Reporting from the SHA: Defining Defeat—Three Approaches to Making Sense of Loss and the Confederate Experience

Historians had long analyzed the context of Confederate defeat during Reconstruction and the creation of the Lost Cause in the years after Reconstruction ended. This panel at the 2018 Southern Historical Association demonstrated that there are more avenues for historians to unpack the meanings of Confederate defeat and the building of the Lost Cause. The panelists were Amy L. Fluker (University of Mississippi), Ann L. Tucker (University of North Georgia), and Sarah K. Bowman (Columbus State University). Anne Sarah Rubin (University of Maryland, Baltimore County) presided and provided comments and Peter Carmichael (Gettysburg College) also gave comments.

Amy Fluker’s paper entitled “‘We Too Bear the Confederate Name’: The Lost Cause and Missouri’s Contested Civil War Memory,” analyzed the contested memory of the war in the border state and how Missouri does not fit into the Lost Cause narrative of the broader south. She opened her remarks with a story from an 1879 Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) reunion where Union veterans invited local Confederates to attend as a sign of good will. This was not a sign of reconciliation however, as most of these events have been analyzed by historians. At the reunion, the Union veterans sang “John Brown’s body” to the anger and chagrin of the attending Confederates. Because of Missouri’s border status during the war and troops from the state serving both sides of the conflict, both ex-Confederates and Union veterans tried to establish forms of commemoration in the state in the post-war period. Most former Confederates across the south found solace and defined their defeat through the emerging Lost Cause narrative. Some former Confederates in Missouri used the Lost Cause, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) and United Confederate Veterans (UCV) both established chapters in the state, and there was a Missouri Home for Confederate Veterans. However, that narrative did not take root in the state overall. Missouri had remained with the Union during the war, had defied secession, and abolished slavery. The majority of the state had not lost the Civil War and so the Union memory of the conflict was stronger in the state compared to the Lost Cause. Confederate organizations tried to highlight the “southerness” of Missouri, arguing that the state’s failure to secede was not due to its lack of commitment to the southern cause, but to factors of Union control. They also emphasized the sacrifices of Missouri Confederates who left their families in a “hostile” state to join the southern armies. Despite their efforts, Union memory had firm control in the post-war period, helped by radical Republican control of the state for many years. Instead of aligning with the south, Missouri largely aligned with the west and the Lost Cause never really took root there.

Ann L. Tucker’s paper was titled “Internationalizing Loss: Former Confederates’ International Perspectives on Defeat.” In her paper she argued that defeated Confederates used international comparisons to understand their own defeat, predict what they could expect in the aftermath of the war, and start building the Lost Cause narrative. Defeat could not erase four years of southern nationalism and elite southerners looked to other examples of failed nations or nationalist movements to understand what they could expect in their own defeat. They had looked at international context before; in the antebellum years the south used Europe to develop the idea of southern “difference” and they also used international events to help them build the case for secession in 1860/1861. After the war, white southerners looked to examples such as Ireland, Hungary, and Poland to help them process their defeat and what to expect next. Based on these other cases southerners expected suppression at the hands of an oppressive victor (the north), that they would be a “conquered” peoples with a loss of self-government, and degradation to the position of political slaves. A unique factor in the case of the south was the loss of slavery, this was a threat to white supremacy and southerners saw the end of slavery as part of the despotism of the north. In the comparisons that Tucker analyzed, the south often dramatized their suffering as worse than cases in Europe and they emphasized southern virtue and commitment to cause as better than other defeated nations. They used international comparisons to start building the Lost Cause narrative and ideas of southern heritage. They were prepared to see Reconstruction as oppression from the north and were already expecting ill will from the federal government before Reconstruction policies were even solidified. They used these comparisons to shift blame for the war onto the north. If the south accepted that their secession movement had been the cause of the war they would have to accept responsibility for their own defeat, but instead they shifted blame for both war and defeat onto an oppressive north. They also argued that defeat did not mean their cause was not noble or worthy. These were all parts of the emerging Lost Cause ideology.

Sarah K. Bowman’s paper “The Pleasures of Satire: A New Perspective on the Emotions of Defeat” focused on the use of humor and satire by southern whites to delegitimize or show contempt for Reconstruction governments. In South Carolina the new state legislature was installed in 1868 and was largely composed of African-Americans and white (northern) Republicans. South Carolinians viewed this legislature with contempt and satirized it through cartoons, plays and sketches, balls, speeches, and music. These caricatures emphasized African-Americans as fighting, drunk, or illiterate, mocked carpetbaggers, or joked about the “rise and fall of the guerilla dynasty.” This was a theme that Bowman sees happening across the Reconstruction south as southern whites laughed at northern attempts to reconstruct them. Bowman argues that by using humor the south was laughing at their oppressors in the north, as if the changes they were trying to implement were just a grand farce. While the south had to acknowledge their defeat, they could delegitimize Reconstruction by laughing at it. It was a means to gain victory over this perceived oppression, to get the last laugh, and to build stories that dismissed northern victory and emphasized Confederate worthiness and success. Southerners took pleasure at laughing at these Reconstruction legislatures and projected the message that the north could not expect them to be fully defeated or accept equality with African-Americans because the whole process was laughable. As Bowman argued, historians have focused on despair, fear, hatred, anger, bitterness, and the emergence of the Lost Cause in the aftermath of the war, but the use of humor is a new look at how former Confederates understood their defeat. Southern whites used humor, satire, and racism to delegitimize the process of Reconstruction and defend white supremacy and the Confederate cause.

Dr. Kathleen Logothetis Thompson earned her PhD in Nineteenth Century/Civil War America from West Virginia University, and also holds a M.A. from WVU and a B.A. from Siena College. Her research is on mental trauma and coping among Union soldiers and she is currently working on her first book, tentatively titled War on the Mind. She currently teaches history at several colleges and university and leads tours of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. Kathleen was a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park for several years and is the co-editor of Civil Discourse, a blog on the long Civil War.