The Lost Cause was a campaign of misinformation and propaganda led by ex-Confederates that framed the South’s reasons for fighting in the Civil War as heroic and just while denying that slavery was central to the conflict. Changing the country’s memory of the Civil War allowed the South to maintain and reinforce a racial caste system that denied Black citizens equal liberties.
Lost Cause myths were taught in schools; advocated by local, federal and state leaders; and depicted in popular culture. These inaccuracies continue to shape our 21st century systems.
Here are 10 common Lost Cause myths about the Civil War and Reconstruction and the facts:
1. Myth: The Civil War was fought over states’ rights, not slavery.
Truth: Most southern states that seceded from the Union clearly stated that their main reason to go to war was to protect their financial investment in slavery. Issued shortly after its Ordinance of Secession, South Carolina’s Declaration of Immediate Causes noted that secession became necessary after President Lincoln stated, “the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.”
3. Myth: Enslavers were kind to the people they enslaved.
Truth: Enslaved people were legally defined as property, not human beings. Even if their enslavers provided them with material goods or adequate living conditions, their lack of legal standing left them at the mercy of their owners’ continued goodwill.
4. Myth: Ex-Confederates erected most monuments to their cause immediately after the Civil War.
Truth: The biggest spike in the erection of Confederate memorials came during the early 1900s, soon after Southern states legally enshrined Jim Crow laws. The United Daughters of the Confederacy largely spearheaded this effort, sponsoring hundreds of statues throughout the country.
5. Myth: Robert E. Lee was a man of Honor and a gentelman
Truth: Soldiers under Lee’s command at the Battle of the Crater in 1864 massacred black Union soldiers who tried to surrender. Then, in a spectacle hatched by Lee’s senior corps commander, A. P. Hill, the Confederates paraded the Union survivors through the streets of Petersburg to the slurs and jeers of the southern crowd. Lee never discouraged such behavior. As the historian Richard Slotkin wrote in No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, “his silence was permissive.”
6. Myth: Enslaved people willingly fought for the Confederacy.
Truth: Civil War pension records held by the S.C. Department of History and Archives include no payments to Black Confederate soldiers for combat service. After being allowed to apply in 1923, slightly more than 300 Black men received small pensions for their “service” as body servants or cooks. Newly digitized records prove that the Confederacy conscripted thousands more enslaved people into service and paid their owners for their labor.
7. Myth: Mary Boykin Chesnut’s A Diary from Dixie, and other similar works, are accurate depictions of the Civil War.
Truth: Chesnut and other former Confederates often revised their recollections, sometimes for decades, before publishing them. Many specifically rewrote or added language that depicted them as kind masters who believed slavery was evil but needed to end at a later date. W.E.B. Du Bois wrote vivid recollections and writings that challenged much of the literary rhetoric that attempted to downplay racist violence against African Americans from Reconstruction to Jim Crow.
8. Myth: Robert E. Lee abhorred slavery and only wanted to unify the country.
Truth: In Reading the Man, historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor noted that “by 1860 he [Lee] had broken up every family but one on the estate, some of whom had been together since Mount Vernon days.” According to Pryor, Lee’s treatment of enslaved people on the Arlington plantation nearly led to a slave revolt, in part because they expected to be freed upon their previous enslaver’s death. Instead, Lee reinterpreted the will in order to keep them as his property until a Virginia court forced him to free them. During the Civil War, when the Army of Northern Virginia Army invaded Pennsylvania under General Lee, “virtually every infantry and cavalry unit” captured Black Americans and brought them to the South as property, all while “under the supervision of senior officers.”
Lee own views on slavery were explicated in an 1856 letter that is often misquoted to give the impression that Lee was some kind of abolitionist. In the letter, he describes slavery as “a moral & political evil,” but goes on to explain that:
I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild & melting influence of Christianity, than the storms & tempests of fiery Controversy.
9. Myth: Carpetbaggers came south after the Civil War to take advantage of the decimated economy.
Truth: Many Northerners did come to the South after the war, and while some were concerned with making a profit, most genuinely aided in the recovery process. They opened businesses and schools and invested in infrastructure. For example, Bathsheba Benedict, a Baptist missionary from Rhode Island, founded Benedict College in 1870.
10. Removing a Confederate monument is erasing history.
After the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Former President Trump said removing the Confederate monument to Lee, or any such statue, was “changing history.” And as Texans began to reexamine their state’s memorial landscape, Sen. Ted Cruz (R) weighed in to suggest that it was a bad idea to “go through and simply try to erase from history prior chapters, even if they were wrong.”
Removing a Confederate monument, of course, does not erase history. These statues, which have represented only one point of view (a revisionist narrative of the Confederacy) throughout their existence, have never taught the first history lesson, although they have been used to reemphasize the racial status quo. The vast majority are, simply put, artifacts of the Jim Crow era, when most of them were built. Their history, like that of the “Whites only” signs of segregation, has not been lost. We will always know the history of Confederate monuments through photographs, postcards, dedication speeches and, most important, books written by historians.
11. The South lost simply because the North had more resources.
In his speech at the unveiling of the Confederate monument in Augusta, Ga., in 1878, Charles Colcock Jones Jr. averred, “We were overborne by superior numbers and weightier munitions.” And in her “Catechism for Southern Children,” written in the early 20th century, Mrs. J.P. Allison of Concord, N.C., posed the question “If our cause was right why did we not succeed in gaining our independence?,” to which children were to respond, “The North overpowered us at last, with larger numbers.”