A Civil War historian said Monday that Southern women spoon-fed their children a version of the war that put Confederate soldiers and the South in the best possible light, and that act of rewriting of history remains one of the reasons the Lost Cause is still around today.
In a timely lecture, Brian McKnight, a professor of history at The University of Virginia’s College at Wise, explored the six tenets of the Lost Cause of the Civil War and explained how the related interpretation of the war in the South relates to the monument controversy today. McKnight said the tenets, which include assertions that secession not slavery caused the war, slaves were content, the North won because of its resources and number of soldiers, Confederates soldiers were heroes, Union soldiers were villains, and that loyal, Southern women reacted to the sacrifice of their Southern men.
According to McKnight, academics have long rejected the romanticized Lost Cause, but he said it has cast a shadow from the end of the Civil War to the present. The events in Charlottesville that erupted after city council attempted to remove a statute of Robert E. Lee has the nation talking again, McKnight said in the first of the Scholars’ Week lectures. He said people are asking questions about erasing history, placing statutes in public parks with solid interpretations of the Civil War, and they are asking why people are only just complaining about Confederate statutes.
“We erase history every single day,” McKnight said, explaining that people rub out parts of their own history daily. “It makes today much more livable.”
McKnight said complaints were voiced about Civil War monuments before now, but people generally did not listen.
“We ignored them,” he said.
Many of the monuments were placed in communities that were primarily white at the time, but demographics changed. Monuments that are controversial today are generally the ones that celebrate the cause and not the war dead, he explained. It is much easier to live with a monument to the dead that one that is a monument to the cause, he said.
There is no question that it was slavery and not secession that caused the Civil War, he said. The economy of slavery in the United States was twice as valuable as the railroad industry, he added. Wording in the sucession ordinances clearly show slavery was the driving issue, he said, adding that 20 slaves in 1860 would be worth $1 million in today’s currency.
The tenet that the North had overwhelming manpower and technology is somewhat true, but research reveals that about 94 percent of eligible Southerners were in the Confederate army, but just 24 percent of Northerners were fighting for the Union, McKnight added.
Overall, the Southern women who took liberties when explaining to their young children why their late father or other relatives fought for the Confederacy perpetuated the Lost Cause for generations, he said. It was the United Daughters of the Confederacy who rallied around the Lost Cause. The result was dozens of publicly supported Confederate monuments.
“One hundred years ago is when the history of the Civil War in the South was being rewritten in public spaces across the South,” McKnight said.
Scholars’ Week is sponsored by the UVa-Wise Lecture Committee.