A New Story for the Old South: Revisiting the “Lost Cause”

For generations, children in the South have come of age in a world partial to the Confederacy. Both formally and informally, they have heard tales of bravery and courage tied to the ‘Lost Cause” narrative. It unfolds as follows:

Though victory appeared impossible, men such as Robert E. Lee still decided to stand up against the tidal wave of Northern aggression that crashed into glorious South in 1861.  Lacking money, infrastructure, and technology, the sons of the Confederacy founded their cause on the fortunes of family, faith, and liberty. The men in gray took up arms believing good would triumph over evil.

As one Georgia pastor noted in 1861, the southern states were the, “last home of a pure Gospel.” He was not alone in his assessment. Nine years earlier Baptist Pastor E.T. Winkler  had noted “there…[is]…more real poverty, vice, unattended sickness, and heartrending misery in its manifold forms, in the four large cities of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia and Baltimore, than in all fifteen slave holding States.” While the Unionists like General Grant drank themselves under the table, the men in the Confederate camps marched about with “small copies of the Bible or New Testament.” The Reverend and Lost Cause historian H. Melville Jackson D.D. concluded in 1887,

The Southern soldier was a Christian warrior, and…he was brave, he was irresistible because his faith was in God and in the justice of his cause.

Moreover, slavery was not the grand evil the North claimed it to be. Pastor and influential theologian James Thornwell, noted in 1850, “It is the public testimony of our faith, that the Negro is of one blood with ourselves …We are not ashamed to call him our brother.” Though some abuses existed on the edges of the institution, a majority of southerners treated their slaves well. As a group of pastors noted in 1863, “The South has done more than any people on earth, for the Christianization of the African race. The conditions of the slaves here is not wretched…but prosperous and happy.” To quote Thornwell, the battle for state’s rights was a battle between “Christianity and Atheism.

Thornwell

Though Christians should be quick to listen to the narratives of their ancestors, they should only embrace the stories conclusions if they align with the data. Before identifying with a story and its claims, Christians must ask the penetrating question, “Does this best represent the world and all that is in it?” Does the story of the “Lost Cause,” a story that has influenced millions of people, make sense in light of the historical record? Does it cohesively and coherently explain the past?

I will argue that the “Lost Cause” fails to offer a believable account of the past. A more holistic elevation of the antebellum and Civil War South reveals the narrative of the “Lost Cause” to be incompatible with the historical evidence. The men of the South were neither particular noble nor Christian. They railed to the crimson reds and dark blues Stars and Bars because of financial concerns and racial bias.

The “Lost Cause” Was Not A Just Cause

The Southerners took up arms in 1860 to prevent African Americans (in the words of Patrick Mell) from being elevated to “the same civil and political privileges with his master.” The famed General Robert E. Lee noted in 1856, “The painful discipline the negroes are undergoing now is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things.” According to Thornwell and others, the South had the legal right to own black men and women because God had condemned the race to slavery for some exceptional horrid sin committed by the slaves’ ancestors after the Noahic flood. Pastor and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor, Basil Manly Sr, noted in 1844, “God gives power to some and bondage to others. Only God can be held accountable for the differences in social condition and inequalities of human capacity.” Thornwell concurred, writing, that slavery existed, “by the Providence of God.” Neither the white man nor the black man should fight against God’s providence. Baptist Pastor, theologian, and pro-slavery apologist, Patrick Hue Mell, noted in 1844, “God…has established the relation of master and servant, of governor and governed, and commanded each to be content with the situation in which he is placed.” Moreover, the chains of slavery benefited the black soul. Thornwell wrote the slave’s “humble…degraded lot” prepared him to be “a shining star in the firmament of heaven.”

