Ghosts of the Confederacy

This book by Professor Gaines Foster, published in 1987, traces the development of the lost cause lie and how former confederates and their descendants came to terms with their defeat in the Civil War and celebrated the confederacy in the later years of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth century.

A number of confederate organizations formed after the Civil War. “Out of the activities of these postwar Confederate organizations emerged the Confederate tradition, the dominant complex of attitudes and emotions that constituted the white South’s interpretation of the Civil War. The tradition developed out of and in turn shaped individuals’ memory of the war, but it was primarily a public memory, a component of the region’s cultural system, supported by the various organizations and rituals of the Lost Cause. In order to understand the meaning and function of this tradition, the historian must examine who controlled these postwar Confederate organizations (and thereby served as keepers of the past), how southerners responded to these groups, what these groups had to say about the war, and what their rituals meant. Only then may the nature of the Confederate tradition become concrete and the southerners’ sense of their past clear.” [p. 5]

There were competing interpretations of the war in the South, and eventually white southern memory began to coalesce. “In the 1870s a coalition of organizations headquartered in Virginia began what amounted to a Confederate revitalization movement. Jubal A. Early and the other leaders of its constituent groups fit the stereotype of proponents of the Lost Cause. They brooded over defeat, railed against the North, and offered the image of the Confederacy as an antidote to postwar change. While not tied closely to the planter class, the leaders of this movement came from the prewar southern elite and from among the leaders of the Confederacy. They wrote much history that influenced the South’s interpretation of the war, but they never created a successful movement. … Extreme enthusiasm for and extensive participation in Confederate activities developed much later, toward the end of the 1880s. For the next twenty years or so, southerners celebrated the Confederacy as never before or since. Veterans all over the South joined not the Virginia organizations but a new group, the United Confederate Veterans. Nearly a hundred thousand southerners each year journeyed to one city for the UCV’s reunion and a general festival of the South. The Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy also formed at this time. And most of the stone Confederate soldiers on town squares and courthouse lawns were put up during the same years. Although this Confederate celebration had its roots in persisting anxieties resulting from defeat, increasing fears generated by the social changes of the late nineteenth century provided the immediate impetus for the revived interest in the Lost Cause. In the public commendation of the Confederate cause and its soldiers, veterans and other southerners found relief from the lingering fear that defeat had somehow dishonored the. At the same time, the rituals and rhetoric of the celebration offered a memory of personal sacrifice and a model of social order that met the needs of a society experiencing rapid change and disorder. The Lost Cause, therefore, should not be seen, as it so often has been, as a purely backward-looking or romantic movement. The Confederate celebration did not foster a revival of rabid sectionalism. With the exception of a few disgruntled and unreconstructed die-hards, its leaders and participants preached and practiced sectional reconciliation. Although in no way admitting error, their accounts of the war emphasized not the issues behind the conflict but the experience of battle that both North and South had shared. The Lost Cause did not signal the South’s retreat from the future, but, whether intentionally or not, it eased the region’s passage through a particularly difficult period of social change. Many of the values it championed helped people adjust to a new order; to that extent, it supported the emergence of the New South.” [pp. 5-6]

The book is organized in three parts. The first part is titled, “Coming to Terms with Defeat, 1865 to 1885.” Monumentation during this time overwhelmingly took place in cemeteries [64 monuments placed in cemeteries, 26 monuments placed in towns (Appendix 1, p. 273)] The second part is “Celebrating the Confederacy 1883 to 1907.” This is after consolidating the defeat of Reconstruction and establishment of Jim Crow. Monumentation here is about half in cemeteries and half at courthouses and town squares [From 1886 to 1899 there were 53 monuments erected in cemeteries and 44 monuments erected in towns. From 1900 to 1912, 9 monuments were erected in cemeteries and 19 monuments erected in towns. (Appendix 1, p. 273)]. Part Three is titled, “The Waning Power of the Confederate Tradition, 1898 to 1913.”

In his conclusion Professor Foster tells us, “The Confederate celebration had not only helped create this sense of triumph and confidence, in the process it had subtly influenced the development of the New South. The memory of the war helped bolster white supremacy, of course. Yet racism was not as overt in or as central to the Confederate celebration as one might suspect, and southerners employed its symbols in behalf of a wide spectrum of racial thought. After all, in the 1880s Cable had invoked Lee, albeit unsuccessfully, in the cause of racial liberalism. And although in 1900 a white mob in New Orleans gathered at the Lee monument before setting off on a murderous attack on blacks, six years later following a similar riot in Atlanta one racial conservative summoned the spirit of Lee in behalf of moderation and fair play. Nevertheless, the celebration did reinforce white supremacy. Accounts of good and dutiful slaves and the appearance of faithful blacks at reunions provided models intended to teach the ‘new Negro’ born since slavery how to behave. And the celebration’s symbols of unity could be and were employed in the fight for disfranchisement and segregation.” [p. 194] This is where we get the tales of faithful slaves you see in newspaper accounts, obituaries, and Confederate Veteran issues.

If you’re a serious student of the Civil War and its memory, and if you are interested in the discussions about confederate heritage and monumentation, this book is a necessity. It’s deeply researched and packed with information. This helps us understand much of what today’s neoconfederates get wrong about how the Civil War was remembered and especially how African Americans responded.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: