A Brief Introduction to Understanding the Lost Cause

You might be hearing the phrase “Lost Cause” in the wake of Wednesday’s attempted insurrection. The Lost Cause is most familiar to Americans in relation to the Civil War. While the Union won the war, by the end of the 19th century, the South had won the memory of it through its Lost Cause.

This particular myth championed Robert E. Lee, the “horrors” of Northern aggression and industry, the valor of Confederate forces, and that they fought not to protect slavery (wrong) but the values of the US. They claimed to the Confederates to be the descendants of the American Revolution. They told this story, piece-by-piece, through the KKK, political leaders, laws passed, monuments built, children of veterans, groups like the ever-influential Daughters of the Revolution, and historians. Through the first half of the 20th century, many historians repeated these myths, to the point they downplayed the enslavement of African Americans and dismissed the narratives of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Solomon Northup and others as propaganda by radical abolitionists. When I first started teach US survey courses, I was shocked to find out how many did not believe that the Civil War had started over slavery (12+ years later, it’s still there but no longer shocking to me).

What does this have to do with now? We’ve already seen the efforts to rewrite Wednesday start, as well as Trump’s ideology and agenda. He is being presented as someone who wants to save America against a host of racial claims ranging from socialism to removing Americans’ rights. He’s the present-day icon that Lee was to the Civil War Lost Cause followers (except that Lee pushed back against this, to little avail since he died in 1870). And with the internet and spread of information, the traction of the Trump Lost Cause is moving quickly. It will do irreparable harm to stand idly by and let this myth spread. I’m not sure how we stand up to it, but I start with this call to attention to the power of such lies.

I encourage you to review scholarship being posted by historians right now. You can find a comprehensive on historian Megan Kate Nelson’s website. I specifically recommend the pieces in the Jan. 8, 2021 edition of 6th New York Times by Karen L. Cox and David Blight.


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