Editor's Note: This
article originally appeared in The Charger in March, 2002.
It's author, Matt Slattery, wrote it shortly before his death in
December, 2001. Even at 90 years of age Matt was still looking at
new ideas about his and our favorite hobby, the American Civil
War. Matt will be missed.
In 1865, the Civil War ended and
the North had won. Had the South lost? Their generals had to admit
it. Their armies were broken, their cities demolished, their
railroads a wreck. Was all this acceptable to the Confederates? They
ignored it (as best they could) by not writing about it, not
speaking about it. Instead, they trumpeted The Lost Cause.
Of the thousands of books written
by southerners to the end of the 19th Century, only one — a lone
one— dealt with the war factually; that was Douglas Southall
Freemen’s four volume Robert E. Lee. A scattering of others
(including Jefferson Davis') were self-serving scripts of the
losing generals. What is significant is that all but a handful of
books were fiction.
Veterans’ organizations and women’s
adjuncts numbered their members in the hundreds of thousands and
they held boisterous meetings. Individually they had no choice but
to see around them what their politicians and slave owners had let
them into. Those who wrote and spoke of the battles had a single
subject — “IF".
IF, Longstreet had sent his
troops earlier up the hill at Gettysburg,
IF, Joe Johnson had taken his
stand north of Atlanta,
IF, Stonewall Jackson had not
galloped ahead of his troops at Chancellorsville.
soon-to-be-canonized Robert E. Lee
There were a thousand
“IF's”. But even these were in a distinct minority against the
volumes on moonlight and magnolias. It was not the war which had
been lost, it was the illusion of a way of life which had never
And an overwhelming personal drama
transpired — the various commanding generals, although respected,
were pushed into the background while a single one was brought
forward — Robert E. Lee. At first it was respectful but it rapidly
swelled to adoration.
They had raised him to sainthood
and the surprising thing was that it was not for his achievements on
the battlefield but for his personal character, his kindness, his
modesty. On the other hand, among the leaders most vilified was
General James Longstreet — not for “losing” Gettysburg but because
he became a Republican and a close friend of now-President U.S.
Following World War I, there came a
renaissance in southern literature. These were skilled and
nationally acknowledged writers but they only made a fuller scale
presentation of the Lost Cause, the paradoxes rooted in the southern
mind, the perception that they were a counterculture, an alternate
to the American. Aged and gentle ladies of the United Daughters
joined with diehard racists and canny politicians to create from
imagination a land that never was. By 1960, 7,000,000 copies of
Gone With The Wind evidenced the national acceptance of the
Grand Old South and the plantation mythology.
Since the Second World War, there
has been a distinct erosion of the Lost Cause. The influx of
industry, television and the interstate highway has broken down the
vestiges of regionalization and we have black politicians in state
offices and black athletic stars in the southern colleges.
Confederate flag license plate
But The Lost Cause has not died.
There are still the Confederate emblems on automobiles. It is their
way of carrying on the fiction, though their owners have never read
about the Civil War nor have they any concept of the Confederacy. It
does tend to show that the south retains a folk culture heavily
endowed with memory and legend and this is the essence of The Lost
Jefferson Davis Monuments:
Campaign Against the Confederate Battle Flag
Confederate Battle Flag, Personal License Plates, and
Assessing African American Attitudes Toward the Civil War