Though most southerners like Lee believed other human beings could benefit from the discipline of slavery, they balked at the idea that their own culture could benefit from such discipline and introspection. A few lines after refusing to recognize the suffrage of his slaves, Lee chided the northern descendants of the pilgrims for being “intolerant of the spiritual liberty of others.” In 1860, Thornwell tied the South’s demand for philosophical toleration to economic toleration. He lamented that the South, “has borne burdens, and experienced inconveniences, which have retarded her own prosperity, while they have largely contributed to develop the resources of the North…We the South have the same right to our opinions as the people of the North.” James P. Boyce, the founder of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, also chafed at the idea of having to submit to an unkind government. He wrote in 1861, “If Virginia cannot belong to the Union without servile degradation from the Northern aggression and domination, then I am for Virginia.” Thornwell summed up the nature of the Confederate fight for liberty, justice, and civilized society when he said,

Here lies the evil. The election of Lincoln, when properly interpreted, is nothing more nor less than a proposition to the South to consent to a Government, fundamentally different upon the question of slavery, from that which our fathers established. If this point can be made out, secession becomes not only right, but a bounden duty… It is needless to say that, in this issue, the personal character of Mr. Lincoln is not at all involved.

The men who called their slaves to submit to the merciful hand of God’s providential oppression believed their own oppression to be an aberration of God’s sovereignty that had to be resisted. To borrow the language of the Mell, the governed who commanded the slave to submit to his or her master refused to submit to their own governors.

Fredrick Douglas

While irony of the Southerner’s inconsistency was lost on men such as Lee, Thornwell, and Mell, it was not lost on their slaves. When Wesley Norris, his cousin, and his sister were caught attempting to escape from one of Lee’s plantations in 1859, Lee ordered his overseer to give the two men fifty lashes and the woman twenty lashes because as Norris said they had the audacity to “consider ourselves free.” Court records reveal Norris claims had merit for Lee’s father-in-law had promised to liberate the slaves when he died. Yet, Lee delayed their release for five years, seeking to maximize their labor to pay off debts. Undoubtedly, Norris and millions of other slaves took issue with Mell’s assessment that “American Slavery has proved a blessing to the negro race.”

The former slave, Frederick Douglass, also countered assumptions of the noble South writing,

I have often been utterly astonished…to find persons who could speak of the singing among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The song of the slave represents the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by tears.

Though Lee demanded the North extend toleration to the South, he extended no toleration to his own slaves or to the slaves of others. He ordered his men to “lay it on well” when whipping recaptured slaves. He also told his overseers to rub brine into his slaves’ lacerated backs. As a slave master, Lee was not alone. Douglass described the whippings of his Aunt as follows:

No words, no tears, no prayers from his gory victim seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, their he whipped the longest. He would whip her to make her scream, and whip her to make her hush; and not until overcome by fatigue, would he cease to swing the blood-clotted cowskin.

Robert E. Lee

When Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia invaded Pennsylvania, he allowed his troops to enslave free black men and women for their plantations. Lee did nothing to discourage his senior officers and soldiers from abusing and murdering black soldiers who surrendered. Lee even refused a prisoner exchange because Grant requested that black soldiers be included. Lee viewed the black men to be the property of “our citizens.”

Lee’s actions did not run counter the cause of the Confederacy. They exemplified its principles. The Vice President of the Confederate States of America, Alexander H. Stephens bluntly stated in 1861,

Our new government is founded upon…the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery – subordination to the superior race – is his natural and normal condition.

The South fought for the liberty to deny other human beings liberty. The story of the South was a story of racism and abuse.

The “Lost Cause” was Not a Christian Cause

To defend the nobleness of the Confederate cause, many “Lost Cause” advocates pivot to the spiritual life of the Confederate soldiers. One veteran said the Confederate camps had, “often resounded at night with hymns and spiritual songs.” Despite this rosy picture, the spiritual life of the Confederate army would prove to be less than inspiring. Another Confederate Episcopalian bishop offered a more honest assessment of the camps in 1860. He wrote,

The same moral atmosphere and the same religious standards prevailed in the army to which the soldiers had been accustomed at home. There was doubtless enough of sin and wickedness, as there is more than enough in the best ordered society; but the Confederate Army was no sense of relaxed morals and licensed ungodliness.

