Lost Cause of the Confederacy

The Lost Cause of the Confederacy, or simply the Lost Cause, is an ideological movement that describes the Confederate cause as a heroic one against great odds despite its defeat. The ideology endorses the supposed virtues of the antebellum South, viewing the American Civil War as an honorable struggle for the Southern way of life[1] while minimizing or denying the central role of slavery.

The Lost Cause ideology synthesized numerous ideas. Lost Cause supporters argued that slavery was not the main cause of the Civil War, and claimed that few scholars saw it as such before the 1950s.[2] In order to reach this conclusion, they ignored the declarations of secession by the seceding states, the declarations of congressmen who left Congress to join the Confederacy, and the treatment of slavery in the Confederate constitution.[3] They also denied or minimized the wartime writings and speeches of Confederate leaders in favor of postwar views.[4] (See Cornerstone Speech.) Supporters often stressed the idea of secession as a defense against a Northern threat to their way of life and said that the threat violated the states' rights guaranteed by the Constitution. They believed any state had the right to secede, a point strongly denied by the North. The Lost Cause portrayed the South as more adherent to Christian values than the allegedly greedy North. It portrayed slavery as more benevolent than cruel, alleging that it taught Christianity and "civilization." Stories of "happy slaves" were often used as propaganda in an effort to defend slavery. These stories would be used to explain slavery to Northerners. Many times they also portrayed slave owners being kind to their slaves. In explaining Confederate defeat, the Lost Cause said that the main factor was not qualitative inferiority in leadership or fighting ability but the massive quantitative superiority of the Yankee industrial machine.[5] At the peak of troop strength in 1863, Union soldiers outnumbered Confederate soldiers by over two to one, and financially the Union had three times the bank deposits of the Confederacy.[6]

Critics of the ideology have stated that white supremacy is a key characteristic of the Lost Cause narrative.[7] Supporters typically portray the Confederacy's cause as noble and its leadership as exemplars of old-fashioned chivalry and honor, defeated by the Union armies through numerical and industrial force that overwhelmed the South's superior military skill and courage. Proponents of the Lost Cause movement also condemned the Reconstruction that followed the Civil War, claiming that it had been a deliberate attempt by Northern politicians and speculators to destroy the traditional Southern way of life. In recent decades Lost Cause themes have been widely promoted by the Neo-Confederate movement in books and op-eds, and especially in one of the movement's magazines, the Southern Partisan. The Lost Cause theme has been a major element in defining gender roles in the white South, in terms of honor, tradition, and family roles.[8] The Lost Cause has inspired many prominent Southern memorials and even religious attitudes.[9]


19th century

Many white Southerners were devastated economically, emotionally, and psychologically by the defeat of the Confederacy. Before the war, many Southerners proudly felt that their rich military tradition and superior dedication to the concept of honor would enable them to prevail in the conflict. When this did not happen, white Southerners sought consolation in attributing their loss to factors beyond their control, such as physical size and overwhelming brute force.[1]

University of Virginia professor Gary W. Gallagher wrote:

The architects of the Lost Cause acted from various motives. They collectively sought to justify their own actions and allow themselves and other former Confederates to find something positive in all-encompassing failure. They also wanted to provide their children and future generations of white Southerners with a 'correct' narrative of the war.[10]

The Lost Cause became a key part of the reconciliation process between North and South around 1900, and formed the basis of many white Southerners' postbellum war commemorations. The United Daughters of the Confederacy is a major organization that has been associated with the Lost Cause for over a century.

Yale University history professor Rollin G. Osterweis summarizes the content that pervaded "Lost Cause" writings:

The Legend of the Lost Cause began as mostly a literary expression of the despair of a bitter, defeated people over a lost identity. It was a landscape dotted with figures drawn mainly out of the past: the chivalric planter; the magnolia-scented Southern belle; the good, gray Confederate veteran, once a knight of the field and saddle; and obliging old Uncle Remus. All these, while quickly enveloped in a golden haze, became very real to the people of the South, who found the symbols useful in the reconstituting of their shattered civilization. They perpetuated the ideals of the Old South and brought a sense of comfort to the New.[11]

Louisiana State University history professor Gaines Foster wrote in 2013:

Scholars have reached a fair amount of agreement about the role the Lost Cause played in those years, although the scholarship on the Lost Cause, like the memory itself, remains contested. The white South, most agree, dedicated enormous effort to celebrating the leaders and common soldiers of the Confederacy, emphasizing that they had preserved their and the South's honor.[12]

The term Lost Cause first appeared in the title of an 1866 book by the Virginian author and journalist Edward A. Pollard, The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates.[13] Pollard promotes many of the aforementioned themes of the Lost Cause. In particular, he dismisses the role of slavery in starting the war and understates the cruelty of American slavery, even promoting it as a way of improving the lives of Africans:

We shall not enter upon the discussion of the moral question of slavery. But we may suggest a doubt here whether that odious term "slavery" which has been so long imposed, by the exaggeration of Northern writers, upon the judgement and sympathies of the world, is properly applied to that system of servitude in the South, which was really the mildest in the world; which did not rest on acts of debasement and disenfranchisement, but elevated the African, and was in the interest of human improvement; and which, by the law of the land, protected the negro in life and limb, and in many personal rights, and, by the practice of the system, bestowed upon him a sum of individual indulgences, which made him altogether the most striking type in the world of cheerfulness and contentment.[14]

However, it was the articles written by General Jubal A. Early in the 1870s for the Southern Historical Society that firmly established the Lost Cause as a long-lasting literary and cultural phenomenon. The 1881 publication of The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government by Jefferson Davis, a two-volume defense of the Southern cause, provided another important text in the history of the Lost Cause. Davis blamed the enemy for "whatever of bloodshed, of devastation, or shock to republican government has resulted from the war." He charged that the Yankees fought "with a ferocity that disregarded all the laws of civilized warfare." The book remained in print and was often used to justify the Southern position and to distance it from slavery.[15]

