Gettysburg Civil War Statue

Debunking the Lost Cause Myth

Teaching the Civil War and how to address the Lost Cause false narrative in our Catholic homeschools.

My father brought me to the Gettysburg battlefield as a boy. On Little Round Top, we had the fortune to stumble upon a ranger’s program, just begun. Fans of Gettysburg and the Civil War know the stories of bravery and heroism well at Little Round Top. However, the ranger made a special point of giving credit to Confederate General James Longstreet. As the ranger told it, Longstreet was the Confederates’ most skilled, most talented soldier. He had even developed a plan for winning at Gettysburg, albeit a plan that his commander, Robert E. Lee, rejected.

“Wait a minute,” someone in the audience interjected. “If Longstreet was so great, how come we don’t hear about him like we do Lee and [Thomas “Stonewall”] Jackson?” “Well,” the ranger replied, it’s because Longstreet made a few fatal decisions after the war had ended. First, he publicly criticized Lee’s decisions, especially those made during the Gettysburg campaign. Strike one. Second, he became a Republican, the party of the hated Reconstruction. Strike two. Third, he converted to Catholicism. Strike three. So, Southerners grew to hate Longstreet and mostly wrote him out of their history.”

Wisdom and the Civil War Era

Over time, I’m sure I’ve forgotten most of the ranger’s program. Yet, the bit about Longstreet strikes me just as strongly now as it did then. It continues to inspire a bit of shock and even outrage in me. What was going on with the South and Southerners that they would turn their back on one of their greatest heroes and instead treat him as a pariah? For me, answering this question led to several decades of research and a growing realization that, though it’s the “winners” who write history, that has largely NOT been the case with the American Civil War. Instead, the history and legacy of the conflict have been revised and rewritten many times over. Often, this is at the expense of some important social and moral issues.

That’s bad. Our Catholic faith teaches us that lies and deceptions are always morally wrong. Further, our faith commands us to be wise. So, how do we identify the deceptions in studying and teaching the American Civil War and related historical topics? A brief review of the core questions and their answers reveals a complex but fascinating series of stories on the path to greater wisdom.

What Caused the American Civil War

Put simply, a flawed national foundation.

If we rewind time all the way back to 1607, the British established Jamestown, Virginia, their first, lasting colony in America. Only twelve years later, in 1619, black slavery was introduced into Jamestown. Virginia soon codified laws concerning slavery, and other southern colonies followed a similar path. So, from the very beginning, slavery was part and parcel of the South.

When I teach students about the foundations of America, I emphasize that these southern colonies had very different goals at their start than the northern New England colonies. That is — the leaders of Jamestown were hoping to find gold, whereas the leaders of the Plymouth settlement (1620, Massachusetts) were seeking religious independence.

These two different flavors of America were yoked together during the revolutionary period, but not without friction. Most importantly, the two sections argued about fair representation during the formation of the U.S. Constitution in the 1780s and settled on the 3/5ths clause. The 3/5ths clause mandated that, in taking a census to determine representation in the Federal government, slaves would count as 3/5ths of a person. The compromise successfully balanced the initial political representation but also had the unintended side effect of linking the slave population with political power. Uh oh. From that point on, states with a significant slave population had a strong political motivation to not just maintain slavery but to expand it.

Meanwhile, the Northern states passed laws to ban slavery within their borders and had less than 0.01% of the slave population. Since the Southern states often had slave populations of more than 25%, the disparity pretty much guaranteed a socio-political divide between the North and South.

Political Balance

A fragile balance of power existed up through 1850, when the Southern states demanded a more robust fugitive slave law, one which forced Northern citizens to cooperate with the return of escaped slaves. Many Northerners, previously ambivalent on the issue, became strong political opponents of slavery during this decade. Finally, in 1860, even the traditionally pro-slavery Democratic party split on the issue, between a Southern presidential candidate (aggressively pro-slavery) and a Northern presidential candidate (more neutral on the issue). That weakened the Democratic ticket enough that, instead, we got our first Republican president — Abraham Lincoln.

Politically, this inspired the Southern states to secede from the Union because Lincoln had made it clear that he would not allow slavery to continue expanding. Failure to expand guaranteed that the slave states would eventually be outnumbered by the free states and so lose political leverage.

Socially, this inspired the Southern states to secede because the Republicans, as a political party, threatened to destroy Southern racial hierarchies.

This inspired the South to start the war militarily because only seven had initially seceded, and Virginia was not among them. Causing a crisis (in this case, attacking a federal fort) was a way to force the issue, inspiring four more states to join the Southern Confederacy (including Virginia) and also starting the American Civil War.

Wait… That Sounds Like Slavery Was the Main Issue

Yes, exactly. Politically and socially, the foundation of America as a partially slave and partially free nation was absolutely the core issue causing the American Civil War.

What’s more, the Confederates themselves felt the same way.

