11 June 2009

More On The "Lost Cause" By Dimitri Rotov

"Interesting account of the Sesquicentennial kickoff in the Chronicle of Higher Education by a slavery historian from Yale.

For a motif in his article, David Blight despite his pedigree, sophomorically grabs onto so-called "Lost Cause history" and tells how he would like to stamp out this imaginary school of thought and re-educate its purported proponents. Deleriously [sic] waving this red herring, handed to him by respected Centennialists, he completely misses the up-to-date, historiographic struggle occurring under his very nose in real time.

Agitating against "Lost Cause" historiography invites one into a fantasy struggle against a pretend school of thought invented out of scraps of writing and speech and then built into a menace. Centennialism dresses up as Don Quixote to tilt against this windmill while its real foes line up for hard jousting." ~ Dimitri Rotov (Emphasis mine)
The rest of Mr. Rotov's criticism on this trend can be read here.

Mr. Rotov's sharp, though short, critique of "the struggle", and academics' unhealthy obsession with it, dovetails nicely into my previous posts (See here, here, and here) about "Lost Causers" funding America's Civil War (The magazine, that is), and how so many of these academics would have nothing to do or say were it not for "the bad boys of the Confederacy".

As Paul Greenberg has written:

"What is the South?" they always ask. It's a question never answered, not completely, but invariably asked. Usually by some Northerner with a taste for literature. Or by sociology students in search of a thesis.

To many, the South is the "Lost Cause" and the only thing left that's sure to be a winning thesis topic.

(Image is of The Lost Cause 1869, by Henry Mosler and has been described as "a poetic tribute to the middle-class farmers of the South who fought and lost the Civil War.")


James F. Epperson said...

Mr. Rotov's comments notwithstanding, "The Lost Cause" is not at all a "pretend" school, but a fairly well-defined school of thought and writing. It dominated writing on the Civil War until the last half of the 20th Century.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

I don't necessarily disagree James. But defining the term is problematic as is the fact that some academics use a broad brush in painting anyone who portrays the Confederacy favorably, i.e. Douglas Southall Freeman.

As I said "Lost Cause" means different things to different people and not always negative.

James F. Epperson said...

Terms like this are often defined variably. And I think the notion that Dr. Freeman was in the "Lost Cause" school is not entirely out of line. It is not necessarily an insult to be said to be of the "Lost Cause" school.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

"It is not necessarily an insult to be said to be of the "Lost Cause" school."

I think among the fair-minded, that is true. But it is increasingly becoming a negative term among many academics writing and speaking about the war.

James F. Epperson said...

It is becoming a "negatve term" because it is becoming more and more widely understood that "The Lost Cause" school was, in many ways, horribly wrong, and gave us a view of the war that is very distorted. All you have to do to understand this is have a discussion about Gettysburg with someone whose view of things comes out of the Lost Cause.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

James - in response to your latest comment, I would simply refer you back to this original post. The "extreme" proponents of the LC view (again, you're painting with a broad brush here) deserves criticism. However, I'm referring to those who lump anything written favorably about the Confederacy and her heroes together so they can go on their South bashing crusade.

Distortion is also coming from those who criticize the "LC" school. We've had discussion before. North righteous, South evil, Lincoln freed the slaves.

Simplistic hogwash.

James F. Epperson said...

"North righteous, South evil, Lincoln freed the slaves." --- But who is saying this kind of thing? Give me a name. I don't know of a single person working in the field of Civil War history who would say this (well, the last point is substantially correct, IMO). Again, you seem to be erecting a straw man. I'm sure you think not, so give me a name of someone who has said or written this kind of thing.

See, I don't think there is this "South-bashing crusade" that bothers you so much (and would bother me, if I thought it existed). Certainly things get written that are critical of the Confederacy and Confederate heroes, but surely you are not suggesting this is somehow not allowed?

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


Come on, you can't be serious. We've been down this road before and its a distraction. I told you before, I bore quickly with arguing the obvious. You're in denial. McPherson just suggested it was improper to lay a wreath at the Confederate monument in Arlington.

Why? South (Confederacy) evil, North righteous.

Where were you when that happened?

For an excellent article on the "Lost Cause" criticism, I would suggest you read Dr. Clyde Wilson's piece here:


James F. Epperson said...

"Come on, you can't be serious." --- Well, I am. I want to know who is in this "South bashing crusade." OK, you gave me one name, McPherson. But you include him because he signed a petition about putting a wreath at a particular memorial, not because of anything in his collection of writings. So, anyone who disagrees with your notions of memorializing the Confederacy is guilty of "South bashing"? I'd like to know how to identify these folks by their writings.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


I'm not going to argue the obvious. How many times do I have to say it? McPherson is just one example of the prevailing anti-Confederate/Southern attitude among many academics. Read Wilson's piece for more. Do your own research - its too easy. Use Google and choose whatever source you'd like. Here's just one example I had in my archives:

"every Confederate soldier, by the mores of his age and ours, deserved not a hallowed resting place at the end of his days but a reservation at the end of the gallows." ~ Professor Jonathan Farley, Vanderbilt 2002

You should also read Blight's piece to which Mr. Rotov refers. Here's a real jewel of a quote from his comments:

"A couple of the panelists on the John Brown session waxed somewhat romantic in their defense of the radical abolitionist, stimulating a useful exchange about what constitutes justifiable revolutionary violence."

