Ta-Nehisi Coates recently commented in The Atlantic on a prospective new show on HBO that features an alternative history of the Civil War that imagines if the South had won the war, an oft-explored premise in fiction. Coates writes, “The show’s very operating premise, the fact that it roots itself in a long white tradition of imagining away emancipation, leaves one wondering how ‘lost’ the Lost Cause really was.” Such narratives are far from new.
From the late 19th century’s fascination with southern romantic novels, to the four-hour love song to the Confederacy that was last decade’s “Gods and Generals”, Americans – especially Southerners – are still grappling with what the war means.
The “Lost Cause” refers to the nostalgic sensibility many white Southerners constructed following the war and abolition, whereby they hoped to retain a bit of Southern dignity. At best, merely a rose-colored lens for aesthetic choices; at worst, the bald distortion of reality used to excuse Southern atrocity and diminish the Union’s moral dimension. In our political climate, “Lost Cause” as ideology has lost all meaning. What we have is a confused amalgam of symbols and messages that are tied to concrete harms that persist today.
Robert E. Lee represents the Lost Cause at its core: the nobility, kindness, wisdom and courage of a lost breed. Apologists claimed that Lee detested slavery, owned no slaves himself, was a devout Christian and a loyal soldier, and only with great personal struggle chose to abandon the Union.
This portrait can be somewhat misleading, as the counters to each of these can be seen in his own letters. Many such letters have only come to light recently, as Elizabeth Brown Prior shows in “Reading the Man”, where we see a Lee far more human – and far less humane – than the image previous generations have given us.
Lee did struggle with the decision to leave the Union, yet he ultimately did, knowing the aims of a pro-slavery republic. He did suggest slavery was wrong in letters, but saw no reason to hasten its end. And Lee did own slaves. He inherited them from his father-in-law and set them to work in order to restore the fortune of the Custis estate. He tried to keep them as long as possible before a court ruled he had to free them in accordance with Custis’ will. We have accounts from the slaves at Arlington – we know Lee wasn’t above the cruelties of his peers.
The issue for us is not whether Lee exerts an overt negative influence on the improvement of justice in the New South, but whether we have grown sufficiently away from the “religion” of Southern defeat as not to be insidiously influenced by it. It is difficult to judge where assumptions about Confederate righteousness end and more general racial biases begin. What do nobility, kindness and wisdom have to do with the protesting we’ve seen at Lee’s statue in Charlottesville?
The Civil War was destructive in a way that is hard for us to imagine. The people who wrote those pro-Confederate narratives were trying to cope with the pain of the humiliating defeat and the subversion of their colonial order. The survivors of the war wrote and believed in narratives that highlighted the righteousness of the cause for which they lost everything. Their work satisfied a need that we feel far less acutely now. White southerners should not be the group we identify as still facing great harms from the legacy of slavery.
We enjoy relative detachment from the past, but are smitten with its symbols at the same time. Rather than raw emotional reminders, distant events are a palette of costumes, songs and colors put to use by Hollywood – until they show up at protests, used as the symbol of vitriolic white nationhood, a phoenix rising from the stupid ashes every generation or so, every time a little less aware of its own pointlessness. In some ways, we live in a very different South today, but ignorance of the past is not the same as freedom from it.
When people see Confederate flags and equestrian statues today and identify with them, it is not because they feel some tenderness for a doomed polity that sought to conflate feudalism and modernity. It isn’t even the misplaced romanticism and Jim Crow racism of the post-Reconstruction South. It is nothing with reference to real history, or tradition, or code. It is an idiot symbol for militant whiteness, as blank and blunt as evil or idiocy. Cleary, Robert E. Lee remains an appropriate symbol of all the South stood for in the Civil War, and the legacy it must continue to grapple with.