The Rotten Core of the Lost Cause

Many Civil War buffs love to imagine alternative scenarios whereby the Confederacy won via this or that twist or turn in military fortunes or political intrigue. And it’s entirely credible to speculate that had Gettysburg or Vicksburg turned out differently, or had Stonewall Jackson not died, or had Lincoln not pursued a confrontation over Fort Sumter, or had George McClellan won the election of 1864, the southern states would have won their independence.

But for all the attention paid to dissension in the North, it’s often forgotten that the South did not pursue its war without extraordinary internal conflicts of its own. And in another valuable contribution to the January/February issue of the Washington Monthly, journalist and historian Colin Woodward argues that the very ideologies of white supremacy and state’s rights that make the Confederacy possible ultimately destroyed it from within:

Slaveholders were insulted when the government tried to force them to provide slaves to support the war effort or to join the army even if they felt they had more important things to do. Such policies—which grew more draconian as the South’s position deteriorated—“violated political, social, and other cultural imperatives and taboos.” This included “keeping government small and weak, extolling local and state sovereignty over that of a national government, and keeping black people firmly subordinated and strictly excluded from many spheres of life.” Planters refused to grow food for the army instead of cotton for profit. Critical fortifications were left unfinished because they refused to loan slaves to accomplish the task. Morale in Confederate ranks was eroded when well-connected plantation owners passed laws giving their families special exemptions from conscription.

Resistance to the war effort was especially intense in my home state of Georgia, cockpit of Sherman’s crucial and successful effort to cut the Confederacy in half and make the much-discussed battles in Virginia more or less a bloody mopping-up operation. Here’s how the New Georgia Encyclopedia describes the administration of Gov. Joseph E. Brown, the state’s chief executive throughout the war:

[T]he hallmark of his wartime administration was his resistance to the authority of the central Confederate government, a policy that was soon copied by some other Confederate governors and that helped to undermine the overall war effort. Governor Brown’s opposition surfaced in many fields. He opposed the army’s impressments of goods and especially slave laborers. He frustrated Confederate efforts to seize the Western and Atlantic Railroad and to impose occasional martial law. He bitterly criticized Confederate tax and blockade-running policies. Over time the war-weary legislature backed him more often, and influential politicians like Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens and former secretary of state Robert Toombs became his open allies as morale slumped in Georgia.

Yes, even the Confederacy’s vice president was a sullen war resister, along with his great rival Toombs, who with Brown had battled the unionist Stephens to ensure Georgia’s secession.

In many respects the Lost Cause was lost at every moment northern resolve denied the Confederacy an undeserved victory. Even Gone With the Wind, that great popularizer of anti-Reconstruction southern propaganda, was filled with portends of the Confederacy’s inevitable demise. And I’d like to think the same of today’s echoes of the battle to subject those people and to deny the nation a government capable of redeeming America’s common national purpose.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.