Lost Cause

It was Easter Sunday in Louisiana. Black troops defended from the trenches as a rebel yell went out and a frenzy of men pressed onward. The white Rebels were held off for a couple of hours before they managed to aim a cannon at a breach in the defenders’ trenches; as cannon fire rained down, the white troops picked off the fleeing Black men. Many of them fled into the local courthouse, where they holed up before the white troops set it ablaze. As the building burned, they waved white cloths out the window in a call for surrender. But neither side was fighting in an army with the Union or Confederacy– the Civil War had ended eight years ago. It was 1873, and here was a former Confederate officer commanding hundreds of men in an attack against a force led by a Union veteran. The white force, which the Black defenders called “the Rebels,” massacred their foes. They gunned them down as they fled the courthouse and scoured the countryside for any living combatants, resulting in at least one hundred and fifty dead Black martyrs. Three of the white men died.

The Colfax Massacre, sparked by a contested state election, was one of the bloodiest of the many massacres throughout the Reconstruction South. In Grant Parish, control was claimed by both the white supremacist Democrats and the Republicans, who occupied the courthouse. It was this courthouse that the Black men were killed defending, doubtlessly with the knowledge that theirs was a fight to maintain their own rights as recently freed slaves. Though the war was over, white supremacists ruthlessly organized to maintain the old southern way of life through violence; Reconstruction essentially became another stage of the Civil War, fought not by armies on a battlefield, but by terrorist groups that stalked Black communities and reinforced their racist social codes.

Part of this struggle played out as white southerners immediately tried to concoct methods to enslave freedmen despite their recent emancipation — laws restricted freedom of movement and tethered freedmen to plantations, even sending off Black orphans to be “apprenticed” to white masters. These legal maneuvers occurred at the same time as freedmen were earning their right to vote and hold office. Where laws could not control Black behavior, vigilantism did, creating a reign of terror across the region. Black politicians were often targeted: as states wrote new constitutions in conventions attended by Black members, a tenth of the Black men who attended were victims of violence (seven of them being murdered). In Jackson County, Florida, “where Satan has his seat,” Black Republicans were among the victims of a streak of violence that killed over 150. And in one North Carolina judicial district, a Judge counted over 700 beatings along with at least a dozen arson attacks and murders. One of the victims was a 103-year old woman who was whipped mercilessly.

This is but a brief screenshot of southern life during the Reconstruction. Black families as well as many white Republicans were forced into “lying out,” or sleeping in the woods so that they couldn’t be found when white supremacist militias raided their homes. The terror was palpable. Yet, despite the violence, the Republicans still had control in the South that white supremacists needed to wrest away. The struggle can be exemplified by the bloody events in Colfax, as well as in New Orleans the following year, where thousands of racist militiamen attempted a Coup d’Etat that had to be overturned by federal troops.

Though the battle was fierce, the Republican allies in the federal government didn’t have much of an interest in the South. The ex-Confederates were emboldened by the federal hesitancy to intervene. Historian Eric Foner describes the scene in Mississippi in 1875, where “Democratic rifle clubs paraded the Black Belt, disrupting Republican meetings and assaulting local party leaders.” Democrats began winning the struggle for political supremacy, backed by their white militias. When the last of the federal troops left in 1877 following a political bargain that put Rutherford B. Hayes in the White House, the white supremacists had free reign to begin a period of “home rule,” in which freedmen would be reduced to a second era of slavery.

Insidiously, the white supremacists who enforced the coming racial caste society would call themselves “redeemers,” restoring southern society with white men on top. They would usher in an age of one-party rule and disenfranchise Black people who were forced to submit to absurd social rules and segregation. They cast a net of petty crimes to criminalize Black life and put them into forced labor camps to become a new kind of slave. Spikes in the amount of arrests corresponded accordingly with shortages of cheap labor. Throughout the Black Belt, freedmen were turned into sharecroppers with little freedom, and everywhere in the South the specter of racist terrorism went hand-in-hand with the chipping away of Black rights. The South was ruled by a proto-fascist amalgamation of white supremacist mob rule and legal code, the former often opening the door for the latter to swoop in and encode racist norms.

Eighty-eight years after the Colfax Massacre, in 1961, the white supremacists of the South could sense the shifting tides. They rebelled by any means possible — rioting to prevent integration, sicking police dogs on protestors, and eventually retreating, like their ancestors a century before, but now in white communities in suburbs far away from the Black communities whose protests ushered in a new age, a Second Reconstruction. As the twentieth century Confederates decamped, they bitterly pressed forward on a new, entirely symbolic front. They hoisted their flag above their state houses. They renamed schools after Lee and Jackson. And, in little Colfax, Louisiana, before a student choir singing “Dixie,” they unveiled a monument to three dead white men.


