Welcome to a very special episode installment of Historical Blindness. It has been a full calendar year since I started this project. At the time, we were in the full throes of an awful presidential election year, and although I had envisioned this blog as a study of history’s weaknesses by telling the stories of mysteries we still can’t solve and false history that misleads us to a misunderstanding of the past, I chose to make my first post overtly political, looking at a demagogue who stirred up anti-immigrant sentiment because I felt and still feel strongly about any politician that rises to power by fomenting violence and dividing us.
Now, a year later, and I’m starting to see the term "historical blindness" thrown around quite a bit in the news. Ever since the sad events at Charlottesville, and more specifically since Donald Trump’s equivocation over who was at fault for the violence that took place, when he painted both sides as equivalent and defended the sentiment that Confederate monuments should not be toppled, suggesting that Robert E. Lee was as important a figure as George Washington, or at least that the two were equally immoral in condoning and engaging in slavery--or in Lee’s case, defending it through military insurrection--I have been getting Google alerts for a variety of articles in which the term I thought I coined for the title of this blog keeps showing up to describe this distortion or purposeful misunderstanding the past.
Therefore, yet again, a year in and almost a year since that fateful presidential election, and I feel I must address a very hot button issue. To any readers and friends from the South, if you feel affronted by this subject matter or the assertions I make, I implore you to read with an open mind, to check for yourself the sources I’ll provide on the website’s reading list, and, true to the purpose of this podcast, to question received history. Indeed, our topic falls squarely within the purview of this project's theme, for the very notion that Robert E. Lee should be lionized as an equal to our founding fathers is part and parcel with a distorted view of the Confederacy that has been touted ever since the end of the Civil War and which led to these monuments being erected in the first place. The veneration of Robert E. Lee, however, was only one aspect of this false narrative, which can be traced back to one man, a commander of Confederate troops and thereafter a fugitive and a “historian,” though I use the word loosely and with irony. This false historian, through his assiduous misrepresentation of the facts, almost single-handedly succeeded in changing the way many would think about the character and motivation of the South, even in the North, and in modern day, among the lay public as well as historiographers. This is the story the man who proved that history is not always written by the victors. Thank you for keeping an open mind as I relate the story of Jubal Early’s Lost Cause.
Odds are that at different times in your life, you’ve heard two competing narratives about the reasons for the secession of the South and the subsequent Civil War. Maybe you’ve heard that it was all over slavery; that’s clear enough for any child to understand. And perhaps, in a history class or in some intent conversation with a confident friend, you learned that this was an oversimplification, and that it was really about question of state’s rights versus the sovereignty of the federal government. Well that certainly does make the struggle of the Confederacy seem more justified, then, and maybe even downright noble, doesn’t it? And it’s a great perspective to take when you want to seem smarter than others in the room, telling them that they’re oversimplifying a more complicated matter and villainizing the rebels. But what if it really was just that simple? What if Southern states did only secede in a bid to preserve an economy predicated on a system of human bondage that it saw as being under attack by the North? Indeed, the first states to secede did so in direct response to the election of an abolitionist president in Abraham Lincoln, and any who doubt that the perpetuation of slavery was the central impetus for secession would do well to examine secessionist pamphlets then in circulation, such as one titled “The Doom of Slavery in the Union: Its Safety Out of It.” Those who argue that most Southerners did not own slaves and therefore wouldn’t have fought for the institution discount the motivation of ambition, as even poor subsistence farmers had plans of eventually running large plantations with slave labor, a fact clearly appealed to in another secessionist pamphlet, “The Interest in Slavery of the Southern Non-Slaveholder,” which bore the subtitles, “The Right of Peaceful Secession” and “Slavery in the Bible.” To those who might point to another secessionist pamphlet, “The South Alone Should Govern the South,” as proof that state sovereignty was at least an aspect of their argument, it would behoove them to read on to that publication’s subtitle as well, which reads, “And African Slavery Should Be Controlled by Those Only Who Are Friendly to It.” Indeed, one only has to look at the verbiage present in the first Ordinance of Secession, ratified by South Carolina, where all these pamphlets were published. In their “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union,” delegates cite “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery,” in particular decrying interference with the return of fugitive slaves to bondage. The second state to secede, Mississippi, stated their reasons even more flatly: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.” And in their “declaration of the causes which impel the state of Texas to secede from the federal union,” delegates from that state gave one of the most racist and awful rationales for secession: “We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.”