Early's original inspiration for his views may have come from General Robert E. Lee. When Lee published his farewell order to the Army of Northern Virginia, he consoled his soldiers by speaking of the "overwhelming resources and numbers" that the Confederate army fought against. In a letter to Early, Lee requested information about enemy strengths from May 1864 to April 1865, the period in which his army was engaged against Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant (the Overland Campaign and the Siege of Petersburg). Lee wrote, "My only object is to transmit, if possible, the truth to posterity, and do justice to our brave Soldiers."[16] In another letter, Lee wanted all "statistics as regards numbers, destruction of private property by the Federal troops, &c." because he intended to demonstrate the discrepancy in strength between the two armies and believed it would "be difficult to get the world to understand the odds against which we fought." Referring to newspaper accounts that accused him of culpability in the loss, he wrote, "I have not thought proper to notice, or even to correct misrepresentations of my words & acts. We shall have to be patient, & suffer for awhile at least. ... At present the public mind is not prepared to receive the truth."[16] All of these were themes made prominent by Early and the Lost Cause writers in the nineteenth century and that continued to be important throughout the twentieth.[17]

In a November 1868 report, U.S. Army general George Henry Thomas, a Virginian who fought for the Union in the war, noted efforts made by former Confederates to paint the Confederacy in a positive light, stating:

[T]he greatest efforts made by the defeated insurgents since the close of the war have been to promulgate the idea that the cause of liberty, justice, humanity, equality, and all the calendar of the virtues of freedom, suffered violence and wrong when the effort for southern independence failed. This is, of course, intended as a species of political cant, whereby the crime of treason might be covered with a counterfeit varnish of patriotism, so that the precipitators of the rebellion might go down in history hand in hand with the defenders of the government, thus wiping out with their own hands their own stains; a species of self-forgiveness amazing in its effrontery, when it is considered that life and property—justly forfeited by the laws of the country, of war, and of nations, through the magnanimity of the government and people—was not exacted from them.

George Henry Thomas, November 1868[18]

Memorial associations such as the United Confederate Veterans, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and Ladies Memorial Associations integrated Lost Cause themes to help white, Confederate-sympathizing Southerners cope with the many changes during this era, most significantly Reconstruction.[19][20] These institutions have lasted to the present and descendants of Southern soldiers continue to attend their meetings.

In 1879 John McElroy published "Andersonville: A Story of Rebel Military Prisons" which was highly critical of the Confederate treatment of prisoners; he implied in the preface that the mythology of the Confederacy was well established and that criticism of the otherwise-lionized Confederates was met with disdain:

I know that what is contained herein will be bitterly denied. I am prepared for this. In my boyhood I witnessed the savagery of the Slavery agitation - in my youth I felt the fierceness of the hatred directed against all those who stood by the Nation. I know that hell hath no fury like the vindictiveness of those who are hurt by the truth being told to them.[21]

20th century to present

Basic assumptions of the Lost Cause have proved durable for many in the modern South. Lost Cause tenets are frequently voiced during controversies surrounding public display of the Confederate flags and various state flags. Historian John Coski noted that the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the "most visible, active, and effective defender of the flag", "carried forward into the twenty-first century, virtually unchanged, the Lost Cause historical interpretations and ideological vision formulated at the turn of the twentieth."[22] Coski wrote concerning "the flag wars of the late twentieth century":

From the ... early 1950s, SCV officials defended the integrity of the battle flag against trivialization and against those who insisted that its display was unpatriotic or racist. SCV spokesmen reiterated the consistent argument that the South fought a legitimate war for independence, not a war to defend slavery, and that the ascendant "Yankee" view of history falsely vilified the South and led people to misinterpret the battle flag.[23]

The Confederate States of America used several flags during its existence from 1861 to 1865. Since the end of the American Civil War, personal and official use of Confederate flags, and of flags derived from these, has continued under considerable controversy. The current state flag of Mississippi, created in 1894 after the state's "Redemption", includes the Confederate battle flag.

On March 23, 2015, a Confederate-flag related case reached the Supreme Court of the United States. Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans centered on whether or not the state of Texas could deny a request by the SCV for vanity license plates that incorporated a Confederate battle flag. The case was heard by the Court on March 23, 2015.[24] On June 18, 2015, the Supreme Court, in a 5–4 vote, held that Texas was entitled to reject the SCV proposal.[24]

In October 2015 outrage erupted online at the discovery of a Texan school's geography textbook which described slaves as "immigrants" and "workers".[25][26] The publisher, McGraw-Hill, announced that it would change the wording. Many have interpreted this as the legacy of the minimization and trivialization of slavery associated with the Lost Cause movement.

