The Lost Cause and the Myth of Southern Martial Superiority

In order to properly understand why the Confederate flag still flies in various parts of the United States of America we need to understand the concept of the Lost Cause. The Lost Cause is actually really easy to explain to anyone who’s ever seen Rambo[1]. There’s a point where Rambo asks if he’s actually going to be allowed to “win” Vietnam “this time,” the implication being that some insidious plot wouldn’t allow the United States to win the first time around. This myth is built around the Rules of Engagement handed down to the military that said certain places couldn’t be bombed and certain things couldn’t be done and if the politicians hadn’t made those rules and allowed free reign the United States would have easily rolled over the pathetic Vietnamese forces.

Any serious student of history knows that Vietnam was not a case of the political leadership of the United States choosing to lose. Vietnam has a long and storied history of making life miserable for occupying forces. The Chinese tried and failed to hold Vietnam several times over the course of their extended time as the most powerful nation in the world. The French held Vietnam for a time, but couldn’t hold it following WWII. The Japanese couldn’t hold it during WWII. The onerous Rules of Engagement were meant to avoid a second Korean War, when MacArthur pushed the Chinese over to direct intervention and that war went from a quick, successful defense of South Korea to a war that technically exists to this day.[2] The Vietnam War could have gone differently for the United States,[3] but history tells us the even if the US had “won” the occupation would have been arduous and not resulted in a satisfactory situation for anyone involved.

In the years following the Civil War various voices in the American south asked the same question as Rambo. This eventually coalesced into what is known today as the Lost Cause Myth. From there we get the notion that certain people (namely James Longstreet, who was a fine general whose main crime was not being Stonewall Jackson) actively worked against the Confederacy, that the South should have won because it had a fine martial tradition that should have overcome the soft, pathetic Northerners, and that in the fullness of time the South shall rise again. All of these ideas served to nourish the notion that the South is a culture we must protect and uphold and the North is somehow the lesser partner even though it won. This, in turn, is why the Confederate flag still exists.

The narrative that created the Lost Cause Myth is flat wrong. Unfortunately that narrative is the one that has mostly held in the century and a half since Appomattox. The reason for this, I believe, is simple. The North has mostly moved on from the Civil War, the West was barely involved, and only the South has really held on with any real interest. The loudest voices attempting to hold on to the notion of the South, in turn, were the proponents of the Lost Cause. In the early days of Reconstruction there was a real chance for genuine Southern reconciliation into the Union. What followed was an extended campaign of terror and propaganda that stifled the voices of freed slaves and marginalized Northerners as carpetbaggers and pro-Union Southerners as scalawags. The Ku Klux Klan, which in those days branded itself as a terrorist organization, is mostly remembered for white-on-black crime but was willing and eager to go after any whites who supported the larger aims of Reconstruction.

The Lost Cause itself is based on a few notions:

1. The Confederacy was mostly led by men of nobility and bravery, while the North was led by scoundrels.
2. The only true advantages held by the North were in the form of manpower and resources.
3. When the South lost it was because certain cowards were working against them. This is where the Southern hatred of James Longstreet came from following the war.
4. The entire point of the war was that it was a debate over the rights of the states to determine their own fate and, as such, the North was engaging in a war of aggression following decades of economic and political aggression. This point is where the whole “the war wasn’t about slavery” bullet point comes from.
5. Slavery wasn’t bad. It actually goes beyond that, to the idea that slavery was an active good for the slaves.[4]

Let’s get the slavery issue out of the way immediately. The reason the South seceded from the Union was slavery. There can be no serious study of the issue of the Civil War that doesn’t reach that conclusion. One needs look no further than Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens’ so-called Cornerstone Speech in which he said, “The new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions—African slavery as it exists among us—the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization.” Furthermore, the Confederate Constitution, to which Stephens was referring when he said “new Constitution” was indistinguishable from the United States’ Constitution except for the bit where it made slavery an inalienable part of the laws of the Confederacy. Most, if not all,[5] of the Confederate states also made the practice of slavery an explicit part of their reasons for secession and war-time laws.

The interesting thing here is that, as far as the North was concerned, the war wasn’t actually about slavery at the outset. Abraham Lincoln was concerned only with holding the Union together and only made slavery an explicit part of the platform in 1862 when it looked like the South might actually win and Great Britain might join the war on their side.[6] The so-called “War of Northern Aggression” was mostly in the imagination of the South.

