Reconstruction and the "Lost Cause" Mythology

I have recently been engaged in some very interesting leisure reading (at night time, after Jiu Jitsu classes). For the past 2 weeks these have consisted of some works by Howard Zinn, W.E.B. Du Bois's "Black Reconstruction in America," as well as "The Civil War and Reconstruction" as well as "Look Away: A History of the Confederate States of America," by William C. Davis.

What I found interesting in these readings is how unpopular the "cause" was becoming in the South, in 1864 and 1865. While the historical record is quite transparent regarding the increasing political instability and rioting in the North during 1863-1864 (often due to racist opposition to emancipation becoming an articulated war-aim by 1864, as well as, and inextricably linked to the draft of increasing numbers of white soldiers to fight in the war) I believe that the propaganda successes of the "Lost Cause" revisionists during Reconstruction have blurred the historical record, and obfuscate much of the political instability that was similarly and increasingly wreaking havoc across the South during the latter years of the American Civil War.

When the southern states first seceded, there were outspoken opponents of secession, such as Texas Governor Sam Houston. Although he owned slaves and was not an abolitionist, he thought secession was treason and opposed the Texas Legislature in their efforts to secede. He would be removed from office, because he refused to endorse the action. Although the politicians in countless southern states were able to whip the people into a frenzy to support the war, there were a number of distinguished southern elites who opposed secession, and whose views would become increasingly problematic for the confederacy during the war, as more and more people became horrified by the needless waste of human life, as well as economic devastation brought by the war.

In the West, General Braxton Bragg was a harsh, vindictive, petty general commanding the Army of the Tennessee. He was a poor strategist, and fought constantly with his subordinates, many of whom wanted to kill him. He lost countless men in battle and failed to take effective action in performing his duties. He was a sub-par general given the titanic task of keeping Sherman and Grant out of Tennessee (thereby preventing the Union invasion of Georgia), but he failed miserably. Bragg's poor performance was a source of great consternation among the southern newspapers, who keenly recognized that he was only kept in his position, due to his close personal friendship with Confederate President Jefferson Davis. He, like other southern generals in the West like John Bell Hood and John Pemberton, were unimaginative and often used repeated frontal attacks that resulted in the needless wasting of human life. The popular uproar against these generals, and others like them, fueled the growing opposition to Jefferson Davis throughout the south.

Robert E. Lee's image was crafted by wartime propagandists, as well as "Lost Cause" revisionists as one of near saintly martyrdom. He was portrayed as a military genius and saintly leader. The truth is that he was a charismatic leader with great organizational and logistic skills, was good on defense (where his training in engineering helped with the construction of trenches), but was horrible as an offensive strategist or tactician. His performance at Antietam and Gettysburg were abysmal. By the time of Gettysburg, his poor performance and decision-making abilities were becoming apparent not only to subordinate generals like Longstreet and Pickett, but also to himself, and he repeatedly asked Jefferson Davis to relieve him from duty, due to his increasing ailments (at this time, Lee was suffering from congestive heart failure and he would die shortly after the war). Although the Southern press tried to paint Lee as a saintly general during these latter years of the war, the opinions of his subordinates were permeating through the population, and people were starting to suspect that President Davis was seriously mishandling the war. Entire towns were losing 80-90% of their males between the ages of 16-60. Many illiterate southern men volunteered because they felt that the "Yankees" were going to invade and "rob them of their rights." Many also joined for racial reasons, believing southern propaganda that the North wanted to emancipate the slaves (which was most definitely not the case in 1861). The South had pursued a number of poorly-thought out strategies and policies, the vast majority of which were not working, such as withholding cotton from Britain and France, hoping the shortage would force them to intervene. Britain merely adapted, and created large plantations in Egypt and India to meet the increased demand. The Union's blockade over the south was also causing widespread domestic devastation. Prior to, and during the war, the vast majority of the South's economy was agricultural (which was also the case in the north, contrary to popular opinion). That said, it was not an agriculture based on the production of food, but of inedible commodity crops, like cotton and tobacco. When the Union Blockade went into full swing, food shortages spread throughout the south and in some places, famine started to rear its head. By 1863, bread riots had overtaken many southern cities on a repeated basis. Oftentimes, these riots were started by women, upon whose shoulders much of the home-front was dependent.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Southern_bread_riots

By the time the war ended in 1865, the Confederacy was not very popular in the eyes of the Southern population. Its cities were totally destroyed. Its industry was destroyed. Its social system was destroyed. There were still widespread food shortages and famine was breaking out in countless areas. While the southerners still hated Yankees, and they were still horribly racist and unreconstructed, they also had a large amount of hate for the political and military leaders who they claimed abandoned them. It was southerners who created the myth that Jefferson Davis was captured while dressed up as a woman, because he had become highly unpopular, if not hated, by the late war.

