December 21, 2005

Myth and Myopia IV: The War That Never Ended

The hardening of the Southern mind and deepening of sectional differences built for decades towards the seminal conflict of Southern, as well as American, history: the Civil War. Throughout the decade following the Compromise of 1850, events such as the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) and Bloody Kansas, the Dred Scott decision (1857), John Brown’s raid (1859), and the election of 1860 served to widen the rift steadily until South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union on December 20th, 1860.

Through all this, the South felt its way of life definitely threatened by two movements. First, the United States was ceasing to be a collection of sovereign states, becoming instead a single nation. Second, the protests of abolitionists were steadily gaining in power and volume. Cash asserts that the fundamental cause behind the Civil War finally boils down to the simple fact that "it is not the nature of the human animal in the mass willingly to suffer difference."

The full range of causes behind the American Civil War, an explanation of the events that preceded it, and a description of how it was waged are far beyond the scope of this paper. Suffice it to say that, after four long years of a bloody conflict which exacted a greater toll of American lives than any other war before or since, the eleven Confederate States of America were soundly defeated and occupied by the United States of America and were forcibly returned to the national fold during the period of Reconstruction which followed.

It is difficult to overstress the significance of this conflict and defeat to the South of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Whatever its other effects may have been, the trauma of these years of war and rebuilding ensured a Southern mindset immovably different from the rest of the nation for at least the next century. This new Southern cultural nationalism manifested itself in a variety of ways. It resulted primarily in regional isolation (from the rest of the nation), unity (within the South), degradation, and in the creation of new myths which quickly took hold in the Southern imagination.

In American history, losing a war and facing occupation by the victors is unique to the South. This experience of defeat in the midst of the American legend of unbroken success and victory is part of what Woodward calls "the irony of Southern history," and in many ways it culturally cut the South off from the rest of the country. The combined humiliation and defeat of the Civil War and Reconstruction helped fashion a unique "self-conscious white Southern identity" through "fear, grievance, defensiveness, and the memory of hardship and bitterness." The effects of this on the Southern mind lasted for generations.

Cash refers to the effects of Reconstruction on the South as "the frontier the Yankee made," saying that "its people were once more without mastery of their environment and must begin again [. . .] to build up social and economic order out of [. . .] chaos." While the North entered modern, industrialized society, the South reverted to "primitive, violent, individualistic, provincial life."

The memory of Radical Reconstruction became an enormously divisive force between blacks and whites. Whites remembered it as a time when the Yankee attempted to reverse their former hierarchy and set the black man to rule over the white. Blacks remembered a time of nightriders and white brutality. Whites emerged with the fixed idea of preserving racial purity, and blacks knew just what lengths they would go to in order to maintain it.

After the Civil War, the white Southern mind was dominated by romantic myths, some from its antebellum days, some new following the "War Between the States" and Reconstruction. During the final decades of the 19th century, the Southern predilection for history grew stronger than ever, and its people’s view of that history gained the status almost of a civil religion. The old ideas of lost, bygone days (“moonlight-and-magnolias” and the myth of the Cavalier) were as important as ever, and to these were added the Southern perspective of events following 1860.

It was during the post-Civil War period, Cash declares, that the South began finally to have a literature of its own, at least of sorts. However, he qualifies this statement by observing that the outburst was decisively prompted by patriotic sentiment and had the purpose of defending, justifying, and showing pride in the South. "What we really have in the literature of the Reconstruction era is [. . .] propaganda."

Southern authors devoted themselves to the glorification of the Old South; not that this purpose is the only significant thing about it, of course. Much of it did contain some literary value, even the most propagandistic works of authors like Thomas Nelson Page. Nevertheless, a purely artistic literary portrayal of the South would not arrive until the turn of the century with the works of Ellen Glasgow.

Meanwhile, in 1866, Virginia journalist Edward A. Pollard published a book entitled The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates. The immense popularity of this work gave the Southern revisionist view of the Civil War its name: The Lost Cause myth. The belief that the people of the South had entered a righteous war to preserve their way of life, but (despite acquitting themselves bravely in battle) were ultimately doomed to defeat due to superior Northern resources, took hold in the Southern imagination.

Politically, the myth was extremely useful as a rallying point during Reconstruction, and it continued to hold a prominent place in popular views of the Civil War throughout the 20th century. Belief in, and celebration of, the Lost Cause became a coping mechanism for a region that had suffered a terrible blow to its pride. To add the suggestion that the South had waged an unjust war to the humiliating fact of its defeat by the North would have been intolerable. While the Southern memory of the Civil War may largely be based upon a myth, "for many Southerners the Lost Cause has been a myth believed and acted upon."

Posted by Jared at December 21, 2005 11:59 PM | TrackBack