The Confederates didn’t stop fighting after the Civil War. This next chapter of southern history played out not just in the use of violence by ex-Confederates to re-subjugate African Americans, but also on an ideological battlefield; soldiers of propaganda eagerly enlisted, clinging to a creed we today know as the “Lost Cause,” after the 1866 book of the same name by Edward A. Pollard. Though an historian, his interest was not in recording history but rather in fighting the “war of ideas.” The Southern Historical Society, founded in 1869, functioned similarly, describing itself as “a complete arsenal from which the defenders of our cause may draw any desired weapon.” Southern propagandists excellently mythologized history and passed down a set of narratives with a solid footprint in modern society, both southern and northern.

The first idea sparked by the Lost Cause will sound familiar to the reader: the war was over states’ rights. Furthermore, it was a constitutional separation that embraced the ideals of the American Revolution and the founding of the United States. The second idea is that American slavery was a benevolent institution. The ex-Confederates could not resist the opportunity to make clear the white supremacy inherent in their beliefs, and they frequently opined that slaves were happy and in their proper place, espousing a warm racial nostalgia for the antebellum period. Finally, the Lost Cause spread the belief that the Confederate soldiers were especially noble and excellent fighters defeated only by virtue of being outgunned. Together, these beliefs convinced generations of southerners that the Confederacy was founded on American principles, that the North was the aggressor and the South the victim, and that the issue of slavery could be pushed to the periphery, not worthy of conversation.

But slavery was very much on the mind of the South from the eve of the war until its end. One need only to look at the words of the Confederacy’s orchestrators. South Carolina’s Declaration of Causes, for example, bemoaned how the North had “assumed the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of Slavery; they have permitted the open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed purpose is to disturb the peace of and eloign the property of the citizens of other States.” In Mississippi, they said that “our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery,” and Florida’s declaration made sure to echo its white supremacist views by claiming that Black people have a “natural tendency everywhere shown where the race has existed to idleness, vagrancy, and crime.” Southern slaveholders feared a world in which white people did not make Black southerners their slaves in order to stifle these supposed tendencies. Confederate President Jefferson Davis echoed that “we recognize the negro as God and God’s Book and God’s Laws, in nature, tell us to recognize him— our inferior, fitted expressly for servitude.”

Where a southerner socialized to believe the Lost Cause might understand the Confederacy as a populist force defending American principles against a northern aggressor, the reality is that the Confederacy was foolishly built by the benefactors of inequality in order to perpetuate inequality at the expense of every non-white or non-wealthy southerner. It was an oligarchy that expressly betrayed the American Revolution’s stated principles of equality. The CSA’s Vice President, Alexander H. Stephens, made this much clear in a pivotal speech in which he praised the Confederate Constitution, which recognized that slavery was “the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization,” and declared that America’s founding fathers made a grave mistake in assuming that “the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature.” Stephens thought a nation could not be built on these ideals. “They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races,” which he claimed was untrue. “It was a sandy foundation, and the idea of a Government built upon it—when the ‘storm came and the wind blew, it fell.’ 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 normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” Stephens had given away the game.

For decades before this, the defenders of the South’s antebellum society described their views in terms of recognizing inequality as a natural law and allowing those who were superior to rule. The Virginian social theorist George Fitzhugh, who believed that Black people were akin to children who needed slavery, claimed that “men are not born physically, morally, or intellectually equal. It would be far nearer the truth to say, ‘that some were born with saddles on their backs, and others booted and spurred to ride them,’—and the riding does them good.” In other words, equality is a perversion. “Subordination, difference of caste and classes, difference of sex, age, and slavery beget peace and good will.” This southern creed was also espoused by the South Carolinian representative James Henry Hammond, who gushed at the advantage he was given by southern society, where the upper echelon can be uplifted by “a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life.” Hammond gave a speech in 1858 in which he defended the oppression of the lower class “or you would not have that other class which leads progress, civilization, and refinement.” The elite’s accomplishments were built on the backs of the inferior masses, who make up “the very mud-sill of society and of political government; and you might as well attempt to build a house in the air, as to build either the one or the other, except on this mud-sill. Fortunately for the South, she found a race adapted to that purpose to her hand. A race inferior to her own, but eminently qualified in temper, in vigor, in docility, in capacity to stand the climate, to answer all her purposes. We use them for our purpose, and call them slaves.” The southern elite thought they had quite a good deal, and they would go far to defend this status quo.

