Civil wars rarely end well. They are fought between people who are otherwise, to the unaided eye, alike—which makes the accentuation of difference all the more volatile. The Ephraimites and Gileadites (in Judges 12) carried on inter-tribal warfare even when the only thing that distinguished them from each other was the way they pronounced “shibboleth.” And unlike wars between nations, there is generally no peace treaty that ends a civil war. Sometimes there is an amnesty; sometimes there is even a partition of territory, so that one side or faction in the war becomes an independent sovereign of its own. But in the case of civil wars where at least one of the original contestants goes down to defeat, the issues that created the conflict in the first place are rarely resolved, and live on to fester, sometimes for generations.

In 1 Kings 14, we find that Israel and Judah were so polarized that “there was war between Rehoboam and Jeroboam continually.” The 18th-century British poet George Crabbe pictured a household of unassuaged Cromwellians, long after the end of the English Civil Wars, keeping “a small recess” that concealed an image of Oliver Cromwell,

. . . turned by chosen friends, and there appeared
His stern, strong features, whom they all revered;
For there in lofty air was seen to stand
The bold Protector of the conquered land. . . .
The stern still smile each friend approving gave,
Then turned the view, and all again were grave.

This persistence should not surprise us. After all, transforming domestic political grievance into outright armed resistance requires an extraordinary level of energy and apologetics—much more so than when responding to another nation’s aggression—and those energies are too great to be easily dissipated once the conflict is resolved. Especially for the defeated, the expenditure of ideological fervor (not to mention actual personal and economic casualties) is often so great that it lingers in various forms, sometimes to the point of refreshing the conflict generations later. Somalia, the Sudan, and the Balkans are modern examples of how the alienating ideologies that summon and justify civil war do not easily disappear when the wars conclude, and T. S. Eliot wondered (in his essays on Milton, another unrepentant Cromwellian) if the English Civil Wars could really be said to have ended. “I question whether any serious civil war ever does end,” he added.

The alienating ideologies that summon and justify civil war do not easily disappear when the wars conclude.

The American Civil War is no exception (something Eliot would have learned all too well growing up in St. Louis, where his grandfather had been a transplanted New England abolitionist). And Southern literature—William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor—has ached with the agonies of the Southern Confederacy’s loss in 1865.

But there is more at work here than regional nostalgia. Southerners did not merely regret their loss. It had taken them a generation of self-convincing to gin up enough boldness to break up the American Union—a generation of persuading themselves legally that states still somehow possessed sufficient constitutional sovereignty to secede from the Union, persuading themselves economically that Europe’s hunger for their cotton crop would force the Old World to come to their rescue, persuading themselves socially that the South’s agricultural society was inherently superior to money-grubbing Yankee capitalism, and persuading themselves morally that enslaving people of another race as their labor force was (as John C. Calhoun dared to argue) “a positive good.”

Defeat in the Civil War laid every one of those assumptions in the dust. But the persuading had been going on for too long for the persuasions to disappear, and the Civil War had not even spluttered to its last misfire in 1865 before Southerners were reassembling those persuasions into a potent post-Civil War mythology known as the Lost Cause.

Birth of the Lost Cause

We can fix the birthday and birthplace of the Lost Cause on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court House, where Robert E. Lee surrendered the principal Confederate field army to Ulysses Grant. That day, Lee issued an announcement to his soldiers—General Orders No. 9—informing them officially of their surrender. Lee was not the real author of General Orders No. 9; he usually delegated the drafting of his circulars to one of his principal staffers, Colonel Charles Marshall. But Marshall used the opportunity of General Orders No. 9 to begin shaping the fundamentals of the Lost Cause.

“After four years of arduous service,” Marshall began, “marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude,” Lee’s army had been forced to surrender to “overwhelming numbers and resources.” Not to Grant’s relentless and impeccably timed pursuit of Lee. Instead, Lee’s army was portrayed by Marshall as a dauntless band of heroes whose resistance had simply been ground down by Yankee numbers, Yankee bullets, Yankee capitalism, and Yankee rations. (Or, as Marshall would elaborate in later years, by “a powerful flotilla. . . . a profusion of military supplies of all kinds,” and “ten men to take the place of every soldier lost,” while the Confederates were “very often . . . nearly naked, and nearly always poorly fed.”) In Marshall’s framing of the surrender, the war had been an unfair fight from the start, and nothing had been proven by Confederate defeat except that unfairness.

