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

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