On Civil War Memory

One of the most pernicious lies that white supremacists spread in their effort to misrepresent American history is that the American Civil War was fought for some other reason than to protect the right of white people to own black people. Fortunately, we all have access to unlimited information via the internet, and if your interest is in historical fact rather than perpetuating white supremacy, it takes about thirty seconds on Google to find the primary sources. Primary sources are sources created during the period in history which you are studying.[1] Put simply, we know why white southerners seceded and rebelled against the United States in 1861 because they told us.

 On Christmas Eve, 1860, the South Carolina secession convention adopted a declaration of the causes of secession. The document cites the refusal of free states to cooperate with the Fugitive Slave Law by returning refugees to their enslavers. It continues, “A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.” Three months later, on March 21, 1861, the Vice President of the Confederate States of America, Alexander H. Stephens, declared that the new Confederate constitution had “put to rest forever all of the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions – African slavery as it exists among us – the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.”[2]

Misinformation about the Civil War permeates American society because in the decades following the Civil War, southerners constructed a narrative which minimized the treason and racism inherent in the Confederate cause. Over time, northerners became content to let the South have their version of events for the sake of national reconciliation. The remainder of this essay will address the development of the cognitive dissonance between Civil War history and memory.

The contest over the meaning of the Civil War began the moment that Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant concluded their meeting in Wilmer McLean’s parlor at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. Popular memory and historiography have painted this moment as a gentleman’s agreement between two honorable leaders taking the first step toward national reconciliation. Elizabeth R. Varon thoroughly demonstrates the limitations and inaccuracies of that view in Appomattox, her study of the very beginnings of Civil War memory. When Lee and Grant parted ways on that Palm Sunday, all that had been decided was that the Army of the Potomac had defeated the Army of Northern Virginia. The surrender represented the end of the military conflict, but it was only the beginning of the political, cultural, and historiographical debates over what the surrender meant for the memory of the past as well as the nation’s future.

Lee and Grant interpreted the surrender in very different ways, and both men’s views influenced various factions in both the North and the South.  Lee believed that he and his men had fought bravely for a noble and just cause and had surrendered only to avoid further bloodshed in the face of overwhelming odds.  Lee’s view, in short, was that the defeat was one of might over right, and that the South had maintained its honor. Grant felt that the Union “triumph flowed from the superior virtue of its cause.” Lee longed for a lost past, in which the southern aristocracy held a position of power and prestige in the United States. Grant looked forward to a future where the victorious North would continue to progress, hand in hand with a South which had learned its lesson. Former Confederate supporters and Copperhead Democrats supported Lee’s view, while Republicans, southern unionists, northern blacks and southern freedmen agreed with Grant. Both sides looked to their respective champions for leadership in peace just as they had in war. “As Grant and Lee set their hands to the surrender terms,” Varon argues, “they positioned themselves at the center of a bitter and protracted contest over what exactly was decided that April day at Appomattox.”[3]

Andrew Johnson despised elite southern slaveowners. When he succeeded the martyred Abraham Lincoln as President, many believed that he would take a harder line against the defeated rebels than had his predecessor.  Instead, he pardoned droves of former Confederates in exchange for their deference. Johnson’s change in attitude alienated the Republican Congress, who passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 over his veto and eventually passed their own Reconstruction plan.  Grant, who would succeed Johnson as Chief Executive, sided with Congress because their vision of Reconstruction coincided with his and promised “to secure the gains of the Union’s victory at Appomattox.”[4]

In Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, David Blight identified three visions of Civil War memory and described their development in the decades following the war. The white supremacist vision, better known in public discourse as the Lost Cause, portrayed the southern rebellion as a noble cause which had only failed due to the Union’s superior manpower and industry. The emancipationist vision promoted the war as a moral crusade against slavery which had been fought to promote citizenship and civil rights for African-Americans. Finally, the reconciliationist vision, characterized the war as a family quarrel which had been reconciled.[5]

Gaines M. Foster’s Ghosts of the Confederacy was one of the earliest academic studies of the Lost Cause, and it remains a standard. Foster suggests that overall, Southerners were willing to accept defeat rather than continue fighting. They would let the war pass if they could first assure that their manhood and honor were vindicated. Thus, early commemorations in the South were meant to reassure former rebels of their own “righteousness, honor, and manliness.” Their cause had to be validated in order to make the sacrifices of their dead worthwhile.  To that end, early Memorial Day celebrations honored the dead and instilled in southerners the idea that their cause had been hopeless, but noble. Foster goes on to examine how New South anxieties shaped Civil War memory. “The beginnings of industrialization and integration into a national system threatened traditional patterns of life,” he writes. Resistance to the transition from Old South to New resulted in the increase of Confederate idolization in the late nineteenth century.[6]

The Lost Cause reflects the South’s sense of victimhood regarding the war and Reconstruction. As Gregory P. Downs notes, the Confederate surrender marked the end of the battles, but this did not entail an immediate transition to peace. Downs argues that the state of war persisted until 1871, when the last member of Congress from the rebel states was seated. “By allowing the United States to utilize war powers years after battlefield fighting stopped, the continuation of wartime gave the national government the necessary authority to suppress the rebellion, consolidate its forces, and fashion effective civil rights.” The victorious federal government effectively forced a social and political revolution in the South through a continued application of war powers during Reconstruction. Resentment was a driving force behind idolization of the rebellion.[7]

