by Adam H. Domby
Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Nage. Pp. 272.
Illus., notes, biblio., index. $29.95. ISBN: 0813943760
Creating the “Lost Cause”
This excellent book had the good fortune to be published right before the recent events that have led to the toppling of some of the best known icons of the Confederacy and “The Lost Cause” myth that sought to immortalize it. It should be flying off the shelves.
Historian Adam Domby is a witty guide to the lies behind the ideological edifice that is “The Lost Cause” distortion of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Where other authors have shown the racism behind The Lost Cause, Domby demonstrates that, time and again, Confederate apologists just simply made stuff up! Whenever it was in their interests, Confederates and those who were Confederate adjacent invented whatever details they needed to show that the Confederate rebellion against the United States was fully justified and honorable. In doing so, they hoped to convince their fellow Americans that white Southerners, far from being barbaric defenders of slavery and oligarchy, were the class of men entitled to rule the South and control the bodies and labor of African Americans.
As The Lost Cause elevated Confederates to the status of heroes and designated their leaders like Robert E. Lee as brilliant, moral, and gentle, they dehumanized former slaves. Domby writes:
''The identity of white southerners in the postwar South—which “justified segregation and disenfranchisement”—was heavily based on a narrative of the past. Other historians have shown that terrible crimes against humanity can be committed by “unifying” a group “around what is effectively a false or skewed version of their history.” For the Jim Crow South, the Lost Cause served as part of what one historian calls “a carefully fabricated version of southern history” that justified racial discrimination. The ties between memory and white supremacy have proven impossible to ignore because, since its inception, the Lost Cause’s “very existence depended upon dehumanizing a group of people.” [p. 13]
By 1900, says Domby, the white South’s memory of the Confederacy was based less on “selective memory,” and more on “pure fabrication.” Of course, the biggest lie was that the war was not caused by slavery. Number Two was that the Confederate soldier was “the greatest in human history, warriors who only lost the war due to the overwhelming resources of the North.” [p. 14]
During the decades after Lee’s surrender, former Confederates crafted an image of a Confederacy in which all were united for the cause of Southern independence. In doing so, the very existence of white Unionists was erased and Black political aspirations were ignored. In fact, the term “Southerner” was used only to denote those living in the South who were white!
Domby’s careful examination of Confederate pension records uncovers widespread fraud, with men who had either never served in the Confederate forces, or who had deserted, being classified as loyal Confederate soldiers. In exchange for a small monthly payment, former opponents of the Confederacy were encouraged to assert allegiance to The Lost Cause.
Focusing on the creation of a Lost Cause narrative for North Carolina, Domby points out that when the lies it was built around were first told, other North Carolinians often called them out. It wasn’t as though no one knew they were false. But with the victory of white supremacy in the 1890s it became increasingly dangerous to speak truth to power, and the critiques were forgotten over time while the lies were enshrined in the state’s history textbooks and civic speeches. By the early 1900s only the state’s African Americans could remember the truth and by then they were virtually non-citizens.
Although lying is condemned by nearly all religions and ethical systems, it was done repeatedly by Confederate veterans and their heirs to reestablish the right of white men, exclusively and unquestionably, to rule the post-war South. According to Domby, the lies of The Lost Cause were:
''...used as a political tool to unite southern whites politically, threaten African American political activism, and justify Jim Crow. The fraud and fabrication that formed the foundation of the Lost Cause were central to the perpetuation of racism and racist power structures across the Jim Crow South. For example, recollections of superior white southern valor helped justify white supremacy. Similarly, the myth that nearly all whites supporting the Confederacy helped rally southern whites to vote based on their racial identity. A memory of paternalistic slavery and images of loyal slaves created a fictional past that showed how accepting racial hierarchies would lead to prosperity. A belief that all racial strife originated because of northern intervention in southern politics encouraged white southerners to oppose federal authorities’ attempts to end disenfranchisement, lynching, segregation, and other forms of oppression. Southern politicians used the Lost Cause as a tool to cement white supremacy.'' [pp. 18-19]
While most Americans reject the white supremacist goals of the fabricated Lost Cause narrative, acceptance of elements of the story is still widespread. The danger in the fact that tens of millions of Americans think that the Civil War was fought over anything other than slavery is obvious, as is the erasure of the suppression of Black civil rights after Reconstruction. Domby says that “Over 150 years after the Civil War, many of these fabricated stories and ideologies still pervade Americans’ understandings of the past and continue to influence American politics.” [p. 19]
Domby also discusses the duty of historians to confront the proliferation of deceptive Lost Cause history in the electronic marketplace of ideas. He writes that:
''...professional historians still dismiss Lost Cause advocates, flaggers, and neo-Confederates as absurd and laughable, unworthy of their time. Yet, to untrained readers, a modern variation of the Lost Cause narrative, complete with tens of thousands of black Confederates and noble soldiers fighting for limited government, may not appear inaccurate. As academics become less and less trusted and as a majority of one political party’s membership thinks higher education harms the country, it is not enough simply to dismiss “fake history.” To many Americans, the Lost Cause interpretation of the past has as much, if not more, weight than what historians write; indeed, a majority still struggle to identify the cause of the Civil War. While digitization and the internet allow anyone to do extensive historical research, they also allow anyone to publish stories about the past, and Americans struggle to determine which sources are reliable. Historians cannot dismiss neo-Confederates as internet trolls because their version of the past is finding its way into textbooks in Virginia, academic standards in Texas, and the minds of our students.'' [p. 20].
Lost Cause advocates like the United Daughters of the Confederacy were not content to lie just about the Civil War, they also defended the white terror of the Ku Klux Klan and tried to censor books that taught anything else but their dogma.
The lengths to which North Carolina’s Lost Causers were willing to lie about the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow that Adam Domby recounts left me laughing at times, until I remembered that this was all in the service of depriving Black people a civic voice in the state. And we know these distortions are spreading beyond the South. Donald Trump, who has no ancestral connection to the Confederacy, has become a principal defender of the Lost Cause Heritage. Hell, I recently saw Confederate flags at a “Reopen New York” rally in East Meadow on Long Island. Ironic that so-called “states rights” advocates were attacking the governor of a STATE!
The misremembering of the Confederate past served a purpose in 1900 and its continued distortion serves a contemporary political purpose today
Originally published on The Reconstruction Era Blog for July 6, 2020, this copyrighted review is used with the permission of the author.
Our Reviewer: Patrick Young is Special Professor of Law at Hofstra University School of Law, and he also heads the school's Immigration Law Clinic. He is the author of two ongoing blogs ‘’The Reconstruction Era” -- https://thereconstructionera.com/, about African Americans, Emancipation, and Reconstruction in the aftermath of the Civil War, and “The Immigrants' Civil War” -- https://longislandwins.com/immigrants-civil-war/, both worthwhile reads for anyone interested in the Civil War and its aftermath. Prof. Young previously reviewed Searching for Black Confederates.
Note: The False Cause is also available in several e-editions.