The First Lost Cause: Transnational Memory

The First Lost Cause: Transnational Memory

The study of Civil War Memory has grown exponentially over the past decade. While Civil War history in general has taken a small transnational turn, memory studies continues to lag behind in that regard. Michael J. Turner’s 2012 work served as an early attempt for its exploration of the image of Stonewall Jackson in Great Britain and the raising of money in Great Britain for a Jackson statue in Richmond, Virginia.[1] By avoiding the international and embracing a rather insular perspective,[2] Civil War memory has overlooked some rather important aspect: the Lost Cause is not unique. Mexico dealt with its defeat in 1848 in a remarkably similar way to how the rebellious and defeated Confederates explained their failures, which challenges us to consider if the Lost Cause is archetypal for defeated nationalities in general.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to hear Kevin Levin talk about his newest book, Searching for Black Confederates, at the Atlanta History Center. I remember Kevin facing the question after his talk how the United States is such an odd place where the losing side got to write history and how the Lost Cause imprinted its false stories on millions of people. Of course, if one (meaning historians and the public in general) assumes that only in the United States the losing side wrote a story of “victory,” one does advance an exceptionalism argument, which can be rather problematic. The United States, however, is not the only place where defeat was turned into some form of victory. Therefore, if the Lost Cause is not unique, comparative studies of Civil War Memory may reveal how in different ways the United States was part of a modern trend to memorialize wartime experiences.

The history and collective remembrances of the War between the United States and Mexico from 1846 to 1848 could not be any more different in the two respective countries. In the United States, it is simply the Mexican War and largely forgotten by the public today. For Mexicans, it is the Guerra de la Intervención Norteamericana and aspects of it are very much remembered, especially the child defenders of Chapultepec Castle who fought U.S. forces, in five cases to the death in defiance of orders to retreat, in defense of their academy during the battle by the same name from September 12 to September 13, 1847. These remembrances sustained both anger and resentment over subsequent generations. Pre-dating former Confederates’ efforts by seventeen years, Mexican military and political leaders had to explain their defeat to the public as well as seek vindication for themselves. They hoped to learn from the war in an effort to avoid such a dramatic disaster in the future. The new Constitution of 1857 and the creation of a stronger national identity were crucial in that regard. The effort to strengthen the ties between people and nation were remarkably successful as the French would find out in the 1860s when their forces faced a much stiffer Mexican resistance. This is obviously in contrast to the United States where Confederate nationalism continues but does not sustain a state that needs to defend against foreign invaders (unless of course one wishes to see Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement in such a light).[3]

Cover of Esposición dirigida al supremo gobierno por los comisionados que firmaron el tratado de paz con los Estados-Unidos (Matamoros, Mexico: Antonio Castañeda, 1848). Available at http://cdigital.dgb.uanl.mx/la/1020000857/1020000857.html

Mexican officers and politicians used the immediate post-war years to blame each other for the disastrous outcome of the war. However, the arguments promoted in a series of government reports most closely align with the Lost Cause narrative.[4] The Mexican politicians and military leaders believed like southern rebels that this was an unnecessary war that should not have happened in the first place. Like many ex-Confederates who claimed that they joined a cause to defend their home from invaders, so too did the Mexicans. In the words of Jubal Early, one of the architects of the Lost Cause, “I opposed secession with all the ability I possessed, with the hope that the horrors of civil war might be averted, and that a returning sense of duty and justice on the part of the masses of the Northern States, would induce them to respect the rights of the people of the South.”[5] Mexicans could not have said that any better. One of the government reports observed, “We do not hide from ourselves what Mexico, defending its own homes, could have done to repel the invasion, and we have very much in mind, like all Mexicans, the honorable examples that the history of our country offers in its good days.”[6] But the similarities, such as the perception of defending one’s home and the need to maintain honor in the face of an enemy invasion, do not end with assumptions about the war’s origins.

Where southern rebels believed in a warped reality in which the election of a Republican President would spell the end of slavery and bring abolition to the southern slave states, so too did Mexicans assume that there had been a plot in the United States that had long aimed to steal land from Mexico. Mexicans dated the plans for the steal back to the settlement of Texas by individuals from the United States. Manuel Crescencio Rejón even claimed that before Mexico had come into existence there were plans to wrest Texas away to the United States. He claimed that residents in Baton Rouge tried to instigate a rebellion in Texas against the Spanish monarchy. Even more, by the 1830s, Rejón claimed, there was a push to interpret the 1819 treaty between the United States and Spain as having included Texas and not drawn the boundary along the Sabine River as well as the support provided from the United States to the rebels in Texas.[7]The creation of conspiratorial enemies was fundamental to both Lost Causes.

Even in the presentation of their enemies the two Lost Causes offer similarities. Mexican authors presented the U.S. soldiers in the worst of lights. Not only was their appearance that of “common brigands and highwayman,” they “brought crime, anarchy, and fear.” The people from the United States from the Mexican perspective were “degenerate, duplicitous, and godless.” Even more, as historian Michael Van Wagenen notes, “authors championed the reputation of their army and found consolidation in the valor of the soldiers, who bravely faced overwhelming odds. Mexico had lost the war, they claimed, not because of cowardice but because of a lack of modern technology, army, and soldiers before a numerous, powerful foe.”[8]

These words should ring eerily familiar to Civil War memory scholars as they could have been said just as well by one of the early architects of the Lost Cause. In his final order to the Army of Northern Virginia, Robert E. Lee stated, “the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources,” exactly like the Mexicans claimed years earlier. Lee was well aware of the “valour and devotion” of his soldiers, but also understood that all of this could not change the outcome.[9] Like Lee, Mexicans believed that they had to accept the peace or face the devastating continuation of the war and peace at worse terms.