Academics defending a cold-blooded murderer while they lament the imbalance and of "Lost Cause mythology"(?!)

So we have these academics criticizing the "romanticism of the Lost Cause view of history" while they admittedly "waxed somewhat romantic" in their defense of a murderer.

Wow. Unbelievable. What hypocrisy. Yeah, I'm going to trust these types to "interpret" the WBTS for me. You betcha.

But it wouldn't matter how many I provided James. Your mind is made up. Which brings me back to . . . I bore quickly arguing the obvious.

Thanks for your input. Comments are now closed.

James F. Epperson said...

"Comments are now closed." --- Meaning I don't get to respond to your last, lengthy post? That's OK --- it's your blog, after all, so you make the rules --- but I'd like to think there might have been something valuable in what I would have written.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Ok James. Since your good manners, civil conduct, and gentlemanly demeanor are in such short supply these days, I'll suspend my ruling as Benevolent Dictator and allow you to post another comment.

I would not to that for just anyone.

Please proceed with all haste sir.

James F. Epperson said...

Thank you.

Let me first say I am not familier with Prof. Farley, which may well be a failing on my part, but he has violated the corollary to one of the best rules of conduct I've ever heard: "Don't fall in love with dead people;" from which it follows, of course, that you shouldn't allow yourself to hate dead people, either. Getting so emotionally involved is not conducive to study.

I would want to know more about what was said about John Brown before getting upset over it. Brown is a complex figure. He did a good job of making a martyr of himself. It is possible (although difficult for many) to discuss, dispassionately, his enterprise.

Look, the Confederacy existed. Folks study that period of history. Some of them are going to form conclusions you don't like. (Some of them form conclusions *I* don't like.) Those conclusions you don't like are not due to some intellectual conspiracy against your ancestors, but came from honest study. Folks look at the same facts you see and reach different conclusions. Why does their have to be some conspiracy/agenda behind it all?

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Farley is just a math professor - I just pulled his quote as an "academic" example. Vanderbilt is relative due to its history.

"I would want to know more about what was said about John Brown"

Yes, I would too. I find it jaw-dropping amazing that Blight blathers on with the obligatory criticism of the "Lost Cause" school of thought and speaks almost admiringly of the love affair with John Brown.

His comments offer up a classic example of what I'm talking about.

Thank you Professor Blight for your cooperation.

Michael Bradley said...

Prof. Farley made his statement about hanging all Confederates in the Nashville Tenneessean, the daily paper. His statement drew so loud a protest that he left the university and the nation. He now is in Austria. Farley is a math professor.

I suggest that the thresd on this blog dealing with the fellow who wanted to outlaw certain ideas in teaching the WBTS is a good example of "South bashing." And what was McPherson's stand against placing a wreath at the Confederate monument in Arlington?

The recent posting on Rantings of a Civil War Historian by Nathan Rafuse in which he said the people of the South should be left to sit in the dark and go back to eating dirt sounds like bashing to me.

But then, I am a Southerner!

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


Yes, all applicable examples. I had forgotten about Mr. Rafuse's comment.

Thanks for the input. But I doubt James will be convinced.


Michael Bradley said...

I would add that the "Lost Cause" is not so much a myth as it is an overemphasis/underemphasis.

The Lost Cause view of the war says Confederate soldiers fought honorably. That is an overemphasis. Many did, some did not--some deserted or otherwise behaved in dishonorable ways. But that most did fight honorably is not a myth.

The L.C. says the South was overwhelmed by numbers. That is not a myth. Look at the census of 1860--9 million in the South (5 million white, 4 million black) versus 22 million in the North.

The L.C. says the South was facing impossible odds in manufacturing capability. That is not a myth. Look again at the census of 1860--20% of the nation's mfg capacity was in the South, 80% in the North.

States Rights was more the cause than was slavery. An overemphasis which monocausalists ignore despite the evidence that slavery alone was not the cause.

The Lost Cause was not/is not a myth. It contains a good deal of truth despite an imbalance in emphasis. By contrast, the Holy Cause is much more nearly a myth.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Excellent points Michael. I agree.

Anonymous said...

I would like to comment that Chandra Manning is an example of a historian who has unscientifically concluded that the CW was singularly about slavery and that each and every Confederate was fighting for slavery whether they said so or not. Similarly, the North's main goal was to remove slavery. Manning's sampling errors and biases cannot lead to any statistically significant conclusions, and her work negligently leads readers to make gross assumptions about participants.