Reunification of North and South

Nolan states that the Lost Cause "facilitated the reunification of the North and the South."[27] He quotes Foster, who says, "signs of respect from former foes and northern publishers made acceptance of reunion easier. By the mid-eighties, most southerners had decided to build a future within a reunited nation. A few remained irreconcilable, but their influence in southern society declined rapidly."[28] Nolan's second aspect is that, "The reunion was exclusively a white man's phenomenon and the price of the reunion was the sacrifice of the African Americans."[29]

Historian Caroline Janney stated:

Providing a sense of relief to white Southerners who feared being dishonored by defeat, the Lost Cause was largely accepted in the years following the war by white Americans who found it to be a useful tool in reconciling North and South.[30]

Yale historian David W. Blight wrote:

The Lost Cause became an integral part of national reconciliation by dint of sheer sentimentalism, by political argument, and by recurrent celebrations and rituals. For most white Southerners, the Lost Cause evolved into a language of vindication and renewal, as well as an array of practices and public monuments through which they could solidify both their Southern pride and their Americanness. In the 1890s, Confederate memories no longer dwelled as much on mourning or explaining defeat; they offered a set of conservative traditions by which the entire country could gird itself against racial, political, and industrial disorder. And by the sheer virtue of losing heroically the Confederate soldier provided a model of masculine devotion and courage in an age of gender anxieties and ruthless material striving.[31]

In exploring the literature of reconciliation, historian William Tynes Cowa wrote, "The cult of the Lost Cause was part of a larger cultural project: the reconciliation of North and South after the Civil War." He says that a typical image in postwar fiction was a materialistic, rich Yankee man marrying an impoverished spiritual Southern bride as a symbol of happy national reunion.[32] Examining films and visual art, Gallagher identifies the theme of "white people North and South [who] extol the American virtues both sides manifested during the war, to exalt the restored nation that emerged from the conflict, and to mute the role of African Americans."[33]

Bruce Catton argues that the myth or legend helped achieve national reconciliation between North and South. He concludes, "the legend of the lost cause has served the entire country very well", and he goes on to say:[34]

The things that were done during the Civil War have not been forgotten, of course, but we now see them through a veil. We have elevated the entire conflict to the realm where it is no longer explosive. It is a part of American legend, a part of American history, a part, if you will, of American romance. It moves men mightily, to this day, but it does not move them in the direction of picking up their guns and going at it again. We have had national peace since the war ended, and we will always have it, and I think the way Lee and his soldiers conducted themselves in the hours of surrender has a great deal to do with it.

New South

Historians have said that the "Lost Cause" theme helped white Southerners adjust to their new status and move forward into what was called "the New South." Hillyer states that the Confederate Memorial Literary Society (CMLS), founded by elite white women in Richmond, Virginia, in the 1890s, exemplifies this solution. The CMLS founded the Confederate Museum to document and defend the Confederate cause and to recall the antebellum mores that the new South's business ethos was thought to be displacing. By focusing on military sacrifice, rather than grievances regarding the North, the Confederate Museum aided the process of sectional reconciliation, according to Hillyer. By depicting slavery as benevolent, the museum's exhibits reinforced the notion that Jim Crow laws were a proper solution to racial tensions that had escalated during Reconstruction. Lastly, by glorifying the common soldier and portraying the South as "solid," the museum promoted acceptance of industrial capitalism. Thus, the Confederate Museum both critiqued and eased the economic transformations of the New South, and enabled Richmond to reconcile its memory of the past with its hopes for the future, leaving the past behind as it developed new industrial and financial roles.[35]

Historian Jacquelyn Dowd Hall states that the Lost Cause theme was fully developed around 1900 in a mood not of despair but of triumphalism for the New South. Much was left out of the Lost Cause:

[N]either the trauma of slavery for African Americans nor their heroic, heartbreaking freedom struggle found a place in that story. But the Lost Cause narrative also suppressed the memories of many white southerners. Memories of how, under slavery, power bred cruelty. Memories of the bloody, unbearable realities of war. Written out too were the competing memories and identities that set white southerners one against another, pitting the planters against the up-country, Unionists against Confederates, Populists and mill workers against the corporations, home-front women against war-besotted, broken men.[36]

Religious dimension

Charles Wilson argues that many white Southerners, most of whom were conservative and pious evangelical Protestants, sought answers to Confederate defeat in religion. They felt that defeat in the war was God's punishment for their sins, and turned increasingly to religion as their solace. The postwar era saw the birth of a regional "civil religion" that was heavy with symbolism and ritual; clergymen were the primary celebrants. Wilson says that the ministers constructed:

Lost Cause ritualistic forms that celebrated their regional mythological and theological beliefs. They used the Lost Cause to warn Southerners of their decline from past virtue, to promote moral reform, to encourage conversion to Christianity, and to educate the young in Southern traditions; in the fullness of time, they related to American values.[37]

White southerners tried to defend on a cultural and religious level what defeat in 1865 made impossible on a political level. The Lost Cause—defeat in a holy war—left southerners to face guilt, doubt, and the triumph of evil: that is, they formed what C. Vann Woodward has called a uniquely Southern sense of the tragedy of history."[38]

Poole has said that in fighting to defeat the Republican reconstruction government in South Carolina in 1876, white Democrats portrayed the Lost Cause scenario through "Hampton Days" celebrations shouting "Hampton or Hell!". They staged the contest between reconstruction opponent and Democratic candidate Wade Hampton and incumbent governor Daniel H. Chamberlain as a religious struggle between good and evil, and calling for "redemption."[39] Indeed, throughout the South the conservatives who overthrew Reconstruction were often called "Redeemers," echoing Christian theology.[40]

Gender roles

Among the writers on the Lost Cause, gender roles were contested domain. Men typically hurried by the role women played during the war, noting their total loyalty to the cause. Women, however, developed a much different approach that emphasized female activism, initiative, and leadership. They explained that when all the men left, the women took command, found substitute foods, rediscovered their old traditional skills with the spinning wheel when factory cloth became unavailable, and ran all the farm or plantation operations. They faced apparent danger without having men in the traditional role of their protectors.[41]

The duty of memorializing the Confederate dead was a major activity for Southerners devoted to the Lost Cause; chapters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) played the central role.[42] The UDC was especially influential in the early twentieth century across the South, where its main role was to preserve and uphold the memory of the Confederate veterans, especially those husbands, sons, fathers and brothers who died in the war. Its long-term impact was to promote the Lost Cause image of the antebellum plantation South as an idealized society crushed by the forces of Yankee modernization which undermined traditional gender roles.[43] In Missouri, a border state, the United daughters of the Confederacy was active in setting up its own system of memorials.[44] Hall said that the UDC was a powerful promoter of women's history:

UDC leaders were determined to assert women's cultural authority over virtually every representation of the region's past. This they did by lobbying for state archives and museums, national historic sites, and historic highways; compiling genealogies; interviewing former soldiers; writing history textbooks; and erecting monuments, which now moved triumphantly from cemeteries into town centers. More than half a century before women's history and public history emerged as fields of inquiry and action, the UDC, with other women's associations, strove to etch women's accomplishments into the historical record and to take history to the people, from the nursery and the fireside to the schoolhouse and the public square.[45]

Indeed, there is even some evidence suggesting that there was a link between the publication of Lost Cause books and the creation of the confederate memorials: Lizzie Cary Daniel's "Confederate Scrap-book" makes clear in the preface and on the title page that it was specifically published to fund the erection of two (implied confederate) memorials.[46] The book therefore plays the dual roles of glorifying the Confederates in songs, poems and other war memorabilia, while also paying for their more enduring and public memorialization.

The Southern states set up their own pension system for veterans and their dependents, especially widows. They were not eligible for the Federal pension system. The pensions were designed to honor the Lost Cause, and help reduce the severe poverty prevalent in the region. Male applicants for pensions had to demonstrate their continued loyalty to the "lost cause." Female applicants were rejected if their moral reputation was in question.[47]

In Natchez, Mississippi, the local newspapers and veterans played a role in the maintenance of the Lost Cause. However elite white women were central in establishing memorials such as the Civil War Monument dedicated on Memorial Day 1890. The Lost Cause enabled women noncombatants to lay a claim to the central event in their redefinition of Southern history.[48]

The UDC was quite prominent, but not at all unique in its appeal to upscale white southern women. "The number of women's clubs devoted to filiopietism and history was staggering," says historian W. Fitzhugh Brundage. He notes two typical club women in Texas and Mississippi, who between them belonged to the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Daughters of the American Revolution, Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, Daughters of the Pilgrims, Daughters of the War of 1812, Daughters of Colonial Governors, and Daughters of the Founders and Patriots of America, Order of the First Families of Virginia, and the Colonial Dames of America, as well as a few other historically oriented societies. Comparable men, on the other hand, were much less interested in historical organizations, and devoted their energies to secret fraternal societies, while they emphasized athletic, political and financial exploits to prove their manhood. Brundage notes that after women's suffrage came in 1920, the historical role of the women's organizations eroded.[49]

In their heyday in the first two decades of the 20th century, Brundage concludes that:

These women architects of whites' historical memory, by both explaining and mystifying the historical roots of white supremacy and elite power in the South, performed a conspicuous civic function at a time of heightened concern about the perpetuation of social and political hierarchies. Although denied the franchise, organized white women nevertheless played a dominant role in crafting the historical memory that would inform and undergird southern politics and public life.[50]


(WHF Lee) objected to the phrase too often used—South as well as North—that the Confederates fought for what they thought was right. They fought for what they knew was right. They, like the Greeks, fought for home, the graves of their sires, and their native land.

New York Times, "Annual Meeting of the Virginia Division", October 29, 1875

[The] servile instincts [of slaves] rendered them contented with their lot, and their patient toil blessed the land of their abode with unmeasured riches. Their strong local and personal attachment secured faithful service ... never was there happier dependence of labor and capital on each other. The tempter came, like the serpent of Eden, and decoyed them with the magic word of 'freedom' ... He put arms in their hands, and trained their humble but emotional natures to deeds of violence and bloodshed, and sent them out to devastate their benefactors.

Some of the main tenets of the Lost Cause movement were that:[52][53]

  • Confederate generals such as Lee, Albert Sidney Johnston, and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson represented the virtues of Southern nobility and fought bravely and fairly. On the other hand, most Northern generals were characterized as possessing low moral standards, because they subjected the Southern civilian population to indignities like Sherman's March to the Sea and Philip Sheridan's burning of the Shenandoah Valley in the Valley Campaigns of 1864. While Union General Ulysses S. Grant is often portrayed as an alcoholic.[54]
  • Losses on the battlefield were inevitable due to Northern superiority in resources and manpower.
  • Battlefield losses were also sometimes the result of betrayal and incompetence on the part of certain subordinates of General Lee, such as General James Longstreet, who was reviled for doubting Lee at Gettysburg (the Lost Cause focused mainly on Lee and the Eastern Theater of operations, and often cited Gettysburg as the main turning point of the war).
  • Defense of states' rights, rather than preservation of chattel slavery, was the primary cause that led eleven Southern states to secede from the Union, thus precipitating the war.
  • Secession was a justifiable constitutional response to Northern cultural and economic aggressions against the Southern institution of slavery.
  • Slavery was a benign institution, and the slaves were loyal and faithful to their benevolent masters, in contrast to the reality of its racism, brutality and dehumanization.[55]
  • Algood identifies a Southern aristocratic ideal, typically called "the Southern Cavalier ideal" in the Lost Cause. It especially appeared in studies of Confederate partisans who fought behind Union lines, such as Nathan Bedford Forrest, Turner Ashby, John Singleton Mosby, and John Hunt Morgan. Writers stressed how they embodied courage in the face of heavy odds, as well as horsemanship, manhood and martial spirit.[56]


