If you are trying to get a better understanding of what all the fuss is about Confederate statues in America, I recommend reading Adam Domby’s “The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory.” The book’s title is a play on the term “Lost Cause,” which is a narrative about the Civil War. Domby explains how the Lost Cause view came about and how memorials to the Confederacy fit within it, tying in today’s political divide in America.
After losing the Civil War, the Union left soldiers throughout the South and implemented “Reconstruction” with a key goal of providing basic rights to ex-slaves. African Americans made remarkable progress for about 20 years, until the contested election of 1876, when Republicans traded the removal of federal troops from the South for Republican Rutherford B. Hayes being awarded the presidency. Southerners quickly worked to remove rights African Americans had gained.
Key to removing their rights was the need to rebrand the Confederacy’s Civil War effort as not an actual defeat but heroism against overwhelming odds and a moral victory. They rebranded the Confederacy’s war effort as “the Lost Cause.” Domby provides extensive research and evidence to show how the Lost Cause was entirely a fabrication, augmented with exaggerations and fraud, and how it provided the necessary ideological support to reestablish white supremacy throughout the South.
Domby gives many examples of how the term “white supremacy” was common language in political platforms throughout the South. To be called a white supremacist was not an insult to a 1900 Democrat; it was a party platform. It was a requirement for election. It was bluntly and openly promoted in speeches, at rallies, as well as at the unveiling of new statues to honor the Confederacy. White Southerners reclaimed victory through the reestablishment of white supremacy. The Lost Cause narrative shaped the 20th century.
Domby details the key elements of the Lost Cause narrative, then provides extensive evidence to refute each claim. The first element is that Confederate soldiers were the greatest soldiers in history and only lost due to overwhelming resource advantages of the Union states. Debunking a “heroism against great odds” tale, Domby counters with extensive data, including the high rates of Confederate desertion.
Next is the claim of total commitment throughout the South to the war effort. In actuality, many Confederate soldiers only fought because they were conscripted. West Virginia seceded from Virginia to join the North. White Southerners actually contributed over 100,000 men to the Union army — and 180,000 African Americans, most from the Confederate States, fought for the North.
The third major claim — that the war was not a fight over slavery, but rather for “states’ rights” and a struggle for liberty —Domby calls the most obvious lie. This ties with the fourth claim: that slavery was benevolent and slaves enjoyed their station in the South, so much so that the Civil War and reconstruction upset a natural racial hierarchy. This claim that slaves had it good conveniently ignores many horrific elements of slavery, including branding, whipping, permanent separation of children from their parents and the sale of sex slaves. The Lost Cause narrative projects that slaves knew their station and were happy to stay there. Domby writes, “Slavery was a brutal system of exploitation dependent upon torture.”
The fifth key element of the narrative is that Confederates were not actually traitors to the Union and should be remembered as heroic defenders of American principles, such as white supremacy. Domby says the Lost Cause “provided a foundation on which southerners built the Jim Crow system,” as well as modern white supremacist ideology. It enforces the myth of a solid white South, and white supremacy as a seemingly ordained historical narrative. It justified segregation, disenfranchisement of Black voters and racial discrimination.
Domby describes how the vast majority of the Confederate statues and memorials were erected during this period. They were tools to celebrate the post-war success of reestablishing white supremacy. The statues served to teach future generations a whitewashed past with invented memories. Today, many Americans do not understand the true purpose of these statues.
A key character of Domby’s book is Julian Carr, who was the main speaker at the 1913 unveiling of a monument named “Silent Sam” on the University of North Carolina campus. Public opinion in favor of the removal of this statue only recently gained support when it was revealed that in his dedication speech, Carr repeatedly stressed the need for white supremacy and told a story of how he horse-whipped a “negro wench” for insulting a white woman. Carr declared that “slavery at the South was the gentlest and most beneficent servitude mankind has ever known,” and claimed that it was never too late to correct the mistake of granting negros the vote.
The Lost Cause narrative achieved its goals. White supremacy was reestablished in the South. Even today, 48% of Americans believe the Civil War was “mainly about states’ rights,” while only 38% think slavery was the main cause. Efforts to disenfranchise Black voters continue today. Domby writes that “Unrelenting, uncritical defense of all things Confederate often helps provide a historical justification for ignoring institutionalized racism, disparities in opportunities, and continued discrimination.” It provides a crutch for white claims of reverse discrimination that we hear today.
Domby, who teaches history at the College of Charleston, warns, “lies have been used to justify disenfranchisement, oppression, killings, terrorism, and racist policies in the past, and they will be used so again” and closes the book with “fabricating a past with lies and fraud might just be an essential component of American history.”
Although I found “The False Cause” quite disturbing, I also found it an essential read for everyone in America today, but especially for a white man like myself.
Read more in the Mar. 3-9, 2021 issue.