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The Long Shadow of a Southern Myth

Updated: May 31, 2020

"For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet..."

William Faulkner

"Nothing ever ends."

Alan Moore, Watchmen

It was not a day either man relished when Robert E. Lee of the Confederate rebel army surrendered his saber to American General Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Court House in Virginia. It marked the end a long and bloody Civil War and would later mark the end of an era where the United States would emerge as a world power. General Grant did not gloat and he expected his troops to do the same. “The war is over,” he said. “The rebels are our countrymen again.” Grant extended this courtesy to his adversary. “Whatever his feelings they were entirely concealed from my observation,” Grant later wrote of Lee. “I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and so valiantly, and suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought.” That cause of course was slavery, an institution considered officially dead with the rebel surrender at Appomattox. Many wanted Lee to continue the fight to the bitter end but the rebel general had had enough. Whites in the South now had to cope with freedom, however they would not, could not, cope with equality. For the defeated rebels the Civil War had not ended at Appomattox, but merely switched planes. Their energy was now put toward preserving and protecting white supremacy. Since the federal government protected the rights of former slaves after the Civil War, white southerners had to maintain power locally to preserve their superiority. That meant the former slaveholding south had to become fierce advocates of states rights. It was in their logic of collective memory the myth of the Lost Cause was born; a justification for their major political adjustment. “In the moment of death,” wrote Southern poet Robert Penn Warren. “The Confederacy entered upon its immortality.” It became a crusade of which they fought with equal fervor as they did at Antietam or Bull Run but this time it would result in their victory, the scars of which can be seen one hundred years later and into today. Ever since radical abolitionist John Brown stormed Harpers Ferry in 1859 it feels as if the wounds of the Civil War have never healed, and the long, uncast shadow of the Lost Cause still haunts an increasingly divided nation .

Electoral Map from 1860

In 1860 the power of the slave holding states was shrinking. Their representation in government was diminishing and they vastly underestimated the population of the north, which even with the three-fifths compromise of the Constitution, greatly out numbered their Southern neighbors. When Abraham Lincoln, a candidate who opposed the idea of allowing slavery to spread to new territories ran on the Republican ticket in 1860, the South saw this as an existential threat to their power and way of life. “The South cannot exist without Slavery,” said a commissioner from South Carolina. A Republican victory meant an end to that “domestic institution” of slavery and the southern way of life as a consequence. To Southerners, the two things were synonymous. “Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States that by the ascension of a Republican Administration their property and their peace and their personal security are to be endangered,” said soon to be Confederate President Jefferson Davis. “The full development and continuance of which the labor of African slaves is indispensable.” When Lincoln eventually won, well, it was too much to bear. Here is Vice President of the Confederacy Alexander Stephens in Georgia 1861 after seven states had already succeeded:

“The new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions-African slavery as it exists among us-the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution…Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition. [Applause.] This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science.”

In the coming months after Stephens’ speech four more states would secede, based on Stephens’ claim that the United States Constitution was based on the idea of equality. Many today still insist the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery. If Alexander Stephens words are not convincing, one is free to look at the Ordinance of Secession or the Constitution of each of the Southern States that withdrew from the United States.

South Carolina:

The General Government, as the common agent, passed laws to carry into effect these stipulations of the States. For many years these laws were executed. But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution.


Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.


Article XV

General Provisions

Section 1. The General Assembly shall have no power to pass laws for the emancipation of slaves. Section 2. The General Assembly shall have power to pass laws to prevent free negroes, mulattoes, and other persons of color from immigrating to this State, or from being discharged from on board any vessel in any of the ports of Florida.


Whereas, the election of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin to the offices of president and vice-president of the United States of America, by a sectional party, avowedly hostile to the domestic institutions and to the peace and security of the people of the State of Alabama And as it is the desire and purpose of the people of Alabama to meet the slaveholding States of the South, who may approve such purpose, in order to frame a provisional as well as permanent Government upon the principles of the Constitution of the United States.


The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery…. The party of Lincoln, called the Republican party, under its present name and organization, is of recent origin. It is admitted to be an anti-slavery party.

