The Lost Cause

Like every other child of the South, I grew up with the absolute certainty that the Civil War was a “war of Northern aggression” and that soldiers of the Confederacy fought (and died) in a just war. I no longer believe in the Lost Cause.

While many of the posts in this website tell stories of ancestors who fought in the Civil War, please do not confuse my interest in genealogy as somehow glorifying the Confederacy or advocacy for the secessionist movement.

I have no doubt that I would have been an ardent supporter of the Confederate cause if I had lived during that time. Women lost loved ones during the war. Some died in battle. Many more died of disease. They lost their homes and livelihoods. They watched marauding armies destroy their property and steal food that was meant to save their children from starvation. But history is not destiny.

Only 5% of Landowners in South Owned Slaves
Scholars can argue whether the actual number was 1% or 3o%, but the fact remains that slave ownership was reserved for the wealthy minority. Slaves were an expensive investment. In an age where lending (or “usary”) was relatively rare, it was common to finance the purchase of another human being. In today’s dollars, one adult slave would have cost $40,000 to $50,000 (an entire year’s salary). Large plantations contained as many as 500 slaves. It required unimaginable wealth (and debt) to finance an operation of this size. This was an investment that was out of the reach of most Southern farmers.

Wealthy Landowners Exploited Poor White Majority
Wars require soldiers. Lots of them. Before the modern era, battles were largely fought with cannons, muskets and hand to hand combat. Landowners in the South had to convince poor dirt farmers that their very existence depended on the wealth of large agricultural operations that exported most of their goods out of state. Despite the “Lost Cause” myth of a united South, there was resistance to secession. Many outside of the landholding elite, recognized that the war offered rewards to the very few.  The Twenty Slave Law exempted from military service those who held 20 or more slaves. Thus those who were most invested in secession were exempt from paying the ultimate price.

The Confederacy Could Never Support a Standing Army
Leaders of the Confederacy embraced a war that they could never win. While Union armies paid large numbers of recruits to serve as cooks, drovers, laundry workers, and other support roles, Confederate armies were supported by slave labor. Plantations sent slaves to work as personal chefs and valets to officers. Officers would pool their funds to “rent” a slave to serve their personal needs. Poor whites did not have that luxury. Confederate recruits were surprised to report to their regiment only to find that they were expected to pay for their own food and essentials. It was not uncommon for new recruits to learn that “bootcamp” did not include weapons or ammunition for training. Although the Union Army suffered similar hardships, these were large temporary. The United States of America had deeper pockets than the CSA. Poor white CSA enlistees soon learned that officers operated under different standards.  It is not surprising that desertion rates reached 40% in the Confederacy. Perhaps the greatest surprise is that desertions rates were not higher.

Slavery Devalues Human Life
It is evil to own other human beings and to treat them as cattle or livestock. Ironically, those who are