Myth of the Lost Cause

Here’s author and Civil War enthusiast Edward Bonekemper speaking on the lost cause myth, based on his latest book. The video’s description reads, “Edward Bonekemper talked about his book The Myth of the Lost Cause: Why the South Fought the Civil War and Why the North Won, in which he examines post-war arguments made by former Confederates seeking to justify their split from the Union and their defeat. In his book, Mr. Bonekemper argues that slavery and not states’ rights was the primary reason for secession. He also disputes several other aspects of the Lost Cause myth, such as the idea that Confederate General Robert E. Lee was a better commander than Ulysses S. Grant, and that General Grant only defeated General Lee because of superior troop numbers and resources. The Smithsonian Associates hosted this event.”

While Mr. Bonekemper is generally right, he does make a few basic factual errors. He claims Northerners “didn’t really care much about writing about the war until maybe a hundred years later.” That’s a shocking statement for anyone who’s read memoirs by Union soldiers, as well as anyone who’s read a history of the war by any Northerners prior to 1965. He says that in the secession documents “You don’t find mention of the word Tariff. You don’t see states’ rights either.” Georgia wrote about the tariff, to say the issue had been solved. Texas devoted one sentence to the tariff. While not a document explaining why South Carolina seceded, South Carolina’s “Address to the Slaveholding States” did mention the tariff as a reason why the Union needed the slave states more than the slave states needed the Union, and that they would be economically successful if they were a separate country. The fact that they claimed a right to unilaterally secede meant they were using the extreme states rights position, though not as a reason for secession but in fact as the method used to effect secession.

Mr. Bonekemper claims R. E. Lee was dedicated to Virginia first. Professor Gary Gallagher has shown clearly that Lee was a dedicated confederate nationalist. If Lee was only about Virginia he wouldn’t have accepted an assignment to South Carolina and Florida early in the war. He also repeats the mistaken claim that no one referred to the United States as “is” prior to the war. There were far more references to the United States “is” than the United States “are” prior to the war. He claims Lee didn’t know or care what was going on outside Virginia. That’s patently false, as anyone reading Lee’s writings during the war can see.

Mr. Bonekemper also claims Richard S. Ewell was a weak general at Gettysburg who should have taken Cemetery Hill [what Mr. Bonekemper calls “the high ground.” Anyone who studies the Union dispositions and the confederate dispositions will know Ewell made the right decision. He also claimed there was never a simultaneous attack on all the US forces at Gettysburg, but it was not for lack of trying. Lee attempted to launch coordinated attacks on both wings of the Union Army, but there were factors that prevented this from happening.

Mr. Bonekemper’s errors are basic errors and detract greatly from the effectiveness of his presentation. Still, I think it’s worth watching.


  1. What do you know about “historians” Bill Collier and Anke Geoffrey?

    1. Never heard of them, but the article you linked is by a money manager and his daughter, neither of which have a clue about history.

    2. Jimmy Dick · · Reply

      It is pretty clear that pair does not know their history because the tariff was definitely not the cause of the Civil War. It really does not take much research to look into the Congressional Globe and see what happened and what would have happened based on the election results of 1860 and the decision of states to secede.

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