Louisana [Journal of the Convention]:

A formidable and powerful party, called B[l]ack Republicans, exist[i]ng exclusively, with slight and insignificant exceptions, in the non-slaveholding States, has proclaimed that slavery shall be prohibited by action of Congress in the Territories, thus showing a deliberate hostility to the South.


Texas abandoned her separate national existence and consented to become one of the Confederated States to promote her welfare, insure domestic tranquility [sic] and secure more substantially the blessings of peace and liberty to her people. She was received into the confederacy with her own constitution, under the guarantee of the federal constitution and the compact of annexation, that she should enjoy these blessings. She was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery--the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits--a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time.


The people of Virginia, in their ratification of the Constitution of the United States of

America, adopted by them in Convention, on the twenty-fifth day of June, in the year of our Lord, one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight, having declared that the powers granted under the said Constitution, were derived from the people of the United States, and might be resumed whensoever the same should be perverted to their injury and oppression, and the Federal Government having perverted said powers, not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern slaveholding States.


Whereas, in addition to the well-founded causes of complaint set forth by this Convention in resolutions adopted on the 11th of March, A.D. 1861, against the sectional party now in power at Washington City, headed by Abraham Lincoln, he has, in the face of resolutions passed by this Convention, pledging the State of Arkansas to resist to the last extremity any attempt on the part of such power to coerce any State that seceded from the old Union, proclaimed to the world that war should be waged against such States, until they should be compelled to submit to their rule, and large forces to accomplish this have by this same power been called out, and are now being marshalled to carry out this inhuman design, and to longer submit to such rule or remain in the old Union of the United States would be disgraceful and ruinous to the State of Arkansas.

North Carolina:

In all such territory, the institution of negro slavery as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress, and by the territorial government: and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and territories, shall have the right to take to such territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the States or territories of the Confederate States.

These are all statements from each ordinance, Constitution or convention relating to secession with the exception of Tennessee, whose ordinance or Constitution I was unable to find. Tennessee was a Civil War within a Civil War. It was the last state to join the Confederacy doing so after the war had already started. The actions of the state were meant to placate both the slaveholding West and the non-slaveholding East. Regardless, each seceding state makes a point to mention slavery or Lincoln directly, either for the reason for their secession or as a central part of their governing principles. Every ordinance nullifies their states allegiance to the United States Constitution, making them traitors. The Confederacy is nothing to celebrate unless one supports the cause of slavery and secession. A link to a transcript of each document is provided in the sources for anyone interested or willing to question this historically self-evident fact. Only a small bit of each document is provided above.

To those who believe this was a war raged by slave owners but fought by poor white farmers are free to look at the abundance of letters, diaries and speeches written and spoken by Confederate soldiers. Take the more candid word of a Captain from the 7th Georgia volunteer infantry in 1890: “We fought for the supremacy of the white race in America.” Or this letter from a Southern planter in 1860: “We are contending for all that we hold dear—our Property—our Institutions—our Honor…. A stand must be made for African slavery or it is forever lost.” Exonerating the soldier does not exonerate the cause. For instance take Robert E. Lee. He was not a legislator. His politics were a matter of no consequence since he had no influence on legislation passed in the rebel congress. Lee was not an abolitionist; he did not believe in racial equality, and kept silent on the attempted progress after the war when his voice and compliance would have done much for the nations healing. The often quoted letter he wrote to the New York Times in 1856 should be read in its entirety. Lee does describe slavery as a "moral and political evil." However he continues:

It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it [slavery] however a greater evil to the white than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly interested 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.

As in officer in the United States Army, Lee swore an oath to the United States Constitution and like his comrades he violated that oath when he chose to fight for the enemy. This is not to mention Lee is also guilty of war crimes, being in command when his soldiers executed black soldiers surrendering at the Battle of the Crater in 1864, the treatment of prisoners of war at Andersonville and the abduction of black citizens during his march north to Gettysburg. One that considers him a man of the times has not properly compared him to his contemporaries, who in similar circumstances, chose different more righteous paths. Admiral Farragut was a Southern born Unionist who abhorred secession and chose to fight for his country, the United States. Lee's second in command General James Longstreet, who Lee affectionately called his "Old War Horse," became a Republican after the war and was dedicated to implementing President Ulysses S. Grant's Reconstruction policies. As Police Commissioner in New Orleans he was forced to fire at men who had once served under him during a white supremacist insurrection. For his post-war politics he was vilified, and despite the countless victories he won for the South you will not find one memorial dedicated to him below the Mason Dixon line. Being a good strategist does not vindicate Lee either. If he is responsible for the victory at the Battle of Fredericksburg than he must also take the blame for Pickett's Charge. Even so, good soldiers are not always good men. The United States has a poor history of catching and serving justice to traitors, and although his reputation has survived via the myth of the Lost Cause, there is nothing honorable or redeemable about Robert E. Lee.