I’m mostly interested in points 1 and 2 of the Lost Cause Myth, that the South was led by nobles and the North was made up of a militarily naïve idiots led by scoundrels.

The interesting thing about the idea that the North won only because of superior manpower is that it focuses exclusively on the Eastern theatre. The focus on the generally terrible nature of their leadership, meanwhile, focuses mostly on Ulysses S Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. There’s a reason for this and it’s inextricably linked. Ulysses S Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman kicked Confederate ass everywhere they went.

The fact of the matter is that the South only ever had two advantages over the course of the Civil War: the quality of their cavalry and not having George B MacClellan. Both of these advantages went away in 1863.

The issue of cavalry is an interesting one. The South basically saw itself as a continuation of the old European notion of the landed gentry forming a gentleman’s army. The backbone of a gentleman’s army is the cavalry, as this goes back to the idea of the knight in shining armor atop his white charger taking on the hordes of barbarians. This is why some of the most colorful characters from the Civil war were cavalrymen, led by JEB Stuart and Nathan Bedford Forrest. The pride of the Southern forces was the cavalry. Young men who had grown up in the saddle showed up in numbers bringing their own fine horses to go to war and glory.

The North, meanwhile, wasn’t a horse culture. Union leadership saw the incorporation of large numbers of cavalry as an inexpensive waste. Further compounding the problem was the fact that most of the best cavalry commanders in the United States Army resigned to fight for the South (probably because of the whole horse culture thing…). When the Union did decide to use cavalry in the early months of the war it was mostly for picket duty. Direct engagements between the Northern and Southern cavalry went poorly for the North because of a combination of better horsemen on the Southern side and better horses. Unscrupulous businessmen sold the Union terrible horses because the people responsible for purchasing them didn’t know any better. This is yet another place where men with a history of riding horses showing up with their own mounts is extremely helpful.

By 1863 this would change. In the early days of the Gettysburg Campaign Union General Alfred Pleasonton took JEB Stuart by surprise at Brandy Station and fought the theoretically superior Confederate cavalry to a standstill.  On the opening day of Gettysburg itself General John Buford’s dismounted cavalry held the high ground long enough for Union infantry to get into the action. By the end of the war Phil Sheridan led a cavalry force that was as good as if not better than any Confederate cavalry force in the war.

The fact of the matter, though, is that the Southern advantage in cavalry didn’t actually matter. Cavalry was really only suited for reconnaissance and raids during the Civil War. Infantry arms were too good and the open field maneuvering that allowed Napoleon to use cavalry to flank, encircle, and destroy infantry armed with smoothbore muskets was slowly being replaced with infantry fortifications and trench warfare that wouldn’t have looked out of place a half century later on the Western Front. In short, JEB Stuart could never have won a major engagement in the civil war with a daring cavalry charge. He did, however, contribute greatly to Robert E Lee’s most egregious loss by not being there and allowing Ewell’s infantry to blunder blindly into Buford’s cavalry at a town called Gettysburg.

So let’s get to the final aspects of the Lost Cause Myth. As I’ve already said, one of the most interesting things about the “superior manpower” argument and the “Robert E Lee was betrayed by James Longstreet” argument is that they focus almost exclusively on the Eastern theatre, while the, “The North was led by scoundrels” argument focuses almost entirely on Generals Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan. The reason for this is simple: on a soldier for solider basis the South was not better than the North. The only reason that it even looked for a minute like the South had a prayer of succeeding was because the primary focus of the war was the Eastern theatre and from 1861 until Gettysburg the Eastern theatre of war was firmly in the hands of the South.

The focus on the Eastern theatre makes sense. Washington DC and Richmond, VA were the respective capitols. They were a mere 90 miles apart. Everyone thought that the war would be a quick affair, ended by whichever army managed to cross that 90s miles and take the opposing capitol first. War is never so simple, though. In the early days of the war, though, the Eastern theatre was dominated by the South. A succession of terrible Northern generals, from Irvin McDowell to George McClellan to Joe Hooker to Ambrose Burnside to George McClellan[7] repeatedly lost to the Army of Northern Virginia. By the time of the Battle of Gettysburg the standard belief in the North was that it was impossible to beat Robert E Lee.

