The age-old aphorism “History is written by the victors” is a common phrase, being repeated again and again by consequential and historically important individuals like Winston Churchill, Maximilien Robespierre, and Hermann Göring. It exemplifies the belief that, whoever wins a conflict, often in a military sense, writes the history books in favor of themselves and their message. In effect, with one’s goals accomplished and victory gained, they are able to construct the future’s telling of this battle, war, or event to better suit their own desires.
While often quoted and used by persons across political persuasions and in a variety of discussions, this belief is often incorrect and does not account for a substantial number of historical events in which the “losers” of a conflict or event have written history to suit themselves. This more often than not includes instances of genocide denials, such as that in Serbia, Turkey, and China, considering the 1993 Srebrenica massacre by Serbs, the 1915 Armenian genocide by Turks, and the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre by Chinese military forces respectively. However, they can also be done by individual politicians and governments to gain power, as has happened in the Philippines with the Marcos family rewriting the history of their dictator father.
This does not only happen abroad either. In the United States, perhaps the most prevalent form of pseudohistorical and false thought is our nation’s collective understanding of the U.S. Civil War.
The Lost Cause of the South
The United States, first and foremost, won the U.S. Civil War. I do not use the terms “North” or “the Union” here and will not, given that automatically provides a sense of or perception of legitimacy to the Confederate State of America (CSA).
While the United States unequivocally won the conflict, preserving the United States as a whole, the U.S. lost the aftermath discussion of the event and allowed history to be written by the losers, the Confederates and their children and grandchildren, forever changing everyday Americans’ understanding of the war and the reasons why it was fought. This kind of mythology is called The Lost Cause of the South.
In its most basic form, according to the Encyclopædia Britannica, the Lost Cause is “an interpretation of the American Civil War … that attempts to preserve the honour of the South by casting the Confederate defeat in the best possible light … [attributing] the loss to the overwhelming Union advantage in manpower and resources, nostalgically celebrates an antebellum South of supposedly benevolent slave owners and contented enslaved people, and downplays or altogether ignores slavery as the cause of war”. This ideology, therefore, makes the claim that the South was not militarily disadvantaged with poor leadership, but rather could not compete with the industrious nature of the United States Armed Forces, that individuals like Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis were patriotic, respectable persons who were politically savvy and militarily intelligent in addition to claiming the war was for states’ rights.
A recent development with this ideology, given the removal of statues and names around the U.S. that are for Confederate individuals, is that these statues were constituting an erasure of history and only recently were controversial for their perception or depiction. These theories, including the belief that the war was over states’ rights and not slavery, that the Confederates were militarily strong, and pertaining to statutes, all are pseudohistorical and do not correspond to the historical record.
This myth, theory, and ideology arose in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. Civil War, during the period of Reconstruction, coming “from “Ladies Memorial Associations” and men’s veterans groups in the late 1860s … [maturing] in the late nineteenth century through historical writing, fiction, speeches, museums and shrines, reunions, monument building, funerals, magazines, and fundraising initiatives” according to The Inclusive Historians Handbook of the American Association for State and Local History.
These beliefs were largely in the form of a “social and cultural movement” but were also advocated heavily by politicians, academics, historians, and others in the business/public sector in order to advance their own personal goals with the United Daughters of the Confederacy soundly leading this charge.
This view was popular during Reconstruction, the period immediately following the U.S. Civil War which attempted “to redress the inequities of slavery and its political, social, and economic legacy and to solve the problems arising from the readmission to the Union of the 11 states that had seceded at or before the outbreak of war” and, while concentrated in the South, slowly and gradually made its’ way North. With the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in the 1920s and the resurgence of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s, individuals intent on “preserving their history” in addition to, both consciously and subconsciously, further setting themselves above Blacks and minorities and demonstrating a power above them.
To this day, the belief Americans have about the U.S. Civil War being fought over states’ rights, that Robert E. Lee abhorred slavery, that the CSA were militarily formidable with great, moral leaders, and that slaves lived well on Southern plantations are either outright wrong or contain a substantial amount of inaccuracies. Yet, they still are abundantly repeated, recounted, and believed by an astounding amount of Americans.
Why is the Lost Cause Narrative So Dangerous?
This movement and ideology, as can be seen, is incredibly dangerous. Having a flawed or ill-informed view of history is poor for many reasons, but most importantly because history informs upon the current. Our current day is informed upon and policy is made in part by learning lessons from history and understanding how we as a nation, people, or society have come to be here.
In the State of Texas, for example, State House and Senate lawmakers have tried to pass bills which restrict critical race theory (CRT) from being taught in schools in addition to teaching the history of slavery in the U.S. as a departure “from American principles” rather than being part of America’s founding. And in the 2022 midterm elections, many Republican candidates have gained seats on the State Board of Education, and are likely going to change how curriculums and certain subjects are taught.
If any one of these elected officials (be it on the Board of Education or in the Senate and House) have a colored or misunderstood view of the U.S. Civil War, a “Lost Cause” view of American history, then this would change the way an entire state’s youth and children are taught one of the most consequential and everlasting events in American history. These individuals would then go on to become important figures in business, local, state, or national politics, academia, and society in general. This is why the Lost Cause narrative is so dangerous, as it eventually affects the individual policies that the United States implements and it changes our national consciousness of ourselves, as Americans, and as individuals.
The Lost Cause myth is not going away any time soon. This is the history that millions of individuals have been taught and learned from an early age, from Alabama to Vermont to California. The myths are deeply ingrained and often, when confronted with contradictory information, individuals will react strongly and cling to their preconceived notions with an inclination to believe their already held beliefs.
In trying to change this ideology and the prevalence of Lost Cause mythos in society, the first battleground would be in the form of the language we use about the U.S. Civil War. The words and descriptors individuals use have a strong effect on the topic at hand. In the Civil War, we describe the location where slaves were kept and worked as plantations; in describing the conflict itself, we delineate between the “North” or “Union” and the “South”.
These terms automatically, however, set up and arrange a belief that individuals have in the Civil War. The word “plantations” provides a connotation of an almost idyllic estate with white marble pillars, roaming fields, and peace. A better description of this important location in Southern and Civil War history, though, would be as a forced labor camp, something akin to what we see in current-day North Korea.
As mentioned before, the terms “North” and “South” automatically legitimize the CSA as a legitimate nation-state which had the full and complete right to secede. However, with the end of the Civil War as a defeat for the CSA, the South did not have the right to secede nor were ever legitimate in the eyes of the U.S. Constitution or current 1860 case law. However, those terms of describing the United States Armed Forces or the U.S. as the Union Army or Union legitimizes the South’s cause.
Finally, having individuals who teach history critically, enthusiastically, and in accordance with the historical record is key. Educators who are heavily biased, rely upon false or doctored information or are guided by the idealized, nostalgic versions they have of a historical event rather than exploring through primary source documents and current historical thought are problematic and have no place, if their goal is to teach their own version of history.
Trying to combat this, changing one’s views of what will be a deeply personal history and sense of self, will likely be incredibly difficult if not impossible. Even if this is an impossible task, however, it is nonetheless a battle worth fighting for.