Since the religiosity of the southern troops mirrored the civilian piety of the South, we must seek to understand the religiosity of the South in the years leading up to the Civil War. Was it exceptional?

When historians Rodney Stark and Roger Finke and others began excavating the ruins the antebellum South, they found a society that lacked Christian devotion. The pre-Civil War South was not especially devout.

In 1850 only 34% of Americans attended church revealing that both slave and non-slave states lacked religious fervor. But the devotion that did exist in America resided more in the North than in the South. Approximately 35% of the population in the Yankee states attended church. They outpaced the religiosity of their southern neighbors by about 5%. A little more than 30% of those who lived in the states which would form the Confederacy were church members. The three states with the most religious fervor – Maryland, Ohio, and Indiana – refused to join the Confederate cause. More than 40% of their populations attended church faithfully. New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut also had more church members per capita than North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Virginia, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas. Despite his love for the South, Mell had to begrudgingly admit in 1844 that, “Moral Reform Societies” which arose from Christian devotion were far more notable and active in “the Northern states” than in the South.

Sadly, those who filled the pulpits and pews of the South were little better than their secular neighbors. Slavery aside, the church landscape of the antebellum South remained riddled with lawlessness and bad doctrine. Bishop Meade who was a close friend of General Lee described the nature of the Southern Episcopal clergy as follows,

At the time of my entrance into the ministry, there were only here and there a few of the more conscientious of them (with some of a different character) faintly laboring under the most discouraging circumstances.

During his time as a bishop, Meade had to rebuke southern pastors for drunkenness, theft, and polygamy. Boyce also lamented the state of his Baptist denomination, noting that “a large portion of the ministry and membership” held beliefs that were, “very much unsettled or radically wrong.” Because of the abundance of theological error which had already corrupted parts of Furman University, Boyce required the faculty of SBTS to sign a doctrinal statement in 1857 to prevent theological drift. In 1860, Mell published Corrective Church Discipline to help correct southern culture which had began to swerve away from the “cause of Christ.”

Boyce, Meade, and Mell’s hand wringing over the state of the conservative, southern church possessed merit. As early as 1808, southern Churches stopped disciplining members for slave abuse. Glen’s Creek Church in Kentucky caved to pressure after six months and restored a slave owner who had sold a mother “down the River” without her child. When a Presbyterian Church member in South Carolina beat his slave to death in 1828, the church’s punishment consisted of a stern warning against repetition of the offense. In 1854, Congressman Preston Brooks resigned his seat in congress after senselessly beating Senator Charles Sumner with his cane after he criticized the institution of slavery. Brooks claimed to be a Christian. Some years earlier, he had written, “I am a great sinner but trust in the all atoning blood of an immaculate Savior to blot out my past transgressions.” Instead of rebuking the wayward Christian, the people of South Carolina reelected the congressman to the seat he had resigned.

In 1845, Douglas offered a more honest assessment of the religion of the slaveholding South. He wrote:

I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity…The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus. The man who robs me of my earnings at the end of each week meets me as a class-leader on Sunday morning, to show me the way of life, and the path of salvation. He who sells my sister, for purposes of prostitution, stands forth as the pious advocate of purity. He who proclaims it a religious duty to read the Bible denies me the right of learning to read the name of the God who made me. He who is the religious advocate of marriage robs whole millions of its sacred influence, and leaves them to the ravages of wholesale pollution. The warm defender of the sacredness of the family relation is the same that scatters whole families, — sundering husbands and wives, parents and children, sisters and brothers, — leaving the hut vacant, and the hearth desolate. We see the thief preaching against theft, and the adulterer against adultery. We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support the gospel, and babes sold to purchase Bibles for the poor heathen! all for the glory of God and the good of souls! The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master.

Not all Southern churches lacked faithful pastors or members. Pockets of true faith existed. As late as the 1850’s, some southern pastors spoke out against the evils of slavery. But, southern culture possessed no special measure of gospel clarity or Christian practice. It was to use the words of Patrick Mell, full of “gross and beastly licentiousness.”

