Book Review: The Lost Cause

The Lost Cause:  A New Southern History Of The War Of The Confederates, by Edward A. Pollard

While this book is negligible in its insight of the Civil War and is ridiculously, even comically biased in favor of the South, it was the sort of terrible book which is entertaining to read.  And it should be noted that this book was written in the immediate aftermath of the defeat of the Confederacy, and that the author was responsible for coining the term lost cause to discuss the Confederate longing for an imagined independence.  All of this makes this a book of considerable value as propaganda and as a cultural artifact even if it makes for a terrible history.  Indeed, this book ought to be a reminder to any historian who would be inclined to learn the lesson that someone cannot be a just judge of their own cause, and that being an activist of necessity makes one a poor historian of a matter that touches upon the cause one is actively in support of (or, similarly, of something that is inimical to one’s own causes).  Obviously, those who are most in need of such a lesson will be likely to heed it the least but that is how these things go, alas.

This book is a somewhat sprawling book at around 750 pages or so with 44 relatively short chapters that cover the period from the lead-in to the war to the conclusion of the war and the author’s fears about reconstruction.  The book begins with a denial of American federalism, moves on to anger about Lincoln’s provocation of the South, and has a lot to say about the various battles as well as the non-military aspects of the war, including economics and logistics and the psychology of the populace of the South and of the largely quarreling leaders of the South.  Much of the information in this book will be broadly familiar to readers who have read dozens of narrative histories of the Civil War.  The book is broadly chronological but covers the Battle of Nashville, for example, before covering the siege of Petersburg, which means that this is a book where the narrative of the war is not really sorted.  The book has a 19th century feel to it with lengthy chapter headings that summarize the points, rather than the more contemporary simplification of the material of chapters.  One thing that never changes is the author’s unflinching partisanship for the South.

This book is a sprawling one, and it has some characteristic flaws that have been lampooned successfully for the last 150 years.  The author underestimates Confederate casualties by at least half and doubles or triples Union casualties.  Similarly, the author leaves no libel against Lincoln unused, while being immensely melodramatic in his discussion of the apotheosis of various rebel dead like Jackson and Stuart.  Somehow this book set the template for neo-Confederate “histories” of having the South win nearly every battle but somehow lose the war because various cowardly generals retreated after victories.  The author is somewhat of a partisan of Johnston, blaming Pemberton for the loss at Vicksburg and Davis for being too intemperate in demanding an attack in Georgia, and so on.  The result is a work that cannot be recommended at all as a book of history but points out some of the patterns of explaining the war that would be followed by later writers, including a tendency to complain about logistics.  So this is a significant work of history in that it was highly imitated, but it is by no means the sort of history that anyone should have written in the 1860’s or should adopt as a model for one’s approach in the contemporary time.

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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