Confederate generals

The most powerful images and symbols of the Lost Cause were Robert E. Lee, Albert Sidney Johnston, and Pickett's Charge. David Ulbrich wrote, "Already revered during the war, Robert E. Lee acquired a divine mystique within Southern culture after it. Remembered as a leader whose soldiers would loyally follow him into every fight no matter how desperate, Lee emerged from the conflict to become an icon of the Lost Cause and the ideal of the antebellum Southern gentleman, an honorable and pious man who selflessly served Virginia and the Confederacy. Lee's tactical brilliance at Second Bull Run and Chancellorsville took on legendary status, and despite his accepting full responsibility for the defeat at Gettysburg, Lee remained largely infallible for Southerners and was spared criticism even from historians until recent times." Victor Davis Hansen points out that Albert Sidney Johnston was the first officer to be appointed a full general by Jefferson Davis and to lead Confederate forces in the Western Theater. His death during the first day of the battle at Shiloh arguably led to the Confederacy's defeat in that conflict.[19]

In terms of Lee's subordinates, the key villain in Jubal Early's view was General Longstreet. Despite the fact that General Lee took all responsibility for the defeats (in particular the one at Gettysburg), Early's writings place the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg squarely on Longstreet's shoulders, accusing him of failing to attack early in the morning of July 2, 1863, as instructed by Lee. In fact, however, Lee never expressed dissatisfaction with the second-day actions of his "Old War Horse." Longstreet was widely disparaged by Southern veterans because of his post-war cooperation with President Ulysses S. Grant (with whom he had shared a close friendship before the war) and for joining the Republican Party. Grant, in rejecting the Lost Cause arguments, said in an 1878 interview that he rejected the notion that the South had simply been overwhelmed by numbers. Grant wrote that "This is the way public opinion was made during the war and this is the way history is made now. We never overwhelmed the South ... What we won from the South we won by hard fighting." He further noted that when comparing resources the "4,000,000 of negroes" who "kept the farms, protected the families, supported the armies, and were really a reserve force" were not treated as a southern asset.[57]

"War of Northern Aggression"

One essential element of the Lost Cause movement was that the act of secession itself had been legitimate; otherwise, all of the beloved Confederates would have become traitors. In order to legitimate the Confederacy's rebellion, Lost Cause intellectuals emphasized the illegitimacy of the federal government and the villainy of Abraham Lincoln as President. This is exemplified in "Force or Consent as the Basis of American Government" by Mary Scrugham, in which she presents frivolous arguments against the legality of Lincoln's presidency.[58] These include his receiving a minority (and unmentioned plurality) of the popular vote in the 1860 election and the false assertion that he made his position on slavery ambiguous. These accusations, though thoroughly refuted, gave rise to the belief that the North initiated the Civil War, making a designation of "The War of Northern Aggression" possible as one of the names of the American Civil War.


The Birth of a Nation

Another prominent use of the Lost Cause perspective was in Thomas F. Dixon, Jr.'s 1905 novel The Clansman, later adapted to the screen by D. W. Griffith in his highly successful but controversial The Birth of a Nation in 1915. Noting that Dixon and Griffith collaborated on Birth of a Nation, Blight wrote:

Dixon's vicious version of the idea that blacks had caused the Civil War by their very presence, and that Northern radicalism during Reconstruction failed to understand that freedom had ushered blacks as a race into barbarism, neatly framed the story of the rise of heroic vigilantism in the South. Reluctantly, Klansmen—white men—had to take the law into their own hands in order to save Southern white womanhood from the sexual brutality of black men. Dixon's vision captured the attitude of thousands and forged in story form a collective memory of how the war may have been lost but Reconstruction was won—by the South and a reconciled nation. Riding as masked cavalry, the Klan stopped corrupt government, prevented the anarchy of 'Negro rule,' and most of all, saved white supremacy.[59]

In both the book and the movie, the Ku Klux Klan is portrayed as continuing the noble traditions of the antebellum South and the heroic Confederate soldier by defending Southern culture in general and Southern womanhood in particular against rape and depredations at the hands of the Freedmen and Yankee carpetbaggers during Reconstruction. Dixon's narrative was so readily adopted that the film is credited with the revival of the Klan in the 1910s and 1920s. This second Klan reached a peak membership of 2-5 million members.[60] The film's legacy is wide-reaching in the history of American racism; even the now-iconic cross burnings of the KKK were based on the book (the first KKK did not burn crosses - it was originally a Scottish tradition named "Crann Tara", designed to gather clans for war).[61]

Gone with the Wind

The Lost Cause view reached tens of millions of Americans in the best-selling 1936 novel Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell and the Oscar-winning 1939 film. Helen Taylor has written that:

Gone with the Wind has almost certainly done its ideological work. It has sealed in popular imaginations a fascinated nostalgia for the glamorous southern plantation house and ordered hierarchical society in which slaves are 'family,' and there is a mystical bond between the landowner and the rich soil those slaves work for him. It has spoken eloquently—albeit from an elitist perspective—of the grand themes (war, love, death, conflicts of race, class, gender, and generation) that have crossed continents and cultures.[62]

Blight wrote:

From this combination of Lost Cause voices a reunited America arose pure, guiltless, and assured that the deep conflicts in its past had been imposed upon it by otherworldly forces. The side that lost was especially assured that its cause was true and good. One of the ideas the reconciliationist Lost Cause instilled deeply into the national culture is that even when Americans lose, they win. Such was the message, the indomitable spirit, that Margaret Mitchell infused into her character Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind...[63]

Southerners were portrayed as noble, heroic figures, living in a doomed romantic society, who rejected the realistic advice offered by the Rhett Butler character and never understood the risk they were taking in going to war.