Instead of being on the periphery, the question of slavery and white supremacy is indeed at the center of the matter of the Confederacy. Nevertheless, the idea that the Confederacy was fighting for something different altogether persists. Even though the Confederate Constitution itself didn’t allow for states’ rights to dismantle slavery or secede, many southerners believe that the CSA fought for these rights and that it was permitted to leave the country under the American Constitution. They believe their soldiers, who were mostly poor men conscripted and shipped off to the front lines, fought in a romantic and valiant manner despite their class interests being entirely opposed to those of the Confederate rulers. They believe that the North was the aggressor, even though the first shot was fired on federal property by antsy Rebels. Why do these ideas persist into the present day?

Let us return to the South during the period of “redemption.” Its people were subject to one party rule and a brutal racial caste system. This was all brought to fruition by Confederate sympathizers who learned to view their efforts as an extension of the initial war effort. One important thing that the tenets of the Lost Cause did in the fallout of the Civil War was to convince the beaten white South that the fight was not over; though slavery had fallen, they had other things to resist. They could still maintain the tradition of southern racial inequality. Importantly, the Lost Cause is more than a set of beliefs: it is a call to action. This call to action led to the period of “redemption” and the South’s suffering under an authoritarian yolk of white supremacist making.

The white supremacist ideals of the white South during this era cannot be separated from the identity of the old Confederacy. The Lost Cause served to connect the struggle for secession to the struggle for segregation, linking the Confederate war effort with southern “home rule.” Though the states of the former Confederacy were part of the United States again, their philosophical underpinning said otherwise. They worked to uphold Hammond’s “mud-sill” theory and chart out a historical narrative that connected the Jim Crow South and the Confederate South, welding them into the same tradition. By connecting the two, they could still snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. If slavery wasn’t the war’s cause, then the war could still be won, and as “redemption” pressed forward, it seemed as if it had been.

After the initial mourning period of the Reconstruction era, the new victories of white supremacy brought a triumphant mood to the ex-Confederates who memorialized their gains in part by remembering the icons of the old Confederacy. The United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), founded in 1894, did a lot of the work to preserve the Lost Cause’s historical memory by erecting monuments across the region. These monuments were built to signal a new era of southern white rule: they were a celebration of the death of Reconstruction. In fact, many of the speeches given at the unveiling of these monuments specifically mentioned the victory over Reconstruction with glee. Characteristic of the sort of speeches given at these unveiling ceremonies is that made in North Carolina in 1913 by the wealthy Julian S. Carr: unveiling the monument known as “Silent Sam,” Carr noted that “the present generation, I am persuaded, scarcely takes note of what the Confederate soldier meant to the welfare of the Anglo Saxon race during the four years immediately succeeding the war, when the facts are, their courage and steadfastness saved the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South… and to-day, as a consequence, the purist strain of the Anglo Saxon is to be found in the 13 Southern States—Praise God.” Black southerners knew what these monuments stood for; when a bust of John C. Calhoun was put up in Charleston, South Carolina, it was repeatedly vandalized by Black Charlestonians until the statue was raised up high for no one to reach.

The UDC vigorously involved itself in the effort to bolster the southern historical narrative. Crucially, they recognized the importance of indoctrinating southern youth. Two years after the UDC chapter was established, they formed another branch– the Children of the Confederacy– which still exists today, sponsoring essay contests asking such questions as “was secession a rebellion?” or “was the war fought to hold the slaves?” In their catechisms, they are even asked how slaves were treated, told to respond that it was “with great kindness and care in nearly all cases.” The Children of Confederacy worked hard to place books favorable to their side in schools and libraries. In 1901, the Lexington, Kentucky, chapter of the UDC went as far to put up portraits of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee in every public school, and in 1906 the chapter won their battle to ban showings of the play Uncle Tom’s Cabin throughout the state. In 1913, the UDC’s national convention endorsed a pro-Ku Klux Klan book and vowed to “secure its adoption” in classes and libraries across the South. The UDC also made efforts to control secondary education, giving out curriculum guidelines on what textbooks were proper for southern schools. Theirs was a concerted effort to spread the Lost Cause to younger generations.

