Book Review: The Myth Of The Lost Cause 1865-1900

The Myth Of The Lost Cause 1865-1900, by Rollin G. Osterweis

One of the strange asymmetries that one finds when it comes to the lost cause is that those who practice it do not mention it, while those that label it are those who generally hold to an abolitionist perspective and have no sympathies whatsoever for white Southerners in the aftermath of the Civil War.  Without being in any way a partisan of the cause of the Confederacy, I find this to be troubling.  If the Lost Cause, or certain elements of it at least, have achieved a great deal of currency in the world of history and literature over the course of the last 150 years, it behooves us to wonder why this is the case and to answer that question fairly.  This book does not do that.  It heaps a lot of blame on various people for starting the myth and perpetuating it, but it does not address the root causes of why the myth remains so popular even if that popularity has gotten to be a lot less unfashionable recently.  The lessons in the reaction to cultural overreach seem not to have been learned by those who wish to demonize the response of the South to their defeat in the Civil War, and that may have tragic consequences.

This book is a relatively short one at about 150 pages or so.  It begins with a preface and then a discussion of the emergence of the postwar myth (1).  After that the author discusses the use of the Klan and violence against those who cooperated with and supported the Yankee regimes as the initial response of the South (2).  After that comes a discussion of literature as the battleground in presenting a favorable view of the South (3) and the discovery of the lost cause by national periodicals, many of them based in New York (4).  This leads to a discussion of the triumph of Southern literary themes and approaches and perspectives in a nation that desired reconciliation (5), and the refighting of the Civil War in the dueling memoirs and articles written by various Civil War figures (6).  After that the author discusses the Daughters of the Confederacy (7) and the feudal fief of the New York stage and its role in perpetuating the myth (8) as well as the winning of the war in the classrooms through textbook editing (9) and approval.  The author then turns his attention towards pro-Southern ministers (10) as well as the importance of romantic oratory (11) in spreading the myth to widespread audiences.  The book then finishes with an epilogue on the consequences of the Lost Cause myth (12) as well as notes and an index.

It is a strange irony that those who show the most hostility to the misguided historical memory of the South and those influenced by neo-Confederate myths frequently show a hostility to historical truth themselves and anachronistically judge people in the past by the standard of the present, and judge people here and now by the standards of a lunatic leftist fringe which passes for scholarly consensus in many fields at present.  One of the reasons why it is unwise to write books about those for whom one has no sympathy or understanding whatsoever is because one fails to recognize the similarity that one may have with those one writes negatively about.  The response of the South in seeking violence in order to avoid unwanted social change mirrors the sort of violence that is praised by the contemporary left because it seeks to coerce others into wanted political change.  Similarly, the lack of balance in the approach of the book fails to account for the author’s likely praise of propaganda that simply comes from a different and more favorable perspective.  The response of the South to its defeat was entirely human, and if it was mistaken, it is the sort of mistake that is extremely common and therefore something one can use as a learning opportunity without pouring on scorn and contempt on those who are more like the author than he would be willing to admit.

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 and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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