Political Animal


January 16, 2013 11:30 AM The Rotten Core of the Lost Cause

By Ed Kilgore

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 is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • arkie on January 16, 2013 11:44 AM:

    Excellent point. And don't forget the wide spread opposition to succession in the South, particularly, in Appalachia and the Ozarks. 100,000 white men from those areas (including one of my great-grandfathers) fought for the Union.


  • Quaker in a Basement on January 16, 2013 11:44 AM:

    "Fort Sumner"??!?

    Ed, consider your Southerner card revoked.

  • Nanuq on January 16, 2013 11:45 AM:

    Er, that would be Fort Sumter, yes?

  • davidp on January 16, 2013 11:48 AM:

    "The past is never dead. It's not even past." (Faulkner)These are great times for Civil War buffs. We can watch the same forces at work in real time.

  • Kathryn on January 16, 2013 11:56 AM:

    Well I declare, nothing has changed in Dixie. The stubborn ideaology of selfishness just doesn't translate into governance.

  • Gary Wise on January 16, 2013 12:33 PM:

    I disagree with the very first sentence of this article.
    Not all Civil War buffs do that.
    The only reason as for me I consider how close it was the Union would have lost.
    Reminds me just how close we came to stay a slave nation.
    And now, in today's crazy corporatist fascism nation, what needs to be fix.

  • c u n d gulag on January 16, 2013 12:34 PM:

    SSDC - Same Sh*t, Different Century.

  • Josef K on January 16, 2013 12:39 PM:

    But for all the attention paid to dissension in the North, itís often forgotten that the South did not pursue its war without extraordinary internal conflicts of its own.

    I had an extended discussion about this with a friend while visiting her in Richmond back in 1999. She pointed out the bulk of the CSA's army were farmers and tradesmen, the vast majority of whom didn't own slaves and had no discernable stake in the CSA's survival. They were effectively conscripted to a cause most likely had little loyalty to.

    The reasons the CSA endured for as long as it did were many: good military leaders on their side (at the start) and poor ones on the Federal side (again, at the start), naturally defensive terrain, employment of creative defensive tactics, the US government having very unsteady support for its war effort, etc.. But a strong and unified government of its own was definitely not among those reasons, and one can speculate how long the CSA would have endured had the north abandoned its war effort.

  • Peej on January 16, 2013 12:46 PM:

    Live by states' rights, die by states' rights!

  • Midland on January 16, 2013 1:39 PM:

    As Sam Houston noted in 1860, Northerners were a less passionate people than Southerners. Which is to say, otherwise grown-up Southerners tended to rage and resent and take offense like spoiled children even on points of vital interest. Part of the divide between North and South that became integrated into the culture of Slavocracy.

  • Abijah L. on January 16, 2013 1:56 PM:

    I read "Albion's Seed" about the four English migrations to the American colonies in the 17th century. The red states were the red states and the blue states were the blue states 150 years before they were states. In the 1640s the young men got back on those rickety wooden boats and went back to England to fight in the English Civil War. The southerners fought on one side and the northerners fought on the other.

  • MuddyLee on January 16, 2013 3:29 PM:

    The rich people in the Confederacy tried to avoid military service and did not want to share the burdens of the war effort so their government (CSA) could be successful. What a shock. And now many of their descendants don't want to pay taxes to support public schools, provide a social safety net, or in SC even keep the public roads maintained properly. But like the ancestors, the descendants love cheap labor while yelling all the time about how "those people" shouldn't get any government services.

  • wvmcl on January 16, 2013 4:36 PM:

    Supports my long held view that the south should have been allowed to secede, and we'd all be better off today if they had. We would have avoided that terrible war and all the lost-causism that's been haunting American politics ever since. The U.S., without that Southern tail wagging the dog, would have implemented universal health care, sensible gun laws, etc. decades ago.

    But we'd still have slavery today! Nonsense. The southern confederacy would have been completely isolated internationally and would have fallen apart internally. Slavery could not have survived more than a few decades. Remember that the last major country to abolish slavery was Brazil, in 1888.

  • billb on January 17, 2013 12:07 AM:

    I am with WVMCL, send the wack children of the south on their way.
    If they want, really want, to live in a sixteenth century distopia, so be it.
    We can build a nice big wall, and start allowing ourselves the full benefits of our constitution, like universal healthcare [including all contraception/abortion services] and hey, we can even ban military weapons in the hands of mentally ill folk, perhaps, and I am Blue-Skying here, ....OHHH, provide mental health care for our fellow citizens.

    SIGN ME UP , Free The South!