The war in the West was a completely different story, however. In the early days of the war Ulysses S Grant took a relatively small force and captured Forts Henry and Donelson, in the process gaining his nickname of Unconditional Surrender. In April of 1862 Confederate General Albert Sydney Johnston — said to be one of the best generals of the Confederacy — and his second in command, PGT Beauregard, the victor of First Bull Run[8] made a sneak attack against the Union forces near Pittsburgh Landing in Tennessee. Grant was miles away at the time, owing to a need for medical attention after his horse fell on him. Still, Grant rushed to the site of the battle and organized the defenses. The Union line held – barely – at what would become known as the Battle of Shiloh. The next day the Union forces, reinforced by elements of General Buell’s Army of the Ohio drove the Confederates completely away and turned a potential disaster into a decisive victory. Three weeks later Grant took Corinth, Mississippi and made that town his base for the following year’s campaign against Vicksburg.

Grant’s most able subordinate at Shiloh was William Tecumseh Sherman, who very nearly managed to kill Nathan Bedford Forrest two days later at the Battle of Fallen Timbers with a unit made almost entirely of infantry. Sherman would later be vilified as the man who burned Atlanta and is, to this day, spoken of in the South as a war criminal because of Atlanta and his March to the Sea, in which he said he would “make the South howl.”

In the days following Shiloh Grant’s immediate superior, Henry Halleck, attempted to paint the successes as belonging to General Buell’s timely arrival and moved Grant to a position where he was effectively out of the war. Lincoln overrode Halleck, saying that he could not spare Grant because, “He fights.”

In the postwar years controversy over the reason that Grant was injured on the day of the sneak attack on Shiloh (he was drunk horsing), the fact that Shiloh was the bloodiest day of the war to date (which was overtaken the following year at Chancellorsville), and the need for a villain for the Lost Cause resulted in Grant being painted as a scoundrel. Sherman, meanwhile, would be painted with a similar brush. This was an attempt to cover up the fact that Grant and Sherman simply did not lose the battles they fought and made a team that was even more effective than the South’s pairing of Lee and Jackson.

On the first day of July of 1863 Robert E Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia blundered blindly into the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac under John Buford. For the next three days the Army of the Potomac stood up the invincible Lee under the unflappable but cautious George Meade and new breed of generals lead by Winfield Scott Hancock. On July 3rd Lee, refusing to believe that the Army of the Potomac could possibly hold its ground, sent George Pickett and a force from AP Hill’s Corps against Hancock’s entrenched Corps. Lee lost.

On July 4th, 1863 the City of Vicksburg surrendered to General Ulysses S Grant, effectively cutting Louisiana and Texas off from the rest of the Confederacy. Meade, cautious as always, missed out on the opportunity to completely and totally defeat Lee. Lincoln soon promoted Halleck and Grant, ultimately giving Grant control of all of the Union armies. Grant, in turn, would head East and take direct command of the Army of the Potomac.

In the spring of 1864 Grant marched south, engaging Lee in a battle in an area known as the Wilderness. Lee managed to fight Grant to a standstill. When word came down from Grant that the Army of the Potomac would keep moving toward Richmond it was met with cheers. Under George McClellan the Army of the Potomac had always withdrawn to lick its wounds whenever Lee showed up because the general had less fighting spirit than his men.

The Army of the Potomac was not made of inferior soldiers. Up until July of 1863 it was commanded by inferior generals. The Confederacy’s lack of manpower and war fighting materiel relative to the North officially became a problem. From then on Grant fought Lee toe-to-toe in the East while Sherman pushed Joe Johnston to the gates of Atlanta and then marched uncontested to Savannah and the sea.

Proponents of the Lost Cause would have us believe this is because Grant and Sherman were, somehow, scoundrels and cheats. The fact is that they’re wrong. Grant was, most certainly, a drunk. Sherman did make his March to the Sea to attempt to force the South to capitulate and in the process invented modern warfare as we know it in which the distinction between the army in the field and the sources of supply behind the lines almost completely disappeared. That invention would lead, ultimately, to the night raids on London, carpet bombing of German cities, firebombing of Japan, and the atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the end, though, Sherman wasn’t a monster and Grant wasn’t an ungentlemanly fighter. They were simply better than everything put in front of them and it all started a Shiloh where one of the saints of the South, Albert Sydney Johnston, died trying to push them into the river.

