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The Cult of the Lost Cause

The bloodiest Civil War battles of the historians, unlike those of history, have been fought over events before rather than after 1861. And unlike the historic battles, the historiographic engagements still rage, the issue still in doubt in many instances. Most of them have been going on for more than a century, and while there have been occasional truces and lulls in the fighting, latest bulletins from the front offer little prospect for peace.

Kenneth M. Stampp takes us on a guided tour of the classic antebellum battlefields of historiography. Only one of them is located in wartime, and its military aspects are of more incidental than central significance. Passing up skirmishes and secondary campaigns, our guide concentrates on the major engagements—the Bull Runs, Antietams, Chancellorsvilles, Gettysburgs, Vicksburgs, and Appomattoxes of historiography. These battles were fought—are being fought—over the nature and consequences of slavery, its impact on slaves, masters, and opponents, and its significance in sectional conflict and in bringing on war. They rage over racism and the extent of it North and South, over the motives and purposes of the Republican and other parties and their constituents, and over the questions of war guilt and Lincoln’s policies preceding the war. And finally there are the obligatory battle pieces over “what really caused the Civil War,” whether it was really avoidable or inevitable, and what really explains southern defeat and northern victory.

Professor Stampp is well qualified as a guide to these battlefields of the historians. A veteran of most of the campaigns and still a participant on active duty in several, he is well posted on the strength, weakness, and firepower of the forces engaged. After first pointing out, identifying, and assessing all belligerent units and reserves on a particular field, he puts on a demonstration as a participatory guide. Pitching in with live ammunition he leads a charge himself and often leaves the field littered with casualties. While he makes no secret of the colors he flies and the cause he fights, he shows a proper regard and, in all but a few cases, a seemly gallantry toward his foes. Bearing scars from many past encounters, he has learned a due respect for the forces of opposition and usually prefers to consider their intentions honorable if misguided.

Nearly twenty-five years ago Stampp opened a reassessment of slavery with his book The Peculiar Institution. It challenged and reversed the view of slavery as essentially benign and the slaves as largely contented, stressed the hardships and brutalities of the system, and emphasized the resistance short of rebellion that slaves used against their exploiters. Three years later, in 1959, Stanley M. Elkins presented a counter-thesis that pictured the typical plantation slave as a placid, childlike, and contented Sambo. He was no less oppressed than Stampp’s slave, but he reacted to oppression by conforming to the submissive role demanded by his masters and partially internalizing their values. Contrasting Elkins’s Sambo with Herbert Aptheker’s earlier picture of the slave as an activist rebel, Stampp trains his guns on both. A few well-placed shots on misused sources and shaky scholarship dispose of the activist prototype, and the main critical barrage is concentrated on the Sambo image. Already weakened by other attacks during the past twenty years, the defenses of this hypothesis are left by Stampp in general disarray.

The next battle, the one against Time on the Cross by the “cliometricians” Robert W. Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman, places a severe strain on the patience, not to mention the gallantry, of our intrepid guide. He is the favorite butt of their polemics and is tempted beyond endurance at times. In this mood he writes:

In the historiography of antebellum southern slavery, Time on the Cross now stands unchallenged as the most favorable assessment of the impact of slavery on the southern economy, and the most cheerful portrayal of virtually all aspects of slave life, including income, conditions of labor, occupational mobility, marriage and child-rearing, family life, cultural advancement, master-slave relationships, and inferentially, the psychological impact of bondage on black people.

He then twists the knife by a comparison of the cliometricians with the southern historian Ulrich B. Phillips, author of what once held the record as “the classic account of slavery as a benign institution.” For all that, he continues, “Phillips in some respects portrayed the system as slightly less benign than they, and he acknowledged more fully and explicitly its harsher side.” Going still further, Stampp compares the modern quantified study with the antebellum proslavery work by Thomas R. Dew of Virginia, and declares that “if I were looking for a label, I would be tempted to call it Neo-Dewism.” In any case, the work is “rooted in the traditional proslavery interpretation,” he contends. He also describes it as a book of “disembodied abstractions and statistical averages,” a book “written with little imagination and without a feeling for nuance or ambiguity,” and “a book which deprives blacks of their voices, their initiative, and their humanity.”

Without so much as pausing for a body count, the guided tour moves on to the next ongoing battle. This one is over the motives, intentions, and racism of the antebellum Republicans. The issue at stake here is how much wind the racism of Republicans and abolitionists takes out of the sails of their moral pretensions. In his scenario for this battle our guide rather spoils the fun by conceding so much. He outdoes the opposition in quoting anti-Negro and racist statements of antislavery people and concedes that “many Republicans appeared to be at heart more anti-slave-holder, or anti-Slave Power, or anti-southern, or even anti-Negro than they were anti-slavery on moral grounds.” He appears content to establish that Democrats were more racist and viciously demagogic than Republicans, a point he has no difficulty in making. But that is a triumph of storming a virtually undefended and indefensible position. And only a handful of diehard Confederates would undertake resistance to the claim that Lincoln, in spite of his defense of white supremacy, was on firmer moral ground than Douglas in their famous debates in 1858. The point Stampp does make that is always worth making is to admonish us against judging the mid-nineteenth century by late-twentieth-century standards.

