Wikimedia

14. The myths recommended for teaching in southern schools

Among the lessons suggested for inclusion in Southern school curriculums by the Measuring Rod and endorsed by the UDC and other groups creating the myth of the Lost Cause were that Robert E. Lee had freed his slaves before the war. Another was that more slaveholders served in the Union Army (315,000) than in the Confederate Army (200,000). Both numbers, cited on page nine of the Measuring Rod, were patently false. The Measuring Rod cited several articles and quotes describing the happiness and well-being of the slaves held on Southern plantations during the antebellum period. “They are treated with such great humanity and kindness”, gushed one such entry, which also claimed, “They are oily, sleek, bountifully fed, well-clothed, and well taken care of”.

The horrors of the Confederate camp for Union prisoners of war at Andersonville, well-documented by historians following the war, are blamed on the federal government and the Lincoln Administration in the Measuring Rod. Another suggestion from the Measuring Rod regarding the presentation of the Civil War in history classes called for the rejection of a textbook which, “calls the Confederate soldier a traitor or rebel, and the war a rebellion”. The UDC followed the issuance of the Measuring Rod with a list of books “condemned” by the committees formed by the UDC and other Lost Cause groups, recommending their removal from Southern schools and libraries.

How the Lost Cause changed American History and Created its Pseudo-History
Mildred Lewis Rutherford wore the outfit of the pre-war Southern belle until her death. Georgia Encyclopedia

15. Mildred Rutherford

Mildred Rutherford, a prominent Southern educator and orator, served as the historian general for the UDC at the time of the adoption of the Measuring Rod. She contributed its foreword, and served to compile the list of approved texts for teaching history in the South, as well as the list of books condemned by the UDC. Her views on slavery are summed up in a speech she delivered in Dallas in 1916. Rutherford claimed in her speech “negroes in the South were never called slaves. That term came in with the abolition crusade”. Her claim was clearly false, since the constitutions of most of the seceding states referred to slavery among their reasons for secession.

Among her numerous published works was Truth in History: A Historical Perspective of the Civil War From the Southern Viewpoint. Its chapter headings include: The North Was Responsible for the War Between the States; The Slaves Were Not Ill-Treated in the South and the North Was Largely Responsible for Their Presence in the South, and; The South Was More Interested in the Freedom of the Slaves Than the North. She claimed Reconstruction to have created the need for the Ku Klux Klan, calling the group “a necessity”. Rutherford wrote that Mary Surratt, hanged after being found guilty of conspiring to assassinate Abraham Lincoln, was executed “without judge or jury”, a crime she found “far more horrible” than the murder of the President. Rutherford was a leading influence on Southern school curricula through the 1920s.

How the Lost Cause changed American History and Created its Pseudo-History
Jim Crow laws ensured segregation in the use of facilities throughout the South. Wikimedia

16. The heyday of the Lost Cause followed World War I

Throughout the decades before and following World War I the Lost Cause thrived in the emerging New South. Over fifteen hundred monuments, memorials, placards, historical road markers, and other visible salutes to the Confederacy appeared across the United States. Not all were in the former Confederacy, they appeared on battlefields in Pennsylvania and Maryland, in cemeteries North of the old Mason-Dixon line, and in the nation’s capital at Washington. They were supported by a new vision of the South, in which slavery was sanitized, and the motives of the secessionists attributed to political differences, rather than moral.

In the South, Jim Crow laws prevailed, and though there were protests against them, Southern political strength was such that they remained for the most part unchallenged. Although President Woodrow Wilson desegregated the federal Civil Service in 1913, the United States military remained wholly segregated. The US Supreme Court upheld the principle of “separate but equal” facilities for blacks and whites in 1896, rendering protests against segregated facilities largely moot. In the states of the former Confederacy, as well as some others, separate drinking fountains for whites and blacks stood in the shadow of monuments to heroes of the Confederacy, and customers at segregated lunch counters in Southern towns could gaze out the windows upon memorials to Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and the other Confederate leaders of the American Civil War.

How the Lost Cause changed American History and Created its Pseudo-History
Margaret Mitchell in 1941. Wikimedia

17. Margaret Mitchell and Gone with the Wind

Margaret Mitchell was very much a daughter of the old South, a descendant of families both slave-holding and Confederate war veterans. She was raised in a socially prominent and affluent manner. Her family moved from the Jackson Hill neighborhood of Atlanta to a location on the outskirts of town following the Atlanta Race Riots in 1906, an event she remembered for the rest of her life. Schooled in the Lost Cause classrooms in Atlanta, she heard tales of the Old South from veterans of the war, both military and from the home front. As a teenager she became a lifelong fan of the works of Thomas Dixon Jr. Following the publication of Gone with the Wind in 1936, she wrote Dixon, “I was practically raised on your books…”

Mitchell created, in her novel published in 1936, a literary picture of the South of the Lost Cause. Her vision of the gallant and chivalrous knights of the South, the lovely plantations, the Southern Belles, and the happy and loyal slaves resonated with readers across the country. Her work won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1937, and remained on the best seller lists for years. By 2014, over 30 million copies of the book had been sold. It revealed the vision of the South and its history as it was taught in Southern schools during the heyday of the Lost Cause movement, of a noble and chivalrous nation brought to destruction by an implacable and powerful enemy to the Southern way of life.