As was his habit, Lee merely read over Marshall’s draft, and even “struck out a paragraph, which he said would tend to keep alive the feeling existing between the North and the South.” Lee was actually preparing to write a report that contradicted much of what Marshall had written. “The troops,” Lee complained, “were not marked by the boldness and decision which formerly characterized them,” and all along the march to Appomattox they appeared to Lee “feeble; and a want of confidence seemed to possess officers and men.” But it was copies of Marshall’s order that troops took home with them, and from Marshall’s order sprang a full elaboration of the Lost Cause.

In Marshall’s framing of the surrender, the war had been an unfair fight from the start, and nothing had been proven by Confederate defeat except that unfairness.

It did not take long to manifest itself, either. A year later, Richmond journalist Edward Pollard baptized Marshall’s idea in a full-length book, The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates. Pollard enthusiastically endorsed Marshall’s insistence that the South had not been fairly defeated. The war had been lost only through “accident or inadvertence,” and that allowed Southerners to believe, with a “proud, secret, deathless, dangerous consciousness [that] they are the better men, and that there was nothing wanting but a change in a set of circumstances and a former resolve to make them the victors.”

From that premise, Pollard was able to revisit all the self-persuasions that had led the South into secession and to cloth each of them in a sticky ooze of self-righteousness. History demonstrated that federal unions like the United States were nothing more than temporary expedients, and Southern statesmen had simply realized by 1861 that “the country had outlived the necessities of the Union” and that “the interests of the Southern States demanded a separate and independent government.” The North had become a section governed by “a very low, commercial sense,” while Southerners possessed a “substantial civilization and a real enlightenment” that coarse Northerners envied and resented. And slavery, whose abolition Northerners made into a moral fetish, “did not rest on acts of debasement and disenfranchisement, but elevated the African, and was in the interest of human improvement.”

That Pollard’s argument was fiction from the start was palpable. Federal unions were by no means mere political bandages, except in the thought of Romantics like Pollard who imagined that nations grew out of blood and soil; no one but aristocrats and socialists characterized the “commercial sense” as base and degrading; and none of the former slaves wrote panegyrics to the slave past. No matter: Pollard had touched all the deep wires of identity that been laid by white Southerners for decades, and in the postwar years the Lost Cause made them spark vigorously into life, as both a cultural comfort and an ideological resource that rationalized resistance to Reconstruction and the establishment of a bleak racial landscape of segregation and denigration.

In its fullest flower, from 1865 to 1915, the Lost Cause emerged—from a legion of Southern war memoirists, politicians, and even novelists—and coalesced around five basic contentions.

1. Slavery was not the real issue of the Civil War; hence, the Union had no moral high ground to claim against the Confederacy.

Lost Causers danced around each other; some insisting, like Pollard, that slavery had actually been a beneficent institution, some conceding that slavery had been Southerners’ awful mistake but adding that intelligent Southerners like Lee were actually moving the South away from slavery. Either way, declared former Confederate general Richard Taylor in Destruction and Reconstruction in 1879, “Slavery was not the ultimate or proximate cause of the war, and Abolitionists are not justified in claiming the glory and spoils of the conflict.”

2. The South had created a culture resistant to godless industrial capitalism, and it was protection of that culture against Northern envy that led Southerners to take up arms.

The South was a genial, relaxed, agrarian society; the North was grasping, vicious, and individualistic, and could not abide the sense of inferiority to which its materialism condemned it. Northerners, asserted Robert Lewis Dabney in 1876, “deliberately and malignantly practiced to produce war,” not just “for the purpose of overthrowing the Constitution and the Union,” but to “rear their own greedy faction upon the ruins.”