A final comparison between the two Lost Causes lies with some of the youngest individuals involved in the war. Mexico was harder pressed to find heroic figures than rebellious southerners who had an abundance of them. However, both sides also fought battles where underaged soldiers showcased their heroism and faced death. For the rebellious South and promoters of the Lost Cause, the cadets of the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) and their charge at the Battle of New Market symbolize the commitment of even the young to the cause. Popularized by the film Field of Lost Shoes, the VMI supported and partially staffed battlefield park continues to foster the narrative of the Lost Cause highlighting the cadets’ sacrifices.[10]

White marble pillars with gray statues atop in war memorial.
Monument to the Niños Héroes in Chapultepec Park, Mexico City, dedicated 1952.

Mexico too had its heroic children with the cadets of the military academy at Chapultepc Castle who defended their school during the battle of the same name. Even military histories of the war published in the United States mention the heroism of the young cadets as they embraced death in this pivotal battle on the edge of Mexico City. The Niños Héroes (Boy Heroes or Heroic Cadets) became enshrined in Mexican culture highlighting their willingness to give their last for the country. Both Lost Causes utilize children to foster their narratives of self-sacrifice and patriotism, as Van Wegenen says.[11]

While it is unlikely that Southern crafters and promoters of the Lost Cause were aware of the Mexican efforts to write their own Lost Cause narratives to explain why they had at least won a moral victory, the similarities between the two arguments are striking, even if there are differences as well, and it says much about the nation-defining and invigorating post-defeat process that both Mexicans and former Confederates went to such length to explain the disastrous outcome of war. Transnational and comparative history allows us to better understand unique characteristics of national narratives and challenge notions of exceptionalism. If something as quintessential as the Lost Cause is not unique and restricted to just the United States, how much more can we gain from studying the commemoration of the Civil War in an international frame?

 

[1] Michael J. Turner, Stonewall Jackson, Beresford Hope, and the Meaning of the American Civil War in Britain (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2020).

[2] There are a few other works that look at the image of Lincoln abroad, particularly in Great Britain, and often with a exceptionalism and America-philia approach: Gabor S. Boritt, Mark E. Neely, Harold Holzer, “The European Image of Abraham Lincoln,” Winterthur Portfolio 21 (Summer 1986), 153–183; Richard Carwardine, Jay Sexton, eds., The Global Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[3] Michael Van Wagenen, Remembering the Forgotten War: The Enduring Legacies of the U.S./Mexican War (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012), 41.

[4] Dictamen de la comisión de la cámara de senadores del Congreso General sobre la aprobación del tratado celebrado por el gobierno de la Republica con el de los Estados-Unidos de Norte (Querétaro, Mexico: Imprenta de J. M. Lara, 1848), 4; Esposición dirigida al supremo gobierno por los comisionados que firmaron el tratado de paz con los Estados-Unidos (Matamoros, Mexico: Antonio Castañeda, 1848),

[5] Jubal A. Early, A Memoir of the Last Year of the War for Independence, in the Confederate States of America (New Orleans: Blelock, 1867), v.

[6] Esposición dirigida al supremo gobierno por los comisionados que firmaron el tratado de paz con los Estados-Unidos (Matamoros, Mexico: Antonio Castañeda, 1848), accessed at https://www.memoriapoliticademexico.org/Textos/2ImpDictadura/1848-Exp-ComPaz.html.

[7] Manuel Crecencio Rejón, Observaciones del Diputado Saliente Manuel Crecencio Rejon (Queretaro: Impr. de J.M. Lara, 1848), chapter 1; Wagenen, Remembering the Forgotten War, 44.

[8] Wagenen, Remembering the Forgotten War, 45-46.

[9] Robert E. Lee, General Order No. 9, April 10, 1865, available at https://collections.libraries.indiana.edu/lilly/exhibitions_legacy/history/generaltext.html

[10] Barbara A Gannon, Americans Remember Their Civil War (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2017), 129.

[11] Wagenen, Remembering the Forgotten War, 6, 48-49.

Niels Eichhorn

holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Arkansas and has taught history courses at Middle Georgia State University and Central Georgia Technical College. He has published Liberty and Slavery: European Separatists, Southern Secession, and the American Civil War (LSU Press, 2019) and Atlantic History in the Nineteenth Century: Migration, Trade, Conflict, and Ideas (Palgrave, 2019). He is currently working with Duncan Campbell on The Civil War in the Age of Nationalism. He has published articles on Civil War diplomacy in Civil War History and American Nineteenth Century History. You can find more information on his personal website, and he can be contacted at eichhorn.niels@gmail.com.

3 Replies to “The First Lost Cause: Transnational Memory”

  1. As always, a very thought-provoking article that pushes the boundaries (literally?) of the study of American Civil War memory and the Lost Cause.

    Your conclusion begs the question, do any of the architects of the Confederate Lost Cause make reference, say, to Chapultepec and the cadets there? Or are the references simply implied?

    Excellent work, Niels! Looking forward to the next installment.

  2. Interesting take on the historical and political narrative of both wars and their continuing impact on their communities. I am, however, a little disappointed in the lack of final proof editing for publiction. Needs a tuneup.

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