The history profession was in its infancy during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The academic historiography of the period helped legitimize the Lost Cause, primarily due to William A. Dunning and his students, collectively known as the Dunning School. Dunningites provided sound empirical research, which they interpreted to support a white supremacist vision of the Civil War era. In their narratives, Reconstruction was a horror inflicted upon the South by vengeful northerners. Their “traditionalist” interpretation dominated professional historiography into the latter half the nineteenth century and helped assure that Reconstruction remained a festering wound in the southern psyche.[8]

Southern participation in the Spanish-American War gave the South new war heroes who fought under the old flag, including former Confederate generals Fitzhugh Lee and Joseph Wheeler. In 1905, the U.S. government returned captured Civil War battle flags to southern states, which southerners accepted as an affirmation of their martial honor. As the Civil War generation died out, custody of Confederate memory passed into the hands of organizations such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Although Foster contends that the Confederate past “had come too elusive and ephemeral” to define the New South’s identity, organizations such as the UDC and SCV continue to perpetuate the Lost Cause today.[9] Foster misses an important reason behind the decreased sectional contestation of Civil War memory in the twentieth century: the matter had largely been settled to the mutual satisfaction of white northerners and southerners.

The emancipationist vision of the Civil War was prominent among African-Americans and former abolitionists. However, besides a few notable exceptions such as W. E. B. Du Bois, this vision found few academic champions until the latter half the twentieth century. By the semicentennial commemorations of 1911-15, the dominant mode of Civil War memory among white Americans on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line was a hybrid white supremacist/reconciliationist vision in which north and south had had a misunderstanding, fought over it, and reconciled. As Blight notes, “The memory of slavery, emancipation, and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments never fit well into a developing narrative in which the Old and New South were romanticized and welcomed back to a new nationalism, and in which devotion alone made everyone right, and no one truly wrong.”  Both sides avoided debates about race to avoid reopening old wounds.[10]

By failing to enforce racial equality during Reconstruction and Jim Crow, the North permitted the South to believe that it had done nothing wrong, that their slave system and the war it caused had been part of a “cosmic conspiracy” of which southerners had been victims rather than perpetrators.  In the twentieth century, southerners viewed their region’s economic stagnation and racial upheaval as part of their inheritance rather than something they had created. At the Civil War centennial in 1961, Robert Penn Warren looked back across the preceding century to discuss the war’s legacy in both north and south. In their shared sense of victimhood, southerners found their “Great Alibi,” by which they justified the war, Jim Crow, and their resistance to the Civil Rights Movement. The North’s psychological heritage of the war, meanwhile, was what Penn termed “the Treasury of Virtue.” In northern memory, the war that ended the southern slave system was “a consciously undertaken crusade so full of righteousness that there is enough overplus stored in Heaven… to take care of all small failings and oversights of the descendants of the crusaders[.]”[11]

It is fair to say that the North won the war, but the South won the peace. Northern ambivalence about the past, combined with the growing romantic appeal of the Old South, reduced the North’s inclination to contest the South’s version of the Civil War. “[F]orgetfulness, not memory,” asserts Nina Silber, “appears to be the dominant theme in the reunion culture.” Gilded Age anxieties about social transformations in the North made northerners nostalgic for the Old South’s traditional values. For these reasons, the north allowed the South’s imagined past to become legitimized in American history and memory.[12]

In the 2010s, historians including Barbara Gannon and Caroline Janney have emphasized the limits of postbellum reconciliation. Gannon notes that the Union veterans’ organization, the Grand Army of the Republic, was an interracial coalition which embraced the north’s just cause and rightful victory. Janney, meanwhile, argues that many Union veterans refused to forget that slaveholders had precipitated the war, and that those same veterans embraced their emancipatory legacy. Southerners flavored the Lost Cause with tales of Yankee barbarity, but northerners condemned the South’s treason with equal passion. However, both Gannon and Janney ultimately acknowledge that what Gannon calls “the Won Cause” passed away with the Civil War generation. Subsequent generations of northerners emphasized reconciliation in order to create a functional national memory of the Civil War.[13]

154 years after Appomattox, the controversy over Confederate idolization continues. Fortunately, scholarship on Civil War memory has expanded substantially in recent decades. Professional historians once again play a prominent role in public discussions about the meaning of the war. We must continue working to undo the damage done by our predecessors who legitimized the Lost Cause to the point that monuments to treason and white supremacy were allowed on public grounds in the first place.


[1] As opposed to secondary sources, which are works written about the time period.

[2] “Confederate States of America – Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union,” accessed January 16, 2019, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/csa_scarsec.asp; “Alexander H. Stephens (1812-1883):
Cornerstone Address, March 21, 1861,” Modern History Sourcebook, accessed January 16, 2019, https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/mod/1861stephens.asp.

[3] Elizabeth R. Varon, Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom at the End of the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 1, 48.

[4] Ibid., 245.

[5] David W.  Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001), 2-5.

[6] Gaines M. Foster, Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South (1985, repr., New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 35, 78.

[7] Gregory P. Downs, After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), 2, 249.

[8] See John David Smith and Vincent J.  Lowery, eds., The Dunning School: Historians, Race, and the Meaning of Reconstruction (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2013).

[9] Foster, Ghosts of the Confederacy, 198.

[10] Blight, Race and Reunion, 2-5.

[11] Robert Penn Warren, The Legacy of the Civil War (1961; repr.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998), 53-64.

[12] Nina Silber, The Romance of Reunion: Northerners and the South, 1865-1900 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), 3-5.

[13] Barbara A. Gannon, The Won Cause: Black and White Comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 5-9; Caroline E. Janney, Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 3-10.

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