[1]Or, I guess, Rambo 2. Whatever. Here’s one of my dirty little secrets: I’ve never seen the Rambo movies due to literally giving no shits. I’ve seen bits and pieces and plenty of parodies, but in general I care not about that particular franchise.

[2]There was no treaty in Korea, just a cease fire. It has held for over half a century, but part of the complication in re: Korea is that the war could literally start again at any minute.

[3]The deciding factor was really the Tet Offensive, which was a massive, unmitigated disaster for North Vietnam. The Viet Cong lost and lost badly, to the extent that it basically forced North Vietnam to commit to total warfare against the superior forces of the United States. The Tet Offensive was a massive PR disaster in the US, however. Had the political leadership in the US been able to hold on to public opinion that might have been the start of a winning campaign.

[4]This idea still pops up from time to time. In 1996 an Alabama State Senator named Charles Davidson wrote a speech in which he argued, “The incidence of abuse, rape, broken homes and murder are 100 times greater, today, in the housing projects than they ever were on the slave plantations in the Old South. The truth is that nowhere on the face of the earth, in all of time, were servants better treated or better loved than they were in the Old South by white, black, Hispanic and Indian slave owners.” Now, before we go anywhere with this, I want proof that there were black, Hispanic, or Indian (I don’t know whether he mean American or Asian Indian there, either) slave owners. I’d also like to point out that we don’t have statistics on rape, murder, and abuse in slave populations because no one really cared to keep track of things. We do, however, have plenty of evidence of “broken homes” in the form of slave owners who sold some family members off to other slave owners. So, y’know…

There are other, more recent examples of this sort of thinking, but I don’t remember off of the top of my head and there’s only so far I’m willing to go with a Google search for “slavery is good.”

[5]This is one of those things I’ve looked up in the past but can’t remember off the top of my head. I don’t want to look it all up again so I’m choosing to be fuzzy in my terminology.

[6]British intervention is one of the most fascinating aspects of the Civil War. It was a Sword of Damocles suspended above the head of the North for the first year of the war that was ultimately taken down with the Emancipation Proclamation (which is occasionally decried by idiots who point out that it freed exactly zero slaves, but that’s a conversation for another day), but there’s a genuine question as to whether or not the British would have intervened on the side of the South. I am of the opinion that the Brits would never have done so.

The idea of British intervention is predicated on the South as Britain’s main supplier of cotton, which was fueling the early days of their Industrial Revolution. The idea, then, is that the Brits would have stepped in to end the war and keep the flow of cotton coming from the Americas. The problem with this argument is threefold. First, the British were vehemently anti-slavery and had been so for half a century, which would have made engaging with an explicitly pro-slavery government difficult at best. Second, the Brits were actively looking for alternate sources of cotton and had an empire that circled the world. Third, Southern blockade runners were still getting cotton to Britain because the South was desperate for the implements of war. The Brits (and, to a lesser extent, the French) were making good money supplying arms to the South in exchange for cotton, so that level of support would have undoubtedly continued. Anything more than that, however, would have been a step in the wrong direction, politically speaking.

[7]No, that’s not a typo. Lincoln hated McClellan, but McClellan was popular with the soldiers. Lincoln removed McClellan from command of the Army of the Potomac but was forced to put him back for fear of a mass desertion. McClellan later ran for President as a Democrat on a peace platform in 1864 and very nearly destroyed the Union. His belief that the Army would vote for him over Lincoln was misplaced, though, as the Army vote was overwhelmingly in favor of Lincoln, largely thanks to one William Tecumseh Sherman.

[8]Alongside Joe Johnston, who was easily one of the best Confederate generals. He was pushed to the side because Jeff Davis didn’t like him at all.

One thought on “The Lost Cause and the Myth of Southern Martial Superiority

  1. Interesting, I hadn’t come across much of that post-war southern thinking. I can’t help seeing some very solid parallels to the Dolchstoßlegende invented by the German Army after WWI, particularly points 1-3. Broadly it tends to be summed up as “the army was great and could have won, but the politicians let us down”.

    I think for the south to win it has to do something unexpected: take Washington, perhaps, quickly before the industrial disparity begins to bite.

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