The Magazine

Aftermyth of War

The Lost Cause is among the casualties in this definitive history.

Dec 31, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 16 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
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As we mark the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, the publication of Allen Guelzo’s magisterial new account of that conflict is most timely. But given the fact that, by even the most conservative estimates, some 60,000 books and pamphlets have been written about what was once called the War of the Rebellion, the question naturally arises: Why do we need another one? 

A very compelling reason is that Guelzo is one of our most accomplished Civil War historians, and one of the country’s foremost Lincoln scholars. He is the first two-time winner of the Lincoln Prize—in 2000 for Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President and in 2005 for Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America, the definitive treatment of that document. In addition, Guelzo’s prose is graceful and erudite—indeed, almost poetic. He is as comfortable with military topics as he is with the political, social, and economic aspects of the war and its aftermath. 

But the most important reason for embracing Fateful Lightning is that it continues an important trend regarding how we understand the Civil War, by overturning the “Lost Cause” school of historiography. As Edward A. Pollard wrote in the 1867 book that gave this interpretation its name, “all that is left in the South is the war of ideas.” The Lost Cause thesis is neatly summarized in an 1893 speech by the former Confederate officer Col. Richard Henry Lee:

As a Confederate soldier and as a Virginian, I deny the charge [that the Confederates were rebels] and denounce it as a calumny. We were not rebels, we did not fight to perpetuate human slavery, but for our rights and privileges under a government established over us by our fathers and in defense of our homes.

As David Blight has observed in Race and Reunion, the Lost Cause interpretation of the war was the South’s response to the physical destruction and psychological trauma of defeat. In this view, the Old South was a racial utopia, an organic society composed of loyal slaves and benevolent masters. The war pitted this “slave democracy” against the “free mobocracy” of the North, and the noble side lost. The matchless bravery of the Confederate soldier succumbed to the “juggernaut of superior numbers and merciless power.” As Robert Penn Warren once wrote, “In the moment of its death, the Confederacy entered upon its immortality.”

Almost immediately after the conflict ended, the Lost Cause school towered like a colossus over Civil War historiography. Former Confederate general Jubal Early and other Lost Cause authors were instrumental in shaping perceptions of the war, in the North as well as in the South. The works of Douglas Southall Freeman, Virginian and biographer of Robert E. Lee, represent the epitome of the Lost Cause school; but even writers like Bruce Catton, who interpreted the war primarily from a Northern perspective, accepted many of the Lost Cause assumptions.

There are two parts to the Lost Cause interpretation. The first is political, and holds that the cause of the war was not slavery, but the oppressive power of the central government which wished to tyrannize the Southern states. The South only wished to exercise its constitutional right to secede, but was thwarted by a power-hungry Lincoln. This assessment was advanced by, most prominently, Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, and Alexander Stephens, his vice president. The second part of the interpretation is military-based, and concludes that the noblest soldier of the war was Robert E. Lee. For three years, he and his army provided the backbone of the Confederate cause, fighting in Virginia, the most important theater of the war. But though his adversaries were far less skillful than he, they were able to bring to bear superior resources, which ultimately overwhelmed the Confederacy.

Guelzo demonstrates that the first part of the Lost Cause argument is false. Slavery was both the proximate and deep cause of the war; there was no constitutional right to dissolve the Union. Southerners could have invoked the natural right of revolution, but they didn’t do so because of its implications for a slaveholding society—so they were hardly the heirs of the revolutionary generation. 

But Guelzo validates the truth of the second part of the argument. The South did fight at a material disadvantage, and Lee was a remarkably skillful soldier who overcame immense odds on battlefield after battlefield. Unlike many historians who have taken the rejection of the Lost Cause argument to the extreme by dismissing the military competence of Lee, Guelzo gives the Confederate general his due.