Between 1860 and 1861, 11 southern states withdrew from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America. They left, or seceded, in response to the growing movement for the nationwide abolition of slavery. Mississippi said, “our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.” South Carolina cited “hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding states to the institution of slavery.” In March 1861, the Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stevens, proclaimed that the cornerstone of the new Confederate government was white supremacy, or as he put it, “slavery” and “subordination” to white people was the “natural and normal condition” of Black people in America and the “immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.”
Three weeks after the now-infamous Cornerstone Speech, the American Civil War began. The conflict lasted four years, had a death toll of about 750,000, and ended with the Confederacy’s defeat.
By 1866, barely a year after the war ended, southern sources began claiming the conflict wasn’t actually about slavery. Meanwhile, Frederick Douglass, a prominent abolitionist and formerly enslaved person, cautioned, “the spirit of secession is stronger today than ever.”
From the words of Confederate leaders, the reason for the war could not have been clearer— it was slavery. So how did this revisionist history come about? The answer lies in the Lost Cause— a cultural myth about the Confederacy.
The term was coined by Edward Pollard, a pro-Confederate journalist. In 1866, he published “The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates.” Pollard pointed out that the U.S. Constitution gave states the right to govern themselves independently in all areas except those explicitly designated to the national government. According to him, the Confederacy wasn’t defending slavery, it was defending each state’s right to choose whether or not to allow slavery. This explanation effectively turned white southerners’ documented defense of slavery and white supremacy into a patriotic defense of the Constitution.
The Civil War had devastated the country, leaving those who had supported the Confederacy grasping to justify their actions. Many pro-Confederate writers, political leaders, and others were quick to adopt and spread the narrative of the Lost Cause.
One organization, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, played a key role in transmitting the ideas of the Lost Cause to future generations. Founded in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1894, the UDC united thousands of middle and upper class white southern women. The UDC raised thousands of dollars to build monuments to Confederate soldiers. These were often unveiled with large public ceremonies, and given prominent placements, especially on courthouse lawns. The Daughters also placed Confederate portraits in public schools. They monitored textbooks to minimize the horrors of slavery, and its significance in the Civil War, passing revisionist history and racist ideology down through generations.
By 1918, the UDC claimed over 100,000 members. As their numbers grew, they increased their influence outside the South. Presidents William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson both met with UDC members and enabled them to memorialize the Confederacy in Arlington National Cemetery.
The UDC still exists and defends Confederate symbols as part of a noble heritage of sacrifice by their ancestors. Despite the wealth of primary sources showing that slavery was the root cause of the Civil War, the myth about states’ rights persists today.
In the aftermath of the war, Frederick Douglass and his abolitionist contemporaries feared this erasure of slavery from the history of the Civil War could contribute to the government’s failure to protect the rights of Black Americans— a fear that has repeatedly been proven valid. In an 1871 address at Arlington Cemetery, Douglass said: “We are sometimes asked in the name of patriotism to forget the merits of this fearful struggle, and to remember with equal admiration those who struck at the nation’s life, and those who struck to save it— those who fought for slavery and those who fought for liberty and justice. [...] if this war is to be forgotten, I ask in the name of all things sacred, what shall men remember?”