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'Lost Cause' myth endures

Time to admit the war really was about slavery, W&L alum asserts

Published Tuesday, February 18, 2014 5:00 pm by S.Matrazzo; ed. J.McClelland

One AOJ member whose recent work has dealt with lingering Confederate sympathy and symbolism is Steve Matrazzo of the Dundalk (Md.) Eagle, who attended Washington and Lee University. These few brief passages are adapted from his 1,300-word piece of July 4, 2013, keyed to the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. (The full article is copyrighted and paywalled by the Eagle.)

Robert E. Lee, jobless and homeless after the Civil War, became president of tiny Washington College.

In four years, he so influenced the Virginia school that after his death he was added to the school name.

Physical asssets, including a Historic Landmark building, recall his role. Less tangible, but no less real, is the Lee mythos — with particular emphasis on his personal honor and noble character.

It was in perfect keeping with the “Lost Cause” version of Confederate history, valiant warriors defending freedom and Southern civilization against tyranny, defeated only by the Union’s size and brute force.

A century and a half after the decisive battle, the legacy of the Civil War remains with us in more ways than can be counted. Social, political, racial and cultural divides can be traced to the open sores that led to the war.

Many cling to the myth of the Lost Cause.

A few years ago, then-Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, in Confederate History Month, urged Virginians to “understand the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens.”

Controversies recur over the Confederate flag as part of state flags in the South or as an emblem at events such as country music shows.

Even though Maryland was not part of the Confederacy, you can see the Confederate flag here on countless decals and bumper stickers and flying above a few homes.

Denial lurks beneath the surface of Lost Cause nostalgia: “The Civil War wasn’t really about slavery; it was about states’ rights.”

McDonnell said of conflict between the states: "Obviously, it involved slavery. It involved other issues.”

Secession happened after the 1860 election of the first president from a party founded by abolitionists. Abraham Lincoln may not have been vociferously antislavery, but slaveholding states viewed his presidency as a threat.

Were the seceding states most worried about tariffs, federal spending, nullification, or any other existing causes of North-South friction?

South Carolina's secession document: “[T]hey have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; … united in the election of a man … [who] has declared that that 'government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,'"

Yet large numbers of Americans continue to swallow the myth that the Civil War was about something else.

In 2011, a Pew Research Center poll found that 38 percent said slavery was the main cause of the war, and 48 percent said it was essentially a dispute over constitutional law.

These numbers held across geographic and even racial lines.

The South did fight for states' rights: the right for some states to allow one person to own another.

Maybe it is time to own up to the truth and abandon the lie of the Lost Cause.

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