Gods and Generals

The 2003 Civil War film Gods and Generals, based on Jeff Shaara's 1998 novel of the same name, is widely viewed as championing the Lost Cause ideology by creating a presentation that was favorable to the Confederacy.[64][65][66]

Writing in the Journal of American History, historian Steven E. Woodworth derided the movie as a modern day telling of Lost Cause mythology.[64] Woodworth called the movie "the most pro-Confederate film since Birth of a Nation, a veritable celluloid celebration of slavery and treason." He summed up his reasons for disliking the movie by saying:

Gods and Generals brings to the big screen the major themes of Lost Cause mythology that professional historians have been working for half a century to combat. In the world of Gods and Generals, slavery has nothing to do with the Confederate cause. Instead, the Confederates are nobly fighting for, rather than against, freedom, as viewers are reminded again and again by one white southern character after another.[64]

Woodworth criticized the portrayal of slaves as being "generally happy" with their condition. He also criticizes the relative lack of attention given to the motivations of Union soldiers fighting in the war. He excoriates the film for allegedly implying, in agreement with Lost Cause mythology, that the South was more "sincerely Christian." Woodworth concludes that the film, through "judicial omission," presents "a distorted view of the Civil War."[64]

Historian William B. Feis similarly criticized the director's decision "to champion the more simplistic-and sanitized-interpretations found in post-war "Lost Cause" mythology".[65] Film critic Roger Ebert described the movie as "a Civil War movie that Trent Lott might enjoy" and said of its Lost Cause themes, "If World War II were handled this way, there'd be hell to pay."[67]

The consensus of film critics for this movie was that it had a firm "pro-confederate slant."[66]


William Faulkner

In his novels about the Sartoris family, William Faulkner referenced those who supported the Lost Cause ideal, while suggesting that the ideal itself was misguided and out of date.[68]

Further adoption

Professor Gallagher contends that Douglas Southall Freeman's definitive four-volume biography of Lee, published in 1934, "cemented in American letters an interpretation of Lee very close to Early's utterly heroic figure."[69] In this work, Lee's subordinates were primarily to blame for errors that lost battles. While Longstreet was the most common target of such attacks, others came under fire as well. Richard Ewell, Jubal Early, J. E. B. Stuart, A. P. Hill, George Pickett, and many others were frequently attacked and blamed by Southerners in an attempt to deflect criticism from Lee.

Hudson Strode wrote a widely read scholarly three-volume biography of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. A leading scholarly journal reviewed it stressing Strode's political biases:

His [Jefferson Davis's] enemies are devils, and his friends, like Davis himself, have been canonized. Strode not only attempts to sanctify Davis but also the Confederate point of view, and this study should be relished by those vigorously sympathetic with the Lost Cause.[70]

The Texas Civil War Museum has been called in 2018 "a lovely bit of 'Lost Cause' propaganda".[71]

Contemporary historians

Contemporary historians overwhelmingly agree that secession was motivated by slavery. There were numerous causes for secession, but preservation and expansion of slavery was easily the most important of them. The confusion may come from blending the causes of secession with the causes of the war—which are separate but related issues. (Lincoln did not enter a military conflict to free the slaves but to put down a rebellion.) Historian Kenneth M. Stampp claimed that each side supported states' rights or federal power only when it was convenient to do so.[72] Stampp also cited Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens's A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States as an example of a Southern leader who said that slavery was the "cornerstone of the Confederacy" when the war began and then said that the war was not about slavery but states' rights after Southern defeat. According to Stampp, Stephens became one of the most ardent defenders of the 'Lost Cause' theory.[73]

Similarly, historian William C. Davis explained the Confederate Constitution's protection of slavery at the national level as follows:

To the old Union they had said that the Federal power had no authority to interfere with slavery issues in a state. To their new nation they would declare that the state had no power to interfere with a federal protection of slavery. Of all the many testimonials to the fact that slavery, and not states' rights, really lay at the heart of their movement, this was the most eloquent of all.[74]

Davis further notes that, "Causes and effects of the war have been manipulated and mythologized to suit political and social agendas, past and present."[75] Historian David Blight says that "its use of white supremacy as both means and ends" has been a key characteristic of the Lost Cause.[7] Historian Allan Nolan writes:

... the Lost Cause legacy to history is a caricature of the truth. The caricature wholly misrepresents and distorts the facts of the matter. Surely it is time to start again in our understanding of this decisive element of our past and to do so from the premises of history unadulterated by the distortions, falsehoods, and romantic sentimentality of the Myth of the Lost Cause.[76]

There are modern Lost Cause writers of history, such as James Ronald Kennedy and his twin brother Walter Donald Kennedy (founders of The League of the South and author of The South Was Right! and Jefferson Davis Was Right!), who play down slavery as a cause in favor of Southern nationalism. The Kennedys describe "the terrorist methods" and "heinous crimes" committed by the Union during the war and then in a chapter titled "The Yankee Campaign of Cultural Genocide" state that they will show "from the United States government's own official records that the primary motivating factor was a desire of those in power to punish and to exterminate the Southern nation and in many cases to procure the extermination of the Southern people."[77]

In arguing why the theme of this book is important to contemporary Southerners, the Kennedys write in the conclusion of their work:

The Southern people have all the power we need to put an end to forced busing, affirmative action, extravagant welfare spending, the punitive Southern-only Voting Rights Act, the refusal of the Northern liberals to allow Southern conservatives to sit on the United States Supreme Court, and the economic exploitation of the South into a secondary economic status. What is needed is not more power but the will to use the power at hand! The choice is now yours—ignore this challenge and remain a second-class citizen, or unite with your fellow Southerners and help start a Southern political revolution.[78]

Historian David Goldfield characterizes books "such as The South Was Right" as:

... explaining that "the War of Northern Aggression was not fought to preserve any union of historic creation, formation, and understanding, but to achieve a new union by conquest and plunder." As for the abolitionists, they were a collection of socialists, atheists, and "reprehensible agitators".[79]