There was a high probability that by 1865, had the Union Army not occupied wide swaths of the South and instituted martial law, the South would have probably had an uprising or revolution, due to the horrible state they were in. Zinn has repeatedly discussed the fact that the Southern white working class population was especially hard-hit in 1865-1866. The north blamed them for supporting the Confederacy and took out their displeasure upon them, while not doing very much to punish the Southern Aristocracy for their role in secession. After all, gentlemen take care of other gentlemen. And, after the slaves (whose suffering was paramount throughout this entire period) it was the poor white southerners who, for the past 4 years, were feeling the economic pressures of the war far more than the Aristocrats.

There are letters and accounts by northern soldiers that southern white sharecroppers and war veterans had turned on their own officers in numerous theaters by 1865, and during the last months of the war. Revolution was in the air, and these people, in many ways, felt like they were "stabbed in the back."

W.E.B Du Bois, in the above mentioned book, discussed how there was a great opportunity here for newly freed Blacks and Poor Whites to make common cause and advocate for their joint economic and political rights. And how this singular prospect----the common Black and white folks---joining together in common cause against the former Confederate Aristocracy,  was one of the major causes of the rise of the KKK and the southern attempt to roll-back Reconstruction.

Apparently, the southern aristocracy, for decades prior to the war, had feared this sort of thing the most, and these fears went into overdrive after John Brown's pre-war uprising in Harper's Ferry. The idea that poor whites would seek common cause with poor Blacks horrified the Southern elites, because they knew that, by numbers alone, they could create a mass movement that would threaten their power. As a result, the Southern elite fostered racist sentiment in leaps and bounds, throughout the 19th century, in order to keep the poor whites separate and apart from the poor Blacks. This effort looked like it might fall apart in 1865, due to the fact that the Southern Elite---which had always had great support among the poor white population----was now horribly unpopular, if not hated.

And this is where the "Lost Cause" mythology starts to pick up steam, it seems. It was primarily a propaganda attempt to salvage the credibility and legitimacy of the white Southern aristocracy in the eyes of the poor southern whites. And toward this end, the use of racism played a very important role. 

The historical record is clear that Freedmen and Black soldiers in the South did not commit vast atrocities against white civilians. In fact, given the circumstances, their behavior was actually incredibly commendable and they behaved themselves far better than countless other white troops, many of whom came from the dregs of society. In fact, military records are quite clear that Black soldiers in the Union army were among the most disciplined, brave and well-behaved among all demographic groups serving in the Union army at the time. That said, the southern press made up many stories about ex-slaves and Black soldiers attacking southern women, killing poor white farm families and the like. These lies were spread in order to whip up the white population into a frenzy of hatred. The KKK was founded by former Confederate Officers, ostensibly to "protect the southern people" from the offenses of "Yankees" and "newly freed slaves," but the fact of the matter is that no such threats actually existed. Sure there were random, scattered happenings. But nothing like the "pandemic" that the southern elite made it out to be. In a sense, the Southern Elites manufactured a crisis, and then came forth, on a horse, offering a manufactured solution that only they could deliver. They proclaimed themselves the "saviors" of the white race, and martyrs in a lost cause. In doing so, they hoped to cement their position as the head of southern society, and inoculate themselves against any uprising by the white working classes. These efforts largely worked.

General James Longstreet was one of the South's finest generals. He is the one who personally advised Lee against all of his ideas at Gettysburg---telling him not to attack the Union troops on their fortified ridge, but instead, to maneuver between the Union forces and Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, forcing the Union to fight the Confederates on defensive ground of the south's own choosing. He also opposed Pickett's Charge. After the war, Longstreet (not Lee) was blamed for the South's defeat at Gettysburg. He became a scapegoat. This is also due to the fact that he embraced abolition and Black Suffrage after the war, and became a Republican. In 1865, criticisms of Lee were increasingly widespread. By 1880, such criticisms simply could not be made, as he had been elevated to an almost messianic status. Any general that served with him, that wanted to tell the truth (that Lee was an unimaginative general, who needlessly caused the deaths of thousands, and who only really won battles when he was able to confer with his brilliant subordinate, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson---who was an actual military genius/savant) was basically silenced.

The same goes for criticisms of Jefferson Davis. By 1865, mobs of whites in countless southern cities hanged Jeff Davis in effigy. They cheered when he was arrested. By 1880 he had been elevated to an icon.

The Southern Aristocracy advocated secession in order to preserve the right of their planter class to expand slavery into the territories newly acquired during the Mexican-American war. Indeed, slavery was the actual cause of that war, as the white Texans wanted to expand and protect slavery in their areas, despite the fact that slavery had been banned by the Mexican government, which in turn was trying to use force to compel the white Texans into respecting Mexican law). The Southern aristocrats were also opposed to newly admitted states having the ability to declare themselves "free states" (so much for state's rights). To protect, and enlarge their slave-based economic system, they utilized an apartheid system and increasingly vicious racist propaganda to prevent whites from ever making common cause with Blacks. They lied to and mislead countless illiterate southern whites about the true nature of secession (countless whites in the 1850s still weren't allowed to vote, due to their illiteracy). As a result of their actions, 400,000 southerners died in a useless, futile rebellion that served the interests of nobody except the cynical aristocrats who made their wealth off of the sweat, blood and toil of others.