Speeches of Southern secession commissioners encouraged their fellow Southerners to vote for secession. They argued that the Republicans would free the slaves and cause race wars, black suffrage, and racial amalgamation.[1]

The vice-President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, in his famous “Cornerstone Speech” of March 21, 1861, argued that the original government of the United States was fundamentally flawed in its “assumption of the equality of races,” and that the Confederacy was to remedy this problem, since “our new government is founded upon, . . . its corner-stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; slavery – subordination to the superior race – is his natural and normal condition.”[2]

It’s clear and undeniable that the existence and protection of slavery in the South was the single, most important issue causing the American Civil War.

What About States’ Rights

Yes, there is the claim that the war was caused by a conflict of whether a state has the right to secede or not. While there is definitely some truth to this, it doesn’t come close to the overall importance of slavery in causing the war.

In fact, Southern politicians actually argued against states’ rights and secession in the 1830s and early 1840s, when Northern states, and especially Massachusetts, threatened to secede from the Union in order to get away from the South’s tyrannical pro-slavery laws.[3]

So, the argument for states’ rights is mostly an argument of convenience, a post-war, post-defeat invention meant to help justify Southern actions. This is illustrated quite nicely by an 1876 article by southern politician R.M.T. Hunter, when, in dismissing slavery as the cause of the war, he argued instead that “it was the fear of a mischief far more extensive and deeper,” namely, the political abuse of the Southern states by the Northern.[4] In other words: Forget slavery, political ills are more evil.

Do we, as Catholics, really buy this? I should certainly hope not.

The Soldiers’ Mindset

You may ask here, “Surely the soldiers themselves weren’t all fighting for or against slavery?” Correct, but let’s distinguish between what caused the war and why men fought the war.

It’s true that some men, North and South, volunteered to fight primarily because of their support or opposition to slavery. However, the motivation was more commonly a sense of duty, irrespective of the individual’s feelings about slavery. [5]

It’s not a contradiction to say that the war was caused for one reason and fought for another.

Importantly, this allows us a great deal of freedom in how we see the war veterans themselves, both North and South. We can say that they felt that they were doing their duty for family, friends, and home. These are high and praiseworthy things and have nothing to do with slavery. It allows us to claim both North and South war veterans as important, honorable parts of the American heritage.

Why the Confusion? What Happened?

After the war, Reconstruction sought to legislate and enforce greater civil rights for the blacks in the South. However, many Southerners resisted. Blacks and friends of blacks were often terrorized and even lynched. One Republican congressman, James Hinds, was assassinated, the first ever in our nation’s history.

As a sort of justification and vindication of these crimes, some Southerners sought to rewrite the causes, history, and meaning of the American Civil War. Collectively, these efforts were called “The Lost Cause.” And they were largely successful. Partially, they did this by not distinguishing between the cause of the war and why the Confederates volunteered to fight it. In other words, to the Lost Cause supporters, the justifications for fighting the war were righteous, and therefore, so must also be the causes for the war.

This is why, for example, there were so many Confederate memorials established all across the country, especially statues of Robert E. Lee. That is, Lee was first among the heroes of the Lost Cause, who was transformed into not just a brilliant general, but also a symbol of so-called righteous resistance to Reconstruction. Meanwhile, James Longstreet encouraged Southerners to cooperate with Reconstruction. As a result, he became enemy #1 of the Lost Cause. Not coincidentally, Lee was commemorated with dozens of statues, and hundreds of memorials, while Longstreet has barely two.

And make no mistake — the Lost Cause absolutely did all this for the wrong reasons. Their foremost historian, John William Jones, aggressively defended the “righteousness” of the Confederate cause… and he also aggressively defended racism. [6]

What Does This Mean for Us

Again — our faith commands us to be wise.

It may be tempting to sympathize with the arguments of the Lost Cause, but we must always remember that their primary purpose was to justify evil (racism and slavery) by creating lies and deceptions about history.

We must be aware of these lies and deceptions when studying and teaching the Civil War Era to our children.

We need to maintain the distinction between the causes of the war and why the soldiers fought in the war. Fighting for your family and country is a good and noble thing. Defending and justifying racism and slavery are NEVER noble things.


[1] See Charles Dew’s Apostles of Disunion, where he prints the unvarnished speeches of these Southern secession commissioners.

[2] https://history.iowa.gov/sites/default/files/history-education-pss-civil-cornerstone-transcription.pdf

[3]“House of Representatives. The Monomania Hoax—Ex-President Adams—The Treasury Note Bill—Petition for the Dissolution of the Union”. New York Daily Herald. January 26, 1842. p. 3.

[4] R.M.T. Hunter, “Origin of the Late War,” in Southern Historical Society Papers 1:1 (January, 1876), 1.

[5] James McPherson, For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 28.

[6] Jones was even recorded in the Richmond Dispatch of October 31, 1901, as criticizing President Roosevelt for inviting black people to eat in the white house. Of course, Jones went even further than that:  “Dr. Jones continued that he felt like saying what he had remarked once in New York, that other people could eat and sleep with negroes if they chose, but for him, he would not, and would not associate with those who did.”

EDITORS NOTE: Dr. Martin’s PhD dissertation was on the Lost Cause and can be read here: The Confederate Crusader: John William Jones and the Lost Cause

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