3. The South was not defeated, but rather overwhelmed, as if the North had unfairly stacked the deck with its industrial might and immigrant numbers.

“General Lee had not been conquered in battle,” argued Jubal Early in 1872, “but surrendered because he had no longer an army with which to give battle.” Indeed, added Walter Taylor in Four Years with General Lee (1877), “the fact of the great numerical odds against . . . General Lee” was the principal factor in the war.

4. The Southern soldier was heroic and noble, the defender of his homeland; while the Northerner was a destructive Yankee interloper who (like William Sherman in Georgia and Philip Sheridan in the Shenandoah) rejoiced in burning cities and laying waste homesteads.

The Confederate army would be “the sole remaining representative of the chivalry, the high-toned honor, the freedom of ‘the land of the Sanctuary,’’’ and even the ordinary private (in Daniel Harvey Hill’s description) would exemplify “the self-denial of the chivalric knight, the ideal hero of song and story.”

5. Secession, above all, was lawful.

“To the wise men who were entrusted with the formation” of the original Union in 1787, “it was obvious enough that each separate society should be entrusted with the management of its own peculiar interests,” wrote Robert M. T. Hunter in the first volume of the Southern Historical Society Papers (one of the great engines of the Lost Cause) in 1876. But “the conduct of the free States proved that the guarantees of the constitution upon the subject of slavery were no longer of the slightest avail.” Southerners did not so much secede as they were driven to secession by Northern provocation. “To what did this look but secession and separation? Did it not argue the consciousness of a purpose to drive the South to those extremities? What else could the South do but separate . . . ?”

Baseless Motif

The Lost Cause became the animating motif in Southern social organizations—the United Confederate Veterans in 1889 and the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1894—as well as in both Southern art and Southern public monuments. But it may have reached its apex in film, in D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) and above all in Gone With the Wind (1939).

The Lost Cause began as an anesthetic for pain; in time, it became an addiction.

But the pillars on which the Lost Cause rested were, to put it frankly, rotted. Of course, it was true that the Northern population was substantially larger than the South’s—23 million to 9 million. What Lost Causers ignored was the South’s advantage in fighting on the defensive, and with a vast interior that ought to have been able to swallow up invading armies the way Russia did Napoleon’s. And Northern numbers should not erase the fecklessness with which one Confederate general after another (including Jubal Early) fought and lost battles they could otherwise have won. Southern soldiers might have indeed behaved with becoming decency; but so did Northerners, including the much-reviled Sherman, who offered to share his “last cracker” with beleaguered Atlantans if only they would “once more acknowledge the Authority of the National Government . . . instead of devoting [their] houses and streets and roads to the dread uses of war.”

It has to be said, too, that Southern chivalry was not always in evidence during the Civil War. Lee’s army proved just as adept at destruction and wastage when it crossed the Potomac—and worse, since Confederate officers also felt free to round up free Northern blacks and sell them into slavery in the Richmond slave markets. There was also precious little chivalry evident in 1864, when black soldier-prisoners were mercilessly cut down at Ft. Pillow and the Crater. And as for the constitutionality of secession, one searches the Constitution in vain for the reversion clause that describes a mechanism for seceding from the Union. The Lost Cause began as an anesthetic for pain; in time, it became an addiction.

Blessing of a Forgetting God

As a historian I am supposed to be an advocate for remembering rather than forgetting the past. But as David Rieff reminded us in his potent exploration of Ireland and Bosnia in the 1990s, In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies, there is also an argument to be made for historical forgetting. There are some human deeds so toxic, Rieff argues, that the health of the present can only be preserved by refusing to cultivate historical grievance.

There is also an argument to be made for historical forgetting.

As a Christian, I am also warned that forgetfulness of past offenses can be a blessing, for “if you, LORD, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand?” (Ps. 130:3). Indeed, there are offenses so great that we should pray intently that God would “hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea” (Mic. 7:19). It is, after all, God’s purpose in Christ that “we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Pet. 2:24). That might just be a fitting epitaph for the Lost Cause. And for a few others.