Fortunately for him the Lost Cause's perverted narrative is still cherished and shared amongst Lee's more ardent supporters. Take for example the white supremacists who marched un-disguised in Charlottesville, Virginia for the preservation of Robert E. Lee's statue scheduled to be taken down in late 2017. As the marchers were well aware, these idols do not commemorate or memorialize history. All of them, built in both the North and the South to celebrate the rebel cause, were erected well after the events or people they were memorializing. Many were put up in the 1920s and 30s when the Klan was at its most powerful and fascism was a very real possibility in the United States. They were meant to collaborate with the rise of the far right already taking place in Europe and served as symbols of that affiliation. The statue of Lee in Charlottesville was commemorated in 1924, just a year before 30,000 Ku Klux Klan members paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue with their hoods up. These statues were meant to instill fear and to remind black Americans that although the Civil War was over, its rebel veterans and sympathizers still prowled the streets, courts, statehouses and congress; that whites still ruled supreme.

Since mostly all Confederates were given a blanket pardon at the end of the Civil War if they once again swore allegiance to the United States Constitution, former rebels were able to spend the last few decades of their lives protecting their legacy and building the myth of the Lost Cause. In this world the North was the aggressor, subjugating the innocent South; annihilating their way life of life save for their sacred honor. The South “had surrendered but was not whipped,” said one former rebel. Slavery was “no wise the cause of the conflict but only an incident,” Jefferson Davis would later say. This argument would be used to justify over a century of terrorism carried out formally by the Ku Klux Klan and informally by lynch mobs in order to maintain white supremacy, and institute Jim Crow. Over the decades this would develop in the “southern strategy,” where politicians would use what we call today “dog whistles.” Richard Nixon most famously used this in 1968 when he (now ironically) called himself the “law and order” candidate, a phrase used to placate Americans who were not too comfortable with the progress made in the 1960s. It was used again in 2016 with now President Donald Trump and just about everything he brought to the table. Republican strategist Lee Atwater explained the GOP southern strategy in 1981:

You start out in 1954 by saying, 'Nigger, nigger, nigger.' By 1968 you can't say 'nigger' -- that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me -- because obviously sitting around saying, 'We want to cut this,' is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than 'Nigger, nigger.'

The GOP in 2016 knew this, and so did Vladimir Putin. Though with Donald Trump they were offered something a bit different. Like the white supremacist marchers in Charlottesville, Trump is unmasked, he has done away with the southern strategy, the myth and the dog whistles. He revealed the true identity of racial politics in the United States and was the first candidate since the 1960s to do that. For the people who subscribe to that ideology it was refreshing. Trump not only exposed the unfortunate true nature of some Americans but he also revealed that we never quite finished the work we were in to “bind up the nation’s wounds,” as Lincoln eloquently put it in 1865. The United States has not been able to honestly look at the problems left by the Civil War and come up with an honest, through solution.

A Confederate statue in Rockville, Maryland erected in 1927

It is unfortunate that many in the South today have to deal with this legacy. Black Americans still deal with the political ramifications of a war they never experienced or asked for. Not to mention the country as a whole suffers from this egregious self-inflicted wound that has not healed. It also does not help that many white southerners get lumped into a stereotype resembling the cast of the film Deliverance. There are many good people that live below the Mason-Dixon line of both colors, but that will make no difference until the United States puts the 19th Century behind it and accepts General Lee’s saber in earnest.












Jefferson Davis, constitutionalist, his letters, ... v.5. Davis, Jefferson, 1808-1889. P. 38 & 72;view=1up;seq=94 - Robert E. Lee Letter to NYT

The Soul of America by Jon Meacham

The Road to Unfreedom by Timothy Snyder

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