Sadly, the same aristocrats who plunged the south into Civil War were able to, within a few short years, reassert their claim to regional leadership and avert a local revolution. As mentioned above, this was done by manufacturing a false nationalist/militaristic myth of the "Lost Cause," where anybody who questioned Lee or Davis was seen as a traitor. And secondly, it was done through the use of old, as well as new methods of segregating the races and disenfranchising Blacks (as well as poor whites, something we also forget----literacy tests were continuously used in the south to disenfranchise poor whites up until the 20th century)

In a sense, the Southern Aristocracy developed an effective playbook whereby elites could suffer major military defeat and massive social unrest (due to economic pressure and unpopular conscription), and transform said situation into an even more perfidious system of political control. Very few global elites, historically, have been able to do this. Usually, they totally lose their power after suffering such massive military defeat. This is something that needs to be studied more in-depth. It is unfortunate that northerners and liberals have not studied Reconstruction as much as southern reactionaries have...

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Comment by alsoknownas on June 28, 2017 at 9:06am

I believe something in excess of 60% of Confederate soldiers deserted,( Samuel L. Clemens being among them ) realizing their families, town and entire lives were being destroyed by "elitists".

A fictional accounting of a particular county's response resulted in a recent movie based on the life of this person: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newton_Knight

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jones_County,_Mississippi#Free_State_...

Comment by Rob Wittmann on June 28, 2017 at 9:24am

There's also the story of Huey Long's grandfather. Apparently, in his part of Louisiana, there was widespread opposition to the Confederacy and locals refused to enlist, calling it a "Rich Man's War."

Comment by koshersalaami on June 28, 2017 at 9:41am

I learned a lot from this

Comment by JMac1949 Today on June 28, 2017 at 12:27pm

R&L.  One story that I would add to southern resistance to the CSA is Sam Houston was elected as the first and third President of the Republic of Texas, and after the annexation of Texas by the United States in 1845, Houston was elected to the U.S. Senate by the Texas state legislature. In 1859 he was elected Governor of the state of Texas on a Unionist platform.  Although Houston was a slave owner and opposed abolition, he opposed the secession of Texas from the Union. An elected convention voted to secede from the United States on February 1, 1861, and Texas joined the Confederate States of America on March 2, 1861. Houston refused to recognize its legality, but the Texas legislature upheld the legitimacy of secession. The political forces that brought about Texas's secession were powerful enough to replace the state's Unionist governor. Houston chose not to resist, stating, "I love Texas too well to bring civil strife and bloodshed upon her. To avert this calamity, I shall make no endeavor to maintain my authority as Chief Executive of this State, except by the peaceful exercise of my functions ... "

He was evicted from his office on March 16, 1861, for refusing to take an oath of loyalty to the Confederacy, writing in an undelivered speech, "Fellow-Citizens, in the name of your rights and liberties, which I believe have been trampled upon, I refuse to take this oath. In the name of the nationality of Texas, which has been betrayed by the Convention, I refuse to take this oath. In the name of the Constitution of Texas, I refuse to take this oath. In the name of my own conscience and manhood, which this Convention would degrade by dragging me before it, to pander to the malice of my enemies, I refuse to take this oath. I deny the power of this Convention to speak for Texas....I protest....against all the acts and doings of this convention and I declare them null and void."

After leaving the Governor's mansion, Houston traveled to Galveston. Along the way, many people demanded an explanation for his refusal to support the Confederacy. On April 19, 1861 from a hotel window he told a crowd:

Let me tell you what is coming. After the sacrifice of countless millions of treasure and hundreds of thousands of lives, you may win Southern independence if God be not against you, but I doubt it. I tell you that, while I believe with you in the doctrine of states rights, the North is determined to preserve this Union. They are not a fiery, impulsive people as you are, for they live in colder climates. But when they begin to move in a given direction, they move with the steady momentum and perseverance of a mighty avalanche; and what I fear is, they will overwhelm the South."

As lobbyist for the Cherokee tribe in Arkansas and the US Representative from the state of Tennessee, Houston was also the first person to wear beads on the floor of the US Congress:

Comment by Ron Powell on June 28, 2017 at 9:00pm

"... the Southern Aristocracy developed an effective playbook whereby elites could suffer major military defeat and massive social unrest (due to economic pressure and unpopular conscription), and transform said situation into an even more perfidious system of political control. Very few global elites, historically, have been able to do this. Usually, they totally lose their power after suffering such massive military defeat."

The capcity willingness, and opportunity to EXPLOIT RACISM! 

Comment by Steel Breeze on June 29, 2017 at 7:46am

R&L.....good info...

Comment by Dicky Neely on June 29, 2017 at 1:22pm

Very good summation and analysis. I am a history buff and have read literally hundreds of books on the civil war. Many of them posit very different observations from the others, many are not to be taken seriously since they are written by Southern apologists or starstruck admirers of their heroes such as Lee and others. Some are obviously pro north or pro south. We are still fighting the war, in a sense, today. I would reccommend James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom as a good single volume history of the war.

Comment by Phyllis on July 3, 2017 at 5:09am

Is this the basis of where we are today? The aftermath of the war, the elites regaining power by dividing the populace, it all sounds very modern.

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