Therefore, it seems apparent that indeed Southern states attempted to dissolve the Union and met the United States armed forces in open military rebellion for the essential reason that they wished to preserve the institution of slavery. So then where did this notion come from that it wasn’t about slavery at all? How did this narrative of the nobility of the Southern cause emerge? Where did the idea that they were simply fighting for freedom against an oppressive central government originate? The truth is that this take on the Confederacy really only came out after the fact, and maybe this is understandable. People have a tendency to view the past through rose-tinted lenses and with hindsight find ways to justify even the most reprehensible behavior. So perhaps this conception of Southern motivation developed naturally among many Southerners during Reconstruction and just happened to find its way into mainstream historical thought. But the truth is that we actually can trace the creation of this myth, which stands as only one among a chain of lies and misrepresentations, perpetrated by one man before being disseminated by others, in order to recast the past in a light favorable to the South and thereby tell a different story to future generations
Jubal Anderson Early was something of a curmudgeon and an elitist. The son of a slaveholding Virginia family, it appears he may not have owned any slaves himself, but with ideas about the glory of the Southern past and the aristocratic gentility of prominent Southern families, he was known to doggedly support the rule of the landed slaveholding class. As a Whig, he was something of an outsider among Virginia Democrats, and indeed he found himself standing in opposition to secession, but when he could not stand against the rising tide of history, he exchanged party politics for devotion to the Southern and Confederate cause. As a veteran of the late Seminole Wars in Florida as well as the Mexican-American War, he offered his “own head on the block as a willing victim for the good of the Commonwealth,” becoming an important lieutenant of Robert E. Lee and commanding troops in numerous battles.
His subordinates and peers knew Early as a cantankerous and quarrelsome old cuss, earning himself the nickname “Bad Old Man.” He had ever been an outsider and contrarian, living as a bachelor, yet fathering children with a 16-year-old girl and, flouting all societal customs, giving his name to his bastard issue. He has been called “startlingly profane,” and is credited with wielding an “acid tongue” when criticizing his underlings and fellow commanders. And yet, for someone so outspoken and critical of others, his record of military command is spotty at best. At the First Battle of Mannassas, he proved himself as a brigadier by routing Union Forces, but at the inconclusive Battle of Williamsburg, he lost many men and sustained an injury himself that took him out of commission for a while. After his recovery, he earned distinction over the course of several battles and received promotion to major-general but thereafter failed to distinguish himself as a commander and contributed to the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg. During the second Shenandoah Valley campaign, Early led a successful invasion of Maryland, but pulled up short of the capital, failing to make the decisive push into Washington that many believe he might have. Finally, after Early’s loss of three battles in a row and his utter defeat Waynesboro, General Lee relieved him of his command, but he did so with such tact, treating him with such respect, that he retained Early’s highest esteem and undying loyalty.
After the war, Jubal Early remained an unreconstructed rebel, and he fled to Cuba disguised as a farmer, rather than remain to endure the yoke of Yankee governance. Afterward, while living in Mexico, Early received a letter from Robert E. Lee that indicated the general wanted to write about the war and needed whatever relevant documents Early might have kept, for he believed it important to “transmit, if possible, the truth to posterity, and do justice to our brave Soldiers.” While Jubal Early had already been collecting his own thoughts about the late conflict and formulating his decidedly skewed perspective, which he expressed in letters during that time, this request from Lee proved to be the impetus he needed to begin his compositions in earnest. Within a few short months, Jubal Early had drafted a memoir in which can be seen the beginnings of his Lost Cause ideology. He continued to write while in Mexico, and thereafter in Canada, and by 1869 he had returned to Virginia, where he joined the Southern Historical Society. This organization he essentially transformed into an organ for propaganda, publishing 52 volumes of papers over a decade, laying out his Lost Cause mythology. This ambitious undertaking, an effort “to construct the archives in which shall be collected…memoirs to serve for future history,” was largely successful at influencing historians over the next century.
This Myth of the Lost Cause that Jubal Early and his collaborators promulgated comprised a few principal notions. One of these I’ve already discussed—the claim that states didn’t secede to preserve slavery but rather to preserve states’ rights in the face of federal tyranny. Another is not even worth considering seriously: the claim that slavery was an overall benevolent institution, in which slaves were treated kindly and fairly and protected from the cruelties of life outside of bondage. This lie can be countered with even a cursory reading of any slave narrative, all of which unfailingly enumerate the many cruelties and evils of the institution. Moreover, this is the same lie traditionally fed to the slaves themselves to scare them out of attempts at escaping to freedom.
The rest of the tenets of the Lost Cause also promote a conception of the Confederacy as noble rebels rather than as traitors fighting to maintain their racist system of human subjugation, and these contribute directly to the continued reverence for Confederate leaders we see today, for they paint Confederate commanders and soldiers as underdog heroes. They claim that not only was it a Lost Cause, but it was also a hopeless cause, as Southerners were desperately outnumbered by Union forces yet fought and gave their lives regardless, depicting them as true martyrs. The myth goes that Confederate forces only won as many battles as they did because Robert E. Lee was one of the most brilliant tacticians in history. And not only were Robert E. Lee and his soldiers the underdog heroes of the Civil War, but also Union general Ulysses S. Grant was nothing more than a clumsy butcher who only succeeded against the Confederacy through the waging of “total war,” using his superior numbers to slaughter them in a most ungentlemanly way.