How the Lost Cause changed American History and Created its Pseudo-History
The Atlanta premiere of Gone with the WInd in 1939. Wikimedia

18. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Gone with the Wind

Released in 1939, starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind remains the top-grossing motion picture of all time, when receipts are adjusted for inflation. It brought to the screen the premises of Margaret Mitchell’s vision of the South at the end of the antebellum period, through the Civil War, and ultimately Reconstruction. At the end of the twentieth century, the film stood as a monument to the Confederacy and the Southern way of life. Told entirely from the Lost Cause perspective, the film features Mammy, depicted as a loyal friend and caregiver to Scarlett O’Hara, glossing over the fact of her slavery during the first part of the film. She remained loyal following emancipation, though Scarlett’s attitude towards her remained unchanged.

Another slave, a houseman, remains loyal as well, in one scene attempting to kill a chicken so as to feed “the white folks”. The film and novel are of course entirely fiction set against a historical backdrop, the product of Margaret Mitchell’s mind. But they reflect the version of the South established in schools and the public mind by the proponents of the Lost Cause, including the works of Mildred Rutherford and the UDC, and the writings of Thomas Dixon Jr. The film’s opening sequence proclaims, “There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South…Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave…Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered. A civilization has gone with the wind…”

How the Lost Cause changed American History and Created its Pseudo-History
The Blood-Stained Banner, official flag of the Confederate States of America in 1865. Wikimedia

19. The Confederate Flag

The most commonly accepted version of the Confederate Flag is that of the saltire containing thirteen stars on a red field. In fact, the Confederacy adopted several flags over the period of its brief existence, beginning with the Stars and Bars, as it was called. It was followed by a flag known as the Stainless Banner, adopted in 1863, and the Blood-Stained Banner in 1865. The most readily recognized Confederate flag is the battle flag, as flown by the Army of Northern Virginia and other Confederate commands through most of the war. It consisted of a blue St. George’s Cross, with 15 stars representing the slave holding states, including the border states which had not seceded.

Its use since the war has been frequent and often controversial. In the 1960s the American toymaker Remco used the flag in its advertising for its Johnny Reb Toy Cannon. The toy arrived with a small Confederate battle flag for its owner to display while playing with the cannon. In the 21st century, the commercials can be viewed online. During the Civil Rights movement beginning in the 1950s, the flag became controversial when it was used by anti-civil rights protesters and flown by the again emergent Ku Klux Klan and other groups. By the end of the 20th century controversies over the Confederate flag and what it symbolizes were common, with its defenders citing the tenets of the Lost Cause as justification for its continued display.

How the Lost Cause changed American History and Created its Pseudo-History
Now officially defunct, Lee-Jackson Day celebrated the two Confederate leaders. Wikimedia

20. Lee-Jackson Day

From January, 1889, Robert E. Lee’s birthday, on the 19th of the month, was celebrated as a state holiday in the Commonwealth of Virginia. In 1904 the date of the holiday was changed to accommodate the birthday of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and the celebration was moved. The third Friday of January was designated Lee-Jackson Day, a state holiday observed with solemnity throughout Virginia. The gravesites of both men received decorations and wreath-laying by state and local officials, parades were held to honor both men. Schools, state offices, and banks were closed. In 1983 the federal government designated the third Monday of January as Martin Luther King Day.

Virginia responded by designating the holiday Lee-Jackson-King Day, evidently blind to the irony of commemorating the civil rights leader alongside two men who fought to defend slavery. The holiday remained until 2000, when Lee-Jackson Day was moved to the Friday preceding Martin Luther King Day. The result was a four-day weekend for some, including state offices. During the second decade of the 21st century, several communities in Virginia began to ignore the Lee-Jackson holiday in response to protests, among them Fredericksburg, Charlottesville, and the state capital of Richmond. A separate Robert E. Lee Day remains a holiday in some Southern states in the 21st century.

How the Lost Cause changed American History and Created its Pseudo-History
Confederate Memorial Day celebrations across the South began in 1866. CNN

21. Confederate Memorial Day

In 1866, one year after the surrender of the last Confederate Army in the field at Bennett Place, North Carolina, The Ladies Memorial Association of Columbus, Georgia, resolved to establish a date throughout the South to memorialize the soldiers who died for the Confederacy. The first Confederate Memorial Day was established as of April 26, 1866. Since then several states which had formed the Confederacy have celebrated Confederate Memorial Day, albeit on different days of the year and with different names. Texas designates the day as Confederate Heroes Day, held on January 19. Alabama. Florida, and Georgia celebrate the day on the fourth Monday of April.