The lines are more sharply drawn in the struggle over determining President Lincoln’s intentions over relieving Fort Sumter and starting the war. On one side are those who call his policy war-like and describe it as cynically designed to maneuver the South into firing the first shot. His purpose was not only to unite the North but also to save his administration and his party. On the other side are those who believe his intentions were peaceful and that the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter represented a defeat instead of a victory for Lincoln’s policy. Stampp takes a third position. Sumter was a triumph for Lincoln: “With consummate skill he had at once hamstrung the South, satisfied the great majority of Northerners that he contemplated no aggression, and yet conveyed his determination to defend the authority of the federal government.” National interest was made to coincide with party and personal interest. Whether the South attacked or submitted, Lincoln’s purpose would prevail. In the end, the Confederates like the Unionists chose war over submission.

Theories of what caused the war have long divided historians into many partisan factions with confusing allegiances to ideological, cultural, political, psychological, and sectional colors. When push comes to shove, however, they all tend to rally to one or the other of two camps: those who believe the conflict that led to war was irrepressible or those who contend that it was repressible. Stampp lines up predictably under the colors of irrepressibility, though he is suspicious of allies to the right and left and unwilling to contend, openly at least, that irrepressible conflict necessarily meant inevitable war. Inevitability is a philosophical question not susceptible to historical proof.

Stampp’s strategy against the ranks of the repressibles is a flank attack that rolls up one entrenchment after another: those who deny that slavery was a moral issue, those who blame fanatics, dogmatists, cranks, ambitious or blundering politicians, and the propagandists who spread suspicion, paranoia, and irrational obsessions. They were all, from Senator Douglas on down, essentially southern apologists. With them he lumps the new political historians whose computers portray an irrational electorate in the North responding to ethnic or nativist bigots and ignoring national issues. Having mopped up the common opposition, Stampp then turns on his allies and mows down fellow irrepressibles on his left and right who attribute the conflict to economic or to cultural differences between the sections. No, it all boiled down to the compulsions of proslavery and antislavery forces. They explain the irrepressible conflict—whether the war was inevitable or not. But one finishes this searching analysis with a profound sense of the inescapability of war.

The best, the most original, and the most provocative of these battle pieces is the final one, “The Southern Road to Appomattox.” Written in a humbler spirit than the others, it offers “to suggest one of the conditions, among several, that may help to explain why the South lost the Civil War.” Stampp is more generous to the captains of rival forces this time, willingly conceding the value of their contributions. The fact remains, however, that existing hypotheses leave much to be explained and establish no commonly accepted theory. After all, weaker coalitions had won their independence from stronger empires—the thirteen colonies for example—and the historic odds favored success more than failure for the Confederates. Whether previous explanations emphasize material handicaps or human failures, they most often agree on a deficiency in Confederate morale, dedication to the cause, determination fierce enough to overcome handicaps and win. This failing was not for the want of able speakers and political talent, of which the South had more than its share. It was something else.

Stampp offers the hypothesis that many southerners—“enough to affect the outcome of the war—who outwardly appeared to support the Confederate cause had inward doubts about its validity, and that, in all probability, some, perhaps unconsciously, welcomed its defeat.” In the first place he believes there was no “genuine southern nationalism,” and that except for slavery, southern whites had little in the way of distinctive culture, either in the stock of their population or in their political and religious beliefs. They were driven to secession not out of nationalism, but by fear and anger, as a last painful resort. Hating the Yankees was not the same as hating the Union. Indeed, they blamed the Yankees for driving them out of the Union and for questioning their fidelity to American traditions, which they vowed to give better protection than did the Union. Some of them seem to have regarded secession as a means of eventually negotiating a better position in the old Union than could be obtained by negotiating from within. Whether or not guilt and shame over slavery were so prevalent as Stampp suggests, defeat offered a way of unloading the burden and may help explain the readiness to accept abolition. Defeat also offered a way of returning to the Union. Some may have been persuaded that they had less to gain by winning than by losing. That was not a strong incentive for fighting on, nor was slavery ever an effective rallying cry.

One has only to think of the tough durability of Polish nationalism, surviving more than a century of partition, occupation, and repression, to realize how insubstantial southern national identity was and how much of a lost cause it was from the start. Another clue to that weakness, as Stampp points out, was the lack of partisan resistance and sabotage in the many Union-occupied zones of the South during the Civil War. A comparison with what the German armies faced in occupied Europe or the French in occupied Algeria is revealing. As David M. Potter once put it. “Southern loyalties to the Union were never really obliterated but rather were eclipsed by other loyalties with which, for a time, they conflicted.”

Turning from the Civil War to Reconstruction, we encounter problems of historical interpretation that put something of a strain on Stampp’s attractive theory of ephemeral southern nationalism. He is aware of some of them, but leaves some of their implications unexplored. One way of posing them is to reverse the question, Why was the Road to Reunion so short? and ask instead, Why was it so long? The morale of unity and the will to resist that eluded the Confederacy were achieved by the white South after it had been thoroughly defeated and occupied. In their weakened plight, southern whites united behind the cause of white supremacy and overthrew Radical Reconstruction and the hopes for racial justice. The failure of unity, morale, and the will to prevail, as Stampp admits, had now shifted to the North—which the South knew to be even less united on the issue of race than it had been on slavery. In fact, the North stood accused of imposing on the South standards of racial equality it would not at that time have itself endured.

Whether the postbellum unity and morale for resistance can properly be called nationalism or not, it came closer to approximating that goal than what the Confederacy achieved. With the onus of slavery off their backs, the white leaders of reaction found in race an issue that transcended class lines and secured a popular base. The term “Confederate” achieved a popularity it never enjoyed during wartime. Non-combatants were promoted to “colonels,” and authentic heroes were immortalized in marble. The cult of the Lost Cause acquired religious overtones. The one-party South and the Solid South did not arrive until later, but they were sustained and nourished on the legend of Confederate unity that was achieved after the cause was lost.

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