Historian William C. Davis labels many of the myths surrounding the war as "frivolous" and included attempts to rename the war by "Confederate partisans" which continue to this day. He claims names such as the War of Northern Aggression and the expression coined by Alexander Stephens, War Between the States, were just attempts to deny that the Civil War was an actual civil war.[80]

Historian A. Cash Koiniger has theorized that Gary Gallagher has mischaracterized films that depict the Lost Cause. He writes, Gallagher:

... concedes that "Lost Cause themes" (with the important exception of minimizing the importance of slavery) are based on historical truths (p. 46). Confederate soldiers were often outnumbered, ragged, and hungry; southern civilians did endure much material deprivation and a disproportionate amount of bereavement; U.S. forces did wreck [sic] havoc on southern infrastructure and private property and the like, yet whenever these points appear in films Gallagher considers them motifs "celebratory" of the Confederacy (p. 81).[81]

See also



  1. 1 2 Gallagher (2000) p. 1
  2. Sheehan-Dean, Aaron, ed. (2014). A Companion to the U.S. Civil War. Wiley. p. 837. ISBN 9781118802953.
  3. Barton, David (2016). "Confronting Civil War Revisionism: Why the South Went To War". Wallbuilders. Retrieved June 11, 2018.
  4. Coates, Ta-Nehisi. "What This Cruel War Was Over The meaning of the Confederate flag is best discerned in the words of those who bore it". The Atlantic. Retrieved 13 June 2017.
  5. William J. Cooper, Jr.; Thomas E. Terrill (2009). The American South: A History. p. 480. ISBN 9780742560987.
  6. "Facts – The Civil War (U.S. National Park Service)". www.nps.gov. Retrieved 2017-09-01.
  7. 1 2 David W. Blight (2001). Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Harvard University Press. p. 259. ISBN 0-674-00332-2.
  8. Karen L. Cox, Dixie's Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture (University Press of Florida, 2003)
  9. Charles Reagan Wilson, Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865–1920 (University of Georgia Press, 2011)
  10. Gallagher, Gary W.; Nolan, Alan T., eds. (2000). The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History. Indiana UP. ISBN 0253338220.
  11. Rollin G. Osterweis, The Myth of the Lost Cause, 1865–1900 (1973) p. ix
  12. Gaines Foster, "Civil War Sesquicentennial: The Lost Cause," Civil War Book Review (Fall 2013) online
  13. Ulbrich, p. 1221.
  14. Edward A. Pollard, The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates (1866)
  15. Gaines M. Foster (1987). Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South, 1865–1913. Oxford UP. p. 232. ISBN 9780199772100.
  16. 1 2 Gallagher, p. 12.
  17. Gallagher and Nolan p. 43.
  18. Thomas, George Henry (December 4, 1868). "The Department Reports". Sacramento Daily Union. Retrieved March 20, 2016.
  19. 1 2 Ulbrich, p. 1222.
  20. Janney, p. 40.
  21. McElroy, John. Andersonville: A Story of Rebel Military Prisons, Fifteen Months a Guest of the So-called Southern Confederacy : A Private Soldier's Experience in Richmond, Andersonville, Savannah, Millen, Blackshear, and Florence. Toledo: D. R. Locke, 1879.
  22. Coski pp. 192–93
  23. Coski p. 193. Coski (p. 62) also wrote:
    Just as the battle flag became during the war the most important emblem of Confederate nationalism, so did it become during the memorial period [the late 19th Century through the 1920s] the symbolic embodiment of the Lost Cause.
  24. 1 2 "Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc". SCOTUSblog. Retrieved June 20, 2015.
  25. https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2015/10/23/450826208/why-calling-slaves-workers-is-more-than-an-editing-error
  26. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/06/us/publisher-promises-revisions-after-textbook-refers-to-african-slaves-as-workers.html
  27. Gallagher, Gary W.; Nolan, Alan T., eds. (2000). The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History. Indiana UP. p. 28. ISBN 0253338220.
  28. Gaines M. Foster (1987). Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South, 1865–1913. Oxford UP. p. 63. ISBN 9780199878703.
  29. Gallagher, Gary W.; Nolan, Alan T., eds. (2000). The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History. p. 28. ISBN 0253338220.
  30. Caroline E. Janney, "The Lost Cause." Encyclopedia Virginia (Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 2009) accessed 26 July 2015
  31. David W. Blight (2001). Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Harvard University Press. p. 266. ISBN 0-674-00332-2.
  32. William Tynes Cowa (2013). The Slave in the Swamp: Disrupting the Plantation Narrative. Routledge. p. 155. ISBN 9781135470524.
  33. Gary W. Gallagher (2008). Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know about the Civil War. U of North Carolina Press. p. 10. ISBN 9780807886250.
  34. Bruce Catton, Reflections on the Civil War (1981) quoted in Caroline E. Janney, "The Lost Cause" In Encyclopedia Virginia (2015) online.
  35. Reiko Hillyer, "Relics of Reconciliation: The Confederate Museum and Civil War Memory in the New South," Public Historian, Nov 2011, Vol. 33 Issue 4, pp. 35–62,
  36. Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, "'You must remember this': Autobiography as social critique." Journal of American History (1998): 439–65 at p. 449. in JSTOR
  37. Charles Reagan Wilson (1983). Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865–1920. University of Georgia Press. p. 11. ISBN 9780820306810.
  38. Charles Reagan Wilson, "The Religion of the Lost Cause: Ritual and the Organization of the Southern Civil Religion, 1865–1920," Journal of Southern History, May 1980, Vol. 46 Issue 2, pp. 219–38 in JSTOR
