House of the Lost Cause

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ACWM Collection

Your Civil War Memory Family Tree

Perhaps you have encountered the Civil War in school or from a parent.

Maybe it came through a movie or television show.

 

However you did, those moments are part of an alive and evolving history.

 

Reconciliation

1882

Many Americans looked eagerly to signs of reconciliation between a people that had just recently engaged in a fearful bloodletting. Examples of regional friendship became symbols of national pride. Meanwhile, political partisans and Black Americans looked suspiciously at movements that forgave former rebels.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

 

Romance

1887

In the culture of the Lost Cause—the ex-Confederate explanation of their experience in war—a sensibility of the youthful innocence and bravery came to dominate the memory of the war. Novelist Thomas Nelson Page wrote “plantation romances” that affirmed the existence of good masters, loyal slaves, and self-sacrificing Confederate women. Many writers, like Sallie May Dooley of Richmond, imitated him. White southerners modeled their own lives on these characters; as much an identity as history.

 

History

1907

Professional historian William A. Dunning confirmed southern notions of Civil War history. He characterized Reconstruction as a mistaken and disastrous attempt to impose racial equality—and economic corruption—on a virtuous and victimized white south. Dunning’s contemporary, U.B. Phillips described slavery as a benevolent institution designed to raise up Black people in “civilization.”

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. "William A. Dunning," The New York Public Library Digital Collections. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47df-90d8-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

"William A. Dunning," The New York Public Library Digital Collections. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47df-90d8-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection,
The New York Public Library.

 
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Fiction

1915

Based on Thomas Dixon’s polemic novel, The Clansman, the 1915 film Birth of a Nation cemented in the dominant culture the character of noble Confederates, vindictive and greedy northerners, and incompetent and rapacious Black men.

Courtesy of an anonymous lender

 

Memorial Days

1919

On a day-to-day basis, Americans north and south, Black and White, kept the memory of the Civil War alive through routine civic rituals like wreath-laying and parades.

Decoration Services at Confederate Cemetery, Camp Chase, Columbus, Ohio. June 8 1899

 

ACWM Collection

A Measuring Rod

1920

Though public schools across the United States celebrated the cause of the Union and Abraham Lincoln, the United Daughters of the Confederacy would have none of that in southern schools. UDC historian Mildred Rutherford published this checklist for public school of what it considered acceptable claims about the Civil War to teach to children.

 

Counternarrative

1935

Historian W.E.B. Du Bois published Black Reconstruction in 1935, a landmark book that highlighted the value of emancipation and the failure of Reconstruction to achieve the promise of freedom. Though White scholars largely ignored his book, it represented the existence of a rigorous counternarrative to the Lost Cause.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

 

1939

Gone With the Wind

Courtesy of Getty Images/Silver Screen Collection

The core tenets of the Lost Cause, from dashing cavaliers to loyal slaves and vicious Yankees, came wrapped in one of America’s most celebrated cinematic events. Replayed in theaters and rerun on television for decades after, Gone With the Wind shaped the public understanding of the Civil War for generations.

 
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Courtesy of the Library of Virginia

All-American Confederate

1941

In mid-20th Century Civil War history and memory, General Robert E. Lee became a universally admired figure in White culture in a way that made him useful for promoting American nationalism in World War II and the Cold War.

 

A New History

1956

In the late 1950s, professional historians like Kenneth Stampp began to research and interpret a history of the Civil War era that discarded racist tropes.

Courtesy of an anonymous lender

 

An Old History, Continued

1957

This Virginia public school history book published in the middle of the Civil Rights movement taught students about good masters and the benevolence of slavery. It continued to be used until the late 1970s.

Courtesy of the Library of Virginia

 

Massive Resistance

1958

Civil War memory has always been political and it has always been racial. States’ Rights Democrats brought that memory and symbol into the 20th Century when they adopted a Confederate identity in opposition to burgeoning desegregation efforts. Confederate flags became ubiquitous symbols of anti-Civil Rights.

Courtesy of an anonymous lender

 

Courtesy of an anonymous lender

Cold War Westerns in Blue & Gray

1959

In the 1950s, many Americans thrilled to Westerns, even when the movie actually told a Civil War story.

 

Courtesy of an anonymous lender

Little Blue & Gray Army Men

1961

Civil War memory has always been political and it has always been racial. States’ Rights Democrats brought that memory and symbol into the 20th Century when they adopted a Confederate identity in opposition to burgeoning desegregation efforts. Confederate flags became ubiquitous symbols of anti-Civil Rights.

 

1963

A Partial Celebration

"CIVIL WAR CENTENNIAL" via Youtube (@JimMcBrayer)

The United States celebrated the Civil War centennial in a way that highlighted the military proficiency and virtues of both sides. The sensibility suited a nation locked in a military Cold War, but the commemoration pointedly ignored the place of slavery and Black Americans in the Civil War while the Civil Rights movement was underway.

 

The Other Half of History

1963

Civil War memory has always been political and it has always been racial. States’ Rights Democrats brought that memory and symbol into the 20th Century when they adopted a Confederate identity in opposition to burgeoning desegregation efforts. Confederate flags became ubiquitous symbols of anti-Civil Rights.

Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

 
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Tourism

1976

Post-World War II car culture, and the growth of National Park Service and highway systems made possible encounters with Civil War sites while on family summer vacations.

Courtesy of an anonymous lender

 

1980

Sanitized Heritage

"Dukes of Hazzard Theme Song" via Youtube (@will244)

In the 1970s, Confederate symbols came to distinguish a redneck counterculture that had little to do with Civil War history and more to do with a regional and cultural identity and defiance. The Florida band Lynyrd Skynyrd exemplified this expression. The most sanitized version appeared in the television show Dukes of Hazzard that ran from 1979 to 1985.

 

Popular History

1983

Time-Life made good quality and accessible Civil War history available to the general public in the 1980s in a book series that featured narratives wrapped in the drama of military campaigns.

Courtesy of an anonymous lender

 

1987

Reenacting

"Re-enacting Retro - 125th Anniversary Gettysburg Re-enactment - PT. 1" via Youtube (@LionHeart FilmWorks)

Thousands of Americans encountered Civil War history by participating in, or being spectators at, reenactments. The largest of the weekend events featured thousands of men and women in reproduction uniforms and fake battles.

 

Historical Consensus

1988

Professional historians had, for a generation, interpreted slavery as a malevolent institution, the Civil War as a fight over the existence of slavery in the United States, and Reconstruction as a noble effort overthrown by white supremacist violence. James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, and Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution cemented these interpretations in both the academic and the public landscape.

Courtesy of an anonymous lender

 

1990

Ken Burns

The Civil War | A Film By Ken Burns | PBS America

Almost as influential as Gone With the Wind, Ken Burns’ The Civil War captured the American imagination with a largely modern interpretation of the Civil War era.

2015

 

New Fights

"Activist Bree Newsome takes down Confederate Flag at South Carolina Statehouse" via Youtube (@Vox)

Throughout the 1990s, Americans skirmished over the place of the Confederate flag in public life. After the 2015 murders at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in South Carolina by a man enamored by Confederate symbols and history, a national reckoning with Confederate flags and monuments gained significant momentum. In 2015, activist Bree Newsome removed the flag that had flown on the South Carolina statehouse grounds.

2018

New Identities

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Courtesy of an anonymous lender

Many Americans, as they always have, continue to view the Civil War through the lens of politics and identity. As academic and public historians continue to elevate the stories of Black men and women from slavery through Reconstruction, many conservatives cling to a notion that the Confederate States had been devoid of a racial motivation—and that therefore histories of race are invalid.