Most states note the day unofficially, though in South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Tennessee, and Alabama the day remains an official state holiday, with differing degrees of celebration. The holiday was known simply as Memorial Day in most Southern states until 1868, when the Memorial Day holiday was observed in the North. It then became known as Confederate Memorial Day throughout the states of the former Confederacy, and celebrated on a separate date. Not until after the First World War was Memorial Day celebrated widely across the South. During that war, ten Southern states celebrated Confederate Memorial Day on June 3, the birthday of Jefferson Davis.

How the Lost Cause changed American History and Created its Pseudo-History
Jefferson Davis applauded slavery as beneficial to the enslaved and master alike. Wikimedia

22. The Lost Cause defined slavery as a positive good

The symbols of the Lost Cause, the statues, memorials, holidays, and writings, all present slaves as happy in their lot. They are portrayed as being protected by the Confederacy from the depredations of the Northern Invader. In 1881 Jefferson Davis, former president of the Confederate States of America, published The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. In it he defended the system of slavery in the South, and argued that the North benefited economically from Southern slaves. He maintained that the condition of slaves in the South was far better than as was depicted in abolitionist literature and other groups in the North, and that the Union had unleashed the causes of the sufferings of Southern blacks through freeing the slaves.

Davis wrote of the black’s “servile instincts” which “rendered them contented with their lot, and their patient toil blessed the land of their abode with unmeasured riches”. He also contended that allowing the freed slaves to vote almost immediately was a recipe for disaster, which led to the failure of Reconstruction, in the eyes of the Lost Cause proponents. Davis wrote, in reference to the freed slaves, “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…” Ironically, in another document, Davis once noted, “…history is often the manufacture of the mere liar”.

How the Lost Cause changed American History and Created its Pseudo-History
President Franklin Roosevelt dedicating a statue of Robert E. Lee in 1936. Wikimedia

23. The Lost Cause movement created America’s memorials honoring the Confederacy

From the end of Reconstruction through the beginning of the 21st century, proponents of the Lost Cause continued to revise the history of the antebellum South and the American Civil War. They argued that state’s rights, the Constitutionality of secession, and individual freedom were the causes of the Civil War, not slavery. The argument ignores the fact that secession and promotion of state’s rights were legalistic points intended to allow states to continue to hold men, women, and children in bondage, as chattel property, and to expand the practice into new territories. The fact of Confederate leaders believed in and supported white supremacy, easily discerned from their own writings, is clear. Yet monuments were built to honor them throughout the country.

One historian, Allan Nolan, has called the tenets of the Lost Cause a “caricature of history”. Nolan suggested a new study of the critical period “…from the premises of history unadulterated by the distortions, falsehoods, and romantic sentimentality of the Myth of the Lost Cause“. For generations that myth was taught in classrooms, described in books both scholarly and entertaining, depicted in films and television, and reinforced in monuments and memorials. From it, the divisiveness of the Civil War still troubles the national psyche, and informs American politics. It continues to be reinforced by bloggers, politicians, neo-Confederates, and even some museums and conventions. It was not only the memorials which continued divisiveness in America, as Lee predicted, but the motives behind them.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The Half has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism”. Edward E. Baptist. 2014

“Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant”. Ulysses S. Grant. 1886

“7 Things the United Daughters of the Confederacy might not want you to know about them”. Kali Holloway, Salon. October 6, 2018

“Confederate Memorial”. Article, Arlington National Cemetery. Online

“Moses Jacob Ezekiel”. Keith E. Gibson, Encyclopedia of Virginia. Online

“Thomas Dixon Jr.: Conflicts in History and Literature”. Andrew Leiter. 2004

“Monument Avenue Historic District”. Sarah S. Driggs. August 1997. Pdf, online

“The Southern Cross of Honor: Historical Notes and Trial List of Varieties”. Peter Bertram. 2003

“The Worst Thing About ‘Birth of a Nation’ Is How Good It Is”. Richard Brody, The New Yorker. February 1, 2013

“A Measuring Rod to Test Text Books, and Reference Books in Schools, Colleges and Libraries”. Mildred Lewis Rutherford

“Time to Expose the Women Still Celebrating the Confederacy”. Kali Holloway, The Daily Beast. November 12, 2018

“The group behind Confederate monuments also built a memorial to the Klan”. Greg Huffman, Facing South. June 8, 2018

“Twisted Sources: How Confederate propaganda ended up in the South’s schoolbooks”. Greg Huffman, Facing South. April 10, 2019

“Truths of History”. Mildred Lewis Rutherford. 1920

“The Age of Segregation: Race Relations in the South 1890-1945”. Robert Haws. 1978

“Road to Tara: The Life of Margaret Mitchell”. Anne Edwards. 1983

“Frankly, My Dear: Gone with the Wind Revisited”. Molly Haskell. 2010

“8 things you didn’t know about the Confederate flag”. Daniel Costa-Roberts. PBS Newshour Weekend. June 21, 2015

“Va. lawmakers pass bill to end Lee-Jackson Day and make Election Day a holiday”. Caleb Stewart, Associated Press. February 24, 2020

“These states are observing Confederate Memorial Day this month”. Emanuella Grinberg, CNN. April 23, 2018

“The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government”. Jefferson Davis

“The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History”. Gary W. Gallagher, Allan Nolan