  39. W. Scott Poole, "Religion, Gender, and the Lost Cause in South Carolina's 1876 Governor's Race: 'Hampton or Hell!'," Journal of Southern History, Aug 2002, Vol. 68 Issue 3, pp. 573–98
  40. Stephen E. Cresswell, Rednecks, redeemers, and race: Mississippi after Reconstruction (2006)
  41. Gaines M. Foster, Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause and the Emergence of the New South, 1865–1913 (1985) p. 30
  42. Cynthia Mills, and Pamela Hemenway Simpson, eds. Monuments to the Lost Cause: Women, Art, and the Landscapes of Southern Memory (U. of Tennessee Press, 2003)
  43. Karen L. Cox, Dixie's Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and preservation of Southern Culture (University Press of Florida, 2003) pp. 1–7
  44. Megan B. Boccardi, "Remembering in black and white: Missouri women's memorial work 1860–1910" (PhD. Dissertation), University of Missouri–Columbia, 2011, online.
  45. Hall, "'You must remember this': Autobiography as social critique." p. 450
  46. Lizzie Cary Daniel, "Confederate Scrap-book: Copied from a Scrap-book Kept by a Young Girl During and Immediately After the War" (1893)
  47. Elna C. Green, "Protecting confederate soldiers and mothers: Pensions, gender, and the welfare state in the US south, a case study from Florida." Journal of Social History (2006) 39#4 pp: 1079–1104. online
  48. Melody Kubassek, "Ask Us Not to Forget: The Lost Cause in Natchez, Mississippi," Southern Studies, 1992, Vol. 3 Issue 3, pp. 155–70
  49. W. Fitzhugh Brundage, "White Women and the Politics of Historical Memory in the New South, 1880–1920." in Jane Dailey, Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, & Bryant Simon, eds., Jumpin' Jim Crow: Southern Politics from Civil War to Civil Rights (Princeton UP, 2000) pp. 115–39. esp. 119, 123, 131
  50. Brundage, "White Women and the Politics of Historical Memory in the New South, pp. 115–16
  51. Radway, Janice A., ed. (2009). American Studies: An Anthology. John Wiley & Sons. p. 529. ISBN 9781405113519.
  52. CarolineJanney, E. "The Lost Cause." Encyclopedia Virginia(2009)
  53. Gaines M. Foster, Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause and the Emergence of the New South, 1865–1913 (1988) pp. 4–8
  54. "Hayes Historical Journal: The Problem of Ulysses S. Grant". Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library & Museums. Retrieved 2017-09-11.
  55. Gallagher and Nolan p. 16. Nolan writes, "Given the central role of African Americans in the sectional conflict, it is surely not surprising that Southern rationalizations have extended to characterizations of the persons of these people. In the legend there exist two prominent images of the black slaves. One is of the "faithful slave"; the other is what William Garrett Piston calls "the happy darky stereotype."
  56. Colt B. Allgood, "Confederate Partisans and the Southern Cavalier Ideal, 1840–1920," Southern Historian (2011) Vol. 32, pp. 28–42.
  57. David W. Blight (2001). Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Harvard University Press. p. 93. ISBN 0-674-00332-2.
  58. Scrugham, Mary, and William H. (William Henry) Townsend. Force or Consent As the Basis of American Government. [Lexington]: Lexington, Ky. Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, 1920.
  59. David W. Blight (2001). Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Harvard University Press. p. 111. ISBN 0-674-00332-2.
  60. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/12/second-klan/509468/
  61. http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/z3xhhv4
  62. Helen Taylor (2002). "Gone with the Wind and its Influence". In Perry, Carolyn; Weaks-Baxter, Mary. The History of Southern Women's Literature. LSU Press. pp. 258–67. ISBN 978-0-8071-2753-7.
  63. David W. Blight (2001). Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Harvard University Press. pp. 283–84. ISBN 0-674-00332-2.
  64. 1 2 3 4 Woodworth, Steven E. "Film Review: Gods and Generals". Teaching History. Retrieved 7 June 2017.
  65. 1 2 Feis, William B. ""Movie Review: Gods and Generals"". The Society for Military History.
  66. 1 2 "Gods and Generals (2003)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 7 June 2017.
  67. Ebert, Roger. "Gods and Generals: Movie Review". Retrieved 7 June 2017.
  68. David W. Blight (2001). Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Harvard University Press. pp. 292, 448–49. ISBN 0-674-00332-2. [quoting Robert Penn Warren on Faulkner, Blight writes:] If respect for the human is the central fact of Faulkner's work, what makes that fact significant is that he realizes and dramatizes the difficulty of respecting the human. Everything is against it, the savage egotism, the blank appetite, stupidity and arrogance, even virtues sometimes, the misreading of our history and tradition, our education, our twisted loyalties. That is the great drama, however, the constant story.
  69. Gallagher, pp. 24–25.
  70. LeRoy H. Fischer in The Journal of American History September 1965 p. 396 in JSTOR
  71. Wilonsky, Robert (April 24, 2018). "Trip to Texas Civil War Museum shows why Dallas should never send its Robert E. Lee statue there". Dallas News.
  72. Stampp, The Causes of the Civil War, page 59
  73. Stampp, The Causes of the Civil War, pp. 63–65
  74. William C. Davis, Look Away, pp. 97–98
  75. Davis, The Cause Lost p. x
  76. Gallager and Nolan, p. 29
  77. Kennedy and Kennedy p. 275–76
  78. Kennedy and Kennedy, p. 309
  79. Goldfield, p. 302
  80. Davis, The Cause Lost, p. 178
  81. A. Cash Koiniger, review of Gallagher's Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know about the Civil War (2008), citing pages 46 and 81, in The Journal of Military History (Jan 2009) 73 (1) p. 286


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