Some of these claims I won’t even bother to address. Firstly, the idea that the Union was only able to defeat the Confederacy through brute force and unprecedented tactics seems to contradict the notion that the war was unwinnable for the South. It seems like they’re saying, “There’s no way we could’ve won,” then turning around and saying, “You only won by not fighting fair!” And Jubal Early himself should not have been decrying the tactics of his enemy, as he relied on some morally questionable strategies himself. For example, in Maryland, when the residents of a certain town didn’t greet him happily and offer support and reinforcements, he threatened to burn their town to the ground unless they paid a ransom of $200,000, which today would be about $3 million.
The truth is that many historians today believe that the South, while certainly outnumbered, could very well have won the war, or at least achieved a stalemate. They might have successfully sought international support, but instead they failed in foreign diplomacy. And they might have increased their military forces through the emancipation and enlistment of their own slaves, but they remained steadfastly devoted to maintaining the institution of slavery—because, of course, that was their principal reason for fighting—and so they lost.
We must, however, examine the idolization of Robert E. Lee, for it is so relevant today in our discussion of Confederate monuments. President Trump, in his egregious reaction to the events at Charlottesville, suggested an equivalence between George Washington and Robert E. Lee and told press that they were “changing history.” This is not only a distortion, it’s a reversal of the truth. Confederate monuments venerate not the man Robert E. Lee, but rather the myth that Jubal Early and his Southern Historical Society erected in his place. In their estimation, Lee was a not only a noble gentleman and a scholar but also an unparalleled military mind that could do no wrong. At times, praise of Lee bordered on religious, as if Early and his accomplices were trying to deify him in memory. But one fact remained to trouble their depiction of Lee: the fact that he lost the important battle of Gettysburg. This Early explained by offering a scapegoat. Perfect and godlike general that Lee was, there was no way he could be at fault for the loss, so Early blamed his lieutenants, and one in particular, James Longstreet, who he claimed refused to carry out Lee’s orders and thereby lost the battle for the South. This resulted, as some historians have phrased it, in “a historiographical puzzle, involving a total ‘rewriting’ of the Gettysburg saga by former Confederates.” In truth, however, James Longstreet seems to have been unjustly maligned. Lee alone can be held responsible for the command decisions as well as the conduct of those he commanded at Gettysburg, and there is historiography that argues convincingly that Longstreet actually provided wise counsel that Lee ignored. If one were going to spread the blame around to underlings, then Jubal Early himself would need to shoulder some of it, as would others.
This statement of Trump’s was not the first time that Washington and Lee have been compared, either. One needs look no further than Washington and Lee University in Lexington, VA, to see the two figures honored together. And this was the case in 1890, when during a grand parade in Richmond, VA, in which pictures of Washington and Lee had been hung side by side, a huge statue of Robert E. Lee was hauled through the streets of Richmond by people rather than draft animals, after the manner in which George Washington’s statue had been hauled through the same streets more than thirty years earlier, It was an impressive affair that celebrated the Lost Cause view of the war, with Jubal Early parading on horseback and speechifying, and the pariah James Longstreet was present as well, though not nearly so welcome. Events such as these, arranged and promoted by Jubal Early and his Historical Society as well as other veterans and those sympathetic to the Lost Cause view of the war, strengthened for posterity the myth of the nobility of the Confederate cause and ensured the magnification of Lee as a figure to be revered alongside the founding fathers.
About four years later, Jubal Early died falling down some stairs, but the propaganda machine he had set in motion continued to move and build momentum. When other veterans of the Civil War began to die off, an organization called the United Daughters of the Confederacy launched a campaign that would see a great number of Confederate monuments built during the early 1900s, not coincidentally just during the formalization of Jim Crow segregation laws, in a clear effort to whitewash the past and to establish a dominant culture of white supremacy. And then again, a backlash against the passage of the Civil Rights Act saw yet more of these monuments to a false history erected.
This is quintessential historical blindness, a false and indeed purposely distorted narrative that has been systematically disseminated in an effort to control the public’s perceptions of a region’s shameful past. The apologists of Dixieland have for more than a 150 years refused to face historical truth, instead relying on lies and misdirection, imploring anyone who does attempt to scrutinize their history to, as the song says, “look away, look away, look away.”
I relied on a couple of fantastic books as sources for this episode, including a collection of essays entitled The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History and a book similarly titled the Myth of the Lost Cause by Edward H. Bonekemper III. Find links to these books on Amazon through our Episode Reading List