A look into what southern children have learned in school is particularly revealing to the continuing strength of the Lost Cause. Class material was built to socialize white people into accepting a racial hierarchy. Online magazine The Root looked into the curriculum that southern Republicans opposed to Critical Race Theory and The 1619 Project learned in school and found just about what you’d expect. As Michael Harriot explains, “the United Daughters of the Confederacy play an outsized role in the way we learn history.” Around a century ago, “they had become so powerful that a history book didn’t stand a chance of being approved if it contained a negative portrayal of the Antebellum South or the Civil War.” And so, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, in her all-white school, learned that a slave master treated slaves “as his own,” and that Black people “had found it advantageous to remain in an ‘equal but separate’ status.” Lindsey Graham of South Carolina– his school also completely white– remarked that “I do not believe my nation is systematically racist” after spending his childhood learning that “slaves were given the opportunity to become Christians in a Christian land, instead of remaining heathen in a savage country.” And Tommy Tuberville of Alabama learned that the Klan’s mission was “to try to scare the Negroes into being good.”

Meanwhile, in Colfax, Louisiana, a historical marker reads: “On this site occurred the Colfax Riot in which three white men and 150 negroes were slain. This event on April 13, 1873 marked the end of carpetbag misrule in the South.”

Monuments to the Lost Cause are everywhere; they need not be literal monuments. Growing up in the shadow of all these lies conditions us to yield to the myths being painted. Clint Smith writes that part of the problem lies in the intimacy of history for white southerners, who get tales of the past “passed down like an heirloom,” with an emphasis on roots that draws out an eager loyalty. “Confederate history is family history, history as eulogy, in which loyalty takes precedence over truth.” How do we get people to change their minds on the Lost Cause when their grandpappy died fighting for the rebel flag?

A couple of haunting studies inform my understanding of the lingering effects of the Confederacy on the racial consciousness of white southerners. In the book Deep Roots: How Slavery Still Shapes Southern Politics, Avidit Acharya, Matthew Blackwell, and Maya Sen prove that “whites who live in parts of the South that were heavily reliant on slavery and the inexpensive labor that the institution provided… are more conservative today, more cool toward African Americans, and less amenable to policies that many believe could promote black progress. By contrast, whites who live in places without an economic and political tradition rooted in the prevalence of slavery… are, by comparison, more progressive politically and on racial issues.” In other words, people living in areas that historically had a higher concentration of slavery are today more likely to possess racist attitudes. The second study, by Jhacova Williams at Louisiana State University, finds that “blacks who reside in counties with more historical lynchings are less likely to vote compared to their white counterparts. Lynchings have no impact on voting differences between other minority groups and whites.”

History deeply affects us in the present day. And the history of slavery is not distant at all — the last child of former slaves (that we know of) died in 2011. Despite this, the story of the Confederacy and the South’s reign of apartheid rule is easily forgotten in the public consciousness of white southerners who have been socialized ruthlessly to adopt the racist manners of their ancestors. The Lost Cause is still alive, though we are slowly pulling down its most obvious monuments. The only way to kill it is to educate the coming generations on the South’s reality — on America’s reality. The southern good ol’ boys who were schooled in segregated districts will try hard to keep that from happening, because the survival of the old Confederacy depends on living vicariously through their kin.

Reprinted with permission from Scallopwag.

Creating a Confederate Kentucky: the Lost Cause and Civil War Memory in a Border State, by Anne E. Marshall, University of North Carolina Press, 2013, pp. 160–170.

Deep Roots: How Slavery Still Shapes Southern Politics, by Avidit Acharya, et al, Princeton University Press, 2018.

Harriot, Michael. “We Found the Textbooks of Senators Who Oppose The 1619 Project and Suddenly Everything Makes Sense.” The Root, 6 May 2021.

How The South Won The Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America, by Heather Cox Richardson, Oxford Univ Press UK, 2020.

Raising Racists: the Socialization of White Children in the Jim Crow South, by Kristina DuRocher, The University Press of Kentucky, 2018, pp. 88–91.

Reconstruction America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, by Eric Foner, HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 2015, pp. 430–434.

Smith, Clint. “Why Confederate Lies Live On.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 18 May 2021.

Spying on the South: an Odyssey across the American Divide, by Tony Horwitz, Penguin Books, 2020, pp. 178–183.

The Causes of the Civil War, by Kenneth M. Stampp, Literary Licensing, 2011, p. 60.

The False Cause. Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory, by Adam H. Domby, University of Virginia Press, 2020.

These Truths: A History of the United States, by Jill Lenore, W.W. Norton, 2018, p. 256.
Williams, Jhacova 2017. Historical Lynchings and Contemporary Voting Behavior of Blacks.