Defining Defeat and Redefining the Lost Cause: An SHA Panel Recap

Defining Defeat and Redefining the Lost Cause: An SHA Panel Recap

Today, the Lost Cause is rarely far from historians’ minds. Headlines of Confederate monuments coming down compete for space with stories of southern lawmakers proposing monuments to black Confederates. States are finally rewriting their curriculum to address slavery’s central role in the causation of the Civil War, while reality TV stars are vowing to plant Confederate flags in all fifty states. Many scholars find it daunting to combat such a firmly entrenched version of the past—especially one that celebrates a heroic South defending individual freedoms and states’ rights against great odds. Others have boldly taken to social media and the written word to correct these mistruths. Amidst such valiant efforts a question emerges: are we oversimplifying things by casting ex-Confederates as a monolithic group?

In truth, the Lost Cause manifested itself in numerous ways—as several stalwart scholars learned when they woke up early on a Sunday morning to hear one of the final Civil War era panels at the SHA. Collectively, the papers of “Defining Defeat: Three Approaches to Making Sense of Loss and the Confederate Experience,” revealed that there was no single iteration of the Lost Cause. Instead, they suggested—as chair and commentator Anne Sarah Rubin (University of Maryland- Baltimore County) clarified—that when the war ended and the guns silenced, few Confederates considered themselves defeated. The former rebels found a variety of political, social, and cultural ways to cope with their loss, give meaning to their resentment, and highlight their resistance to Reconstruction. In this way, the Lost Cause was malleable and a reflection of “reactionary pragmatism,” according to fellow commentator Peter S. Carmichael (Gettysburg College).

The all-female panel commenced with Amy Fluker’s (Youngstown State University) “‘We Too Bear the Confederate Name’: The Lost Cause and Missouri’s Contested Civil War Memory,” a preview of her forthcoming book Commonwealth of Compromise: Missouri, the West, and Civil War Memory under contract with University of Missouri Press. Fluker opened with a scene from a September 1889 GAR reunion in Cassville, Missouri, where Union veterans “distastefully” sang “John Brown’s Body,” including its verse about hanging Jefferson Davis from a sour apple tree, for local Confederate veterans they had invited to attend. Such events reflected the complicated and competing commemorative narratives of post-war Missouri. There, former Confederate sympathizers faced unique hardships in their efforts to reconcile their defeat. Because of their divided loyalties and the ineligibility of state guard members and guerrillas to join the United Confederate Veterans, Missourians proved not Confederate enough for most Lost Cause champions. Missourians, therefore, cast themselves as martyrs: their failure to secede was due to uncontrollable circumstances and their commitment to the rebel cause never wavered. They reminded their eastern counterparts that Missouri blood had flowed like water and many Missourians bore the title of Confederate veteran. Ultimately, Fluker reminded us that the geography of the Lost Cause was not limited to the eleven states of the Confederacy, since Missouri actively participated in the contested commemorative terrain of the Lost Cause.

While Fluker’s study explored the complicated local landscape of the Lost Cause, Ann L. Tucker (University of North Georgia) broadened her focus to the international perspective. Her paper “Internationalizing Loss: Former Confederates’ International Perspectives on Defeat”—an initial stab at a new project—continues the global focus of her first book, Newest Born of Nations: European Nationalist Movements and the Making of Southern Nationhood, 1820-1865, forthcoming from the University of Virginia Press. According to Tucker, former Confederates contextualized their defeat by looking at the experiences, failed attempts, and political subjugation of Ireland, Hungary, and Poland. In this way, they simultaneously redefined themselves while anticipating the oppression that the United States was sure to inflict on them during Reconstruction. Southern nationalism may have failed but the former Confederates did not consider themselves reunited Americans. Instead, they found solace in their defeat by comparing their suffering to other nations and knowing that they were not exceptional in their failures. This prompted ex-Confederates to shift the blame for the war’s cause to the Union, adopt the Lost Cause, cast the Republican government as despotic, and articulate specific oppressions they anticipated enduring: loss of self-government, loss of suffrage, and loss of white supremacy. Ultimately, former Confederates absolved themselves of culpability and cast themselves as victims; they lost the war because the other civilized nations of the world had abandoned them and their virtuous cause.

The panel ended on a humorous note when Sarah K. Bowman (Columbus State University) explored the South’s comedic coping mechanism against perceived and real oppressions. Her piece, “The Pleasures of Satire: A New Perspective on the Emotion of Defeat,” explained how the defeated South rejected the changes of Reconstruction via hostility and satire— casting the carpetbaggers, scalawags, and freedmen as villains, carnival attractions, or comic characters that shouldn’t be taken seriously. Incorporating entertaining anecdotes from poems, plays, visual culture, balls, and political events, Bowman recounted the racist mockery that former Confederates embraced as they lampooned black politicians, satirized the new Republican governments, and recast Reconstruction as a grand farce. The timing of such satire was important as the South sought to get the last linguistic laugh. According to Bowman, Southern humor reached its pinnacle just as the Reconstruction Conventions were meeting to reinstate the former Confederate states and invite African Americans to full political participation. Interestingly, some convention delegates attended the very plays and balls that undermined their efforts and cast them as circus animals. In this context, humor became an effective way to mask fears allowing the South to denigrate change, delegitimize Reconstruction, and ultimately seek revenge against their oppressors. In this way, the former Confederacy rejected their defeat and victimization by reasserting their dominance, affirming their masculinity, and claiming victory over the reconstruction process.

Taken together, these three excellent papers offer nuanced insight into the complicated construction of the Lost Cause. Whether understood locally or internationally, former Confederates utilized a variety of tactics to cope with, interpret, and explain away their defeat. Through humor, global comparisons, and self-constructed narratives, white Southerners crafted the Lost Cause to dig themselves out of the dark hole of Reconstruction. In the process, they crafted a multifaceted and adaptive Lost Cause that we are still unpacking today.



Laura June Davis

Laura June Davis is an Assistant Professor of History at Southern Utah University. She earned masters degrees from George Mason University and Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi before receiving her Ph.D. from the University of Georgia in 2016. Her research and teaching focus on 19th century gender, military, naval, and African American history. She is currently working on a manuscript about Confederate boat burners, sabotage, and naval guerrilla warfare on the Mississippi River. A preview of her work can be found in The Guerrilla Hunters: Irregular Conflicts During the Civil War edited by Brian D. McKnight Barton A. Myers (LSU Press, 2017).

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