Book Review: The Myth Of The Lost Cause

The Myth Of The Lost Cause:  Why The South Fought The Civil War And Why The North Won, by Edward H. Bonekemper III

I have long wanted to read this book and have had it on my list of books to read from the library for years, but for some reason it took me a long time to get around to it–probably due to the fact that it was my highest priority to read books around 200 pages in length and this one showed up as longer despite only ending up around 260 pages in written material with extremely meticulous endnotes to help provide the evidence for the author’s sound but fierce contentions.  As someone who has done a large amount of reading on the Civil War myself [1], I can speak from my own reading that this author has done his homework and shown himself to be competent at handling the relevant Civil War historiography in order to debunk the key aspects of the neo-Confederate myth of the “Lost Cause.”  This book will make no enjoyable reading for adherents of that cause, but as someone who has spent a fair amount of my own life wrestling with such people and their bogus propaganda, this book was a breath of fresh air and an honest and bracing read and one whose conclusions I can wholeheartedly support.

In terms of its contents, this book is written in a polemical fashion, with a chapter designed for debunking key elements of the Lost Cause myth with overwhelming historical evidence and rhetorical ferocity.  The first chapter looks at the myth of the lost cause itself and how it came to be, and from whose writings and for what reasons it developed.  The second chapter examines the nature of slavery in 1861 and demonstrates that far from a dying institution it was strengthening its grip on the life and society of the antebellum South.  The third chapter demonstrates using the rhetoric of the seceding rebels themselves that slavery (often discussed in code words) was the clear and unmistakable cause of the Civil War, and that “state’s rights” was only inconsistently and selectively defended by the South in support of slavery in extensive fashion.  The fourth chapter of the book looks at ways the South could have won the Civil War, showing that it was not a hopeless contest.  The fifth chapter contains some lengthy and trenchant criticism of Lee’s performance as a general, demonstrating that Lee’s aggression and myopic view of the war kept him from reaching the highest levels of generalship.  The sixth chapter continues this theme of revisionist military history in defending the conduct of James Longstreet during the Battle of Gettysburg, a key element of the Lost Cause myth.  The seventh chapter gives a lengthy defense of Ulysses S. Grant’s conduct as a general and demonstrates through a detailed examination of his conduct in the Vicksburg campaign that he was not a butcher who hacked his way to victory but had a grasp of military strategy in a variety of ways–including logistics, operations, grand strategy, and Napoleonic tactics of seeking the flank or rear of one’s opponent and winning through audacity and celerity.  The eighth chapter discusses the way the North won by a hard war that was not a total war directed towards the extermination or rapine destruction of the civilian population.  The book then ends with a short conclusion, thoughtful acknowledgements, anad a very long set of endnotes.

Admittedly, this book and its approach will not be to everyone’s taste.  As someone with a higher than average tolerance for polemic and someone who shares in detail the perspective and views of the author, I found this book to be wonderful and a necessary corrective to much of the biased pro-Southern historiography that one finds.  After reading this book, and others like it, a reader may wonder why it is that so much ink is spent on rehabilitating those civil and political figures who fought for some of the worst causes known to man–the Confederacy’s cause only slightly more noble than that of Nazi Germany.  If I was writing a book on the Lost Cause, it would probably be a lot like this one, and a lot less entertaining to read, which makes it worthwhile that this author has done any such work I would have done for me, so that I can simply recommend readers to this book if they want to read what I think about the Lost Cause and about the efforts of so many propagandists-cum-historians to turn the Confederacy and its adherents into something that they are not:  noble and heroic.  This book is revisionist history at its best and at its hardest hitting.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, History, Military History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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