Book Review: The Myth Of The Lost Cause And Civil War History

The Myth Of The Lost Cause And Civil War History, edited by Gary W. Gallagher And Alan T. Nolan

While in general I am leery about books that demonize the South for the Lost Cause with with a broad brush, there is at least some value here because the targets are narrower and it is easy to see what aspects of the Lost Cause are being discussed in each of the essays, although it should be obvious that all of the people who write are immensely hostile to the Lost Cause myth, so one is not going to get anything like a fair-minded discussion of the myth but rather specific historical criticisms of various components of the myth as they have appeared in historiography.  That said, the criticisms that are made are certainly worthwhile ones to consider because of the way that they deal with the many tentacles that the lost cause myth has with regards to Civil War history and how it is viewed in society.  But it is a shame that the book is not written with more sympathy, because historical lies are not limited to one group of people or one perspective, but they are a common human problem with unreliable and corrupted memory.

This book is a bit more than 200 pages long and it is divided into nine essays that discuss different aspects of the Lost Cause myth.  After an introduction by one of the editors, the other editor discusses the anatomy of the Lost Cause myth (1) as it appears in various forms.  This is followed by an essay by the first editor on the relationship between the Lost Cause and Jubal Early (2).  This is followed by a discussion of the relationship between South Carolina and Wade Hampton and how political success and love as a Civil War legend were not always entirely the same (3).  After that there is an essay on Confederate soldier reunions in Georgia between 1885 and 1895 and how they were connected with Civil War tourism and memory (4).  After that there is a discussion of Virginia’s last generation of slave owners and the way that they continued their support of industrial development in the postwar period (5).  One essay explores the complex role of James Longstreet as a loyal subordinate to Lee but also the scapegoat of Gettysburg in the Lost Cause myth (6), which is followed by a discussion of the Lost Cause butchering of the historical record regarding Grant’s role in the Union victory and the sophistication of his approach (7).  The book is ended by essays that look at the role of LaSalle Corbell Picket in the Lost Cause myth (8) as well as lost cause religion (9) before a discussion of the contributors and an index.

As human beings, we feel the need to justify ourselves and our course of action, especially when those actions have serious negative repercussions.  Without being an adherent to the Lost Cause myth, it is nevertheless possible to understand why it developed and what aspects of it were found appealing by others who had a latent degree of cheering on the underdog and a hostility for logistics.  This book is to be praised for the nuanced way that it looks at a cause it clearly has no sympathy for, pointing out the way that different people could be cheered on in some aspects of their identity but not necessarily in others.  If the people who created and capitalized on the Lost Cause myth are certainly not well-respected or appreciated by their enemies, hopefully we can learn about ourselves and our own tendency to warp our perspective of the past in the light of changed circumstances.  In looking at this book, I think the authors here, while their analysis of narrow issues is excellent, could have done far better at looking at the wider implications and repercussions of the distortion of memory that results from traumatic negative experiences and how this is a common human phenomenon rather than something for which the Southeners and their descendants deserve to be blamed for as if they were somehow less human for it.

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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