By extension, readers would expect the Confederate armies to be full of beastly and gross licentiousness. History has vindicated this conclusion. One “Lost Cause” historian claimed the South lost the battle of First Manassas because the Confederate officers who were profane drunkards and gamblers had despoiled the faith of the troops. More than one chaplain failed to preach the gospel, falling prey to the sins of the Confederate Officer Corps. According to one officer, the southern chaplains also learned to “wink at ‘trifles after a few weeks.”

When Lee broke ranks from the secular culture of his fellow generals and called for a Day of Fasting on August 21, 1863, he blamed the army’s strategic failures on his troops’ loose morals. Lee said,

Soldiers! We have sinned Against Almighty God, We have forgotten His single Mercies and have Cultivated a vengeful, haughty, and boastful spirit. We have not remembered that the defenders of a just cause should be pure in his eyes.

Lee’s words took root among the average troops. Gospel sermons spread accompanied by revival. When the war ended in 1865, more than ten percent of the Confederate army had made a profession of faith.

At first glance, the revivals appear to lend some credence to “Lost Cause” theory. But the revivals extended well beyond the ranks of the Confederacy, revealing a more complex and less awe-inspiring reality for the sons of the “Lost Cause.”  

The gruesomeness of the Civil War made men on both sides of the divide more open to gospel conversations. As one union soldier in the 114th Ohio remarked, “I see the necessity of living a Christian here where they are dropping all around you.” Methodists historians believed between 100,000 to 200,000 men embraced Jesus during the northern camp revivals that lasted from 1863-1865. The men dressed in the dark blue federal uniforms believed the war against the South was a practical application of their Christian faith. One union soldier remarked, “The masses of poor whites will need to be educated and Christianized.” The 73rd Illinois became known as the “preachers regiment” because majority of its troops were Methodists ministers intent on defending the gospel. When Union troops marched into Savannah, they sang Methodist hymns. Noting the religious fervor of his troops, General Sherman boasted that he had a “Christian army” full of “noble fellows.” One historian concluded

The Union soldiers who sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” would not have been pleased—nor convinced—to hear that their southern opponents were more religious than they.

The fervor of the Union troops which arose from civilian life spilled back into civilian life. In 1864, eleven protestants denominations pushed for the following preamble to be added to the Constitution:

We the people” would acknowledge “Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, the Lord Jesus Christ as the Ruler among nations, his revealed will as the supreme law of the land, in order to constitute a Christian government.

Though they failed to modify the preamble to the Constitution, the northern clergy succeeded in their attempt to get “In God we Trust” added the nation’s coinage before the war’s end. When the war concluded, northern church attendance swelled.

Sadly, the revivals of the Southern army never reached their plantations. During the war, The Christian Index and other church newspapers rebuked the civilian population for their sins, calling them to mimic the newfound devotion of the Confederate soldiers. When the troops made the long journey home in 1865, they returned to their secular lives and forgot their former religious zeal. Southern church attendance steadily declined after 1865 and did not rebound until the 1880’s.

The historical record has shown the South to be neither just nor particularly religious.

So why did the South fight and why did the church go along with the defense of slavery? What do these monuments stand for?

The “Lost Cause” Was an Economic Cause

Southerners took up arms in 1860 to defend their economic wellbeing. Prior to 1800, most Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Episcopal churches in the South condemned slavery. In 1790, Virginia Baptists at the General Committee passed the following resolution:

Resolved, That slavery, is a violent deprivation of the rights of nature, and inconsistent with a republican government; and therefore recommend it to our Brethren to make use of every legal measure, to extirpate the horrid evil from the land, and pray Almighty God, that our Honorable Legislature may have it in their power, to proclaim the general Jubilee, consistent with the principles of good.

The Methodists also wrote strong statements against slavery and prohibited congregants and clergy from owning slaves. At the end of the 18th century, the continuation of the slave trade in the South was anything but certain. Though a few years behind the English slave trade, the United States’ slave trade appeared to be coming to morbidly slow end. Vice President Stephens summed up the sentiment of the country’s leading statesmen at the end of the eighteenth century as follows:

[Slavery] was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away.

Then in 1793, the Cotton Gin appeared. The technology combined with cheap labor promised to make vast tracts of land in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana profitable investments. To profit off of the cotton trade, the southern aristocracy reengaged the slave trade, seeking to harvest every dollar possible regardless of the human cost.

The wealthy southern landowners of the 1790s and 1800s held great influence over the affairs of the church. William Meade noted,

The rich gentlemen in the parishes of Va. were the patrons of the clergy who readily conformed to their manners of the same. Where the best Sunday dinner was given there the minister of the Perish was always to be found.

As the wealthy doubled down on slavery, most of the Southern clergy either acquiesced to the landowners’ views or fled to the western territories or the northern states. By 1830, the General Assembly had repealed all anti-slavery resolutions. In 1844, the Methodist began splitting over the issue of slavery as southern pastors claimed they had the legal and moral right to enslave others. When the clergy of the South caved to social pressures, they stopped discussing the abolition of slavery, labeling that to be a legal or political issue to be decided by voters and legislators.

The pastors contented themselves with focusing on the spiritual needs of the slave. The Pastor Basil Manly reflected this shift of thought. As a college Senior in 1821, he said, “Slavery was an evil under which this country has long groaned.” By 1837, he had changed his convictions, acquired his own slaves, and concluded that “God has made you their masters…their guardians…of their lives and happiness.” When asked about selling his slaves, Manly responded, “I had no more doubt or compunction [about it] than in pocketing the price of a horse or anything else that belongs to me.”

In short, the defense of slavery was birthed not from notions of Christian nobility but from the abuses of the capitalism. The State of Mississippi cast aside all ambiguity on the issue aside when it justified its secession from the Union with these words:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth….and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.

Instead of immortalizing honor, nobility, justice, liberty, and the Christian faith, the Confederacy epitomized the dangers of nominal Christianity, racial prejudice, and unrestrained greed.

Even when judged by its internal standards, the story of the Noble South lacked coherence. Before the Civil War, Thornwell had proclaimed, “God will vindicate.” God did. The South lost. The North won.

The Way Forward

The men and women of the South should not be judged for failing to live up to today’s standards of morality. The men and women of the North could not meet those standards. Where they alive today, modern society would condemn most of them as racists.

But the story of the “Lost Cause” should be judged the against of the standard of empirical observation. When compared to the historical record, the story of the “Lost Cause” becomes almost nonsensical. It has ignored large swaths of the historical record constructing a story that fails both to consider and explain the past it seeks to promote.

Lee knew this story had come to a disappointing end. When a civic group seeking to construct Civil War memorials approached Lee for help, the retired general reaffirmed his position on the subject. He wrote,

I think it wiser, moreover, not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.

In this respect, the South should follow Lee and accepted the defeat of the “Lost Cause” narrative.

To better understand the past and how to achieve both cultural and ecclesiological peace going forward, the Southern Christians needs to embrace a new narrative complete with new conclusions. The South needs a new story.

Are we ready?

Keep Going

If you wish to keep exploring this topic, I encourage you to read the three sources below, starting with the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Report on Racism and Slavery. Almost two years ago, my southern pride was turned upside down by this report stuffed with quotes. I think you will find it insightful, especially if you are a Baptist. https://www.sbts.edu/southern-project/

I encourage you to read P.H. Mell’s defense of slavery to gain an understanding of how White Supremacy shaped the Antebellum church and has continued to shape parts of evangelicalism: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1429723483/ref=ppx_yo_dt_b_asin_title_o02_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1

I encourage you to read Frederick Douglass’s account of being a slave as it reveals the horrors of the institution: https://www.amazon.com/Narrative-Frederick-Douglass-American-Slave/dp/030020471X/ref=sr_1_6?crid=2MY45UV58X3MV&dchild=1&keywords=fredrick+douglas+autobiography&qid=1594044913&s=books&sprefix=fredrick+dou%2Cstripbooks%2C129&sr=1-6