The impassioned debate over the Confederate battle flag in South Carolina and throughout the nation is a subset of a larger debate about the historical interpretation of the Confederate States of America and the reasons for the Civil War. For some Southerners, the Civil War was a noble “Lost Cause.” This was once the reigning interpretation in the South and long influenced the historiography of the Civil War and its aftermath.
The Lost Cause mythos itself has a history: it was a post-Reconstruction invention to explain defeat in the Civil War and maintain a whites-only political system. It was, as John A. Simpson tells it, a militant form of “Confederate nostalgia” that had by 1913 “permanently stamped the cult of the ‘Lost Cause’ upon the national character.” The movie Birth of a Nation (1915) and the book (1936) and movie (1939) of Gone With the Wind were all popular cultural manifestations of this “cult.”
At its heart, the Lost Cause was a “mystique of chivalric Southern soldiers and the noble Confederate leadership embodied in Jefferson Davis” defending a way of life, state’s rights, even the original American Revolution, against a rapacious Northern industrial machine. The actual reason for the Confederacy’s existence, slavery and the power of a plantation economy based on it, didn’t play a large role in the myth, although continued white dominance of political power and the associated denial of humanity to black Southerners was very much the point of it.
To get a feel for the Lost Cause in all of its flowery rhetoric, this note from the Register of Kentucky State Historical Society of 1903, may suffice. In “Just A Word About the Lost Cause” “J.C.M.” praises the Confederate Daughters of the South who laid wreaths upon the graves of those who “lost their young, noble lives to defend the sweetest land on earth from degradation […].” The writer does take issue with the “unfortunate name of ‘Lost Cause'” when “the principle involved is a just cause, like the divine spirit of truth, is immortal, and, crushed to earth, will rise again and glow in the heavens, covering its defenders on earth with the glory of triumph.”
The Lost Cause was also a fight over who represented the Confederate past. Kevin M. Levin details the post-war career of William Mahone, a Confederate General turned businessman and politician. Mahone supported the Republicans when the vast majority of white Southerners were solidly Democratic.
Mahone was also the most powerful, and therefore most vilified, face of the Readjusters, an independent, biracial Virginia movement in the late 1870s which matched “white supremacy, black subordination and agrarian economy with democratic struggle, black political action, and a progressive economic outlook.” By 1883, though, the Readjusters were swept from office in Virginia. The planter elites, known as Bourbons, regained power, defeating a home-grown attempt at reconciliation and reconstruction. The long years of racist terror known as Jim Crow would follow.