The South’s Fight for White Supremacy

Historians in the News
tags: books, Southern history, White Supremacy

He had tried, and failed, once before. In 1859, the Virginian Edward Alfred Pollard, a journalist and Southern partisan, had published a defense of slavery, “Black Diamonds Gathered in the Darkey Homes of the South.” Then came the election of Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment, which abolished the system of slavery Pollard had hoped to preserve. After the Confederate surrender at Appomattox in April 1865, he turned to a new project, publishing, in 1866, a book titled “The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates.

This effort would succeed where the first had fallen short. Pollard’s framing of the “Lost Cause” was to long endure, and it’s safe to say that no other American title of 1866 is shaping the nation in the way Pollard’s is even now. “No one can read aright the history of America,” Pollard wrote, “unless in the light of a North and a South.” For all its bloodshed, he argued, the Civil War “did not decide negro equality; it did not decide negro suffrage; it did not decide State Rights. … And these things which the war did not decide, the Southern people will still cling to, still claim and still assert them in their rights and views.”

Here, then, was the ur-text of the Lost Cause, of the mythology of a South that believed its pro-slavery war aims were just, its fate tragic and its white-supremacist worldview worth defending. In our own time, the debates over Confederate memorials and the resistance in many quarters of white America, especially in the South, to address slavery, segregation and systemic racism can in part be understood by encounters with the literature of the Lost Cause and the history of the way many white Americans have chosen to see the Civil War and its aftermath.

To Pollard, the Southern side had fought nobly for noble ends. “The war has left the South its own memories, its own heroes, its own tears, its own dead,” he wrote. “Under these traditions, sons will grow to manhood, and lessons sink deep that are learned from the lips of widowed mothers.” Pollard declared that a “‘war of ideas,’” a new war that “the South wants and insists upon perpetrating,” was now unfolding.

And in many ways it unfolds still. The defiance of federal will from Reconstruction to our own day, the insistence on states’ rights in the face of the quest for racial justice and the revanchist reverence for Confederate emblems and figures are illuminated by engaging with the ethos of which Pollard so effectively wrote. He enlarged on his thesis in “The Lost Cause Regained,” published in 1868. Pollard wrote that he was “profoundly convinced that the true cause fought for in the late war has not been ‘lost’ immeasurably or irrevocably, but is yet in a condition to be ‘regained’ by the South on ultimate issues of the political contest.” The issue was no longer slavery, but white supremacy, which Pollard described as the “true cause of the war” and the “true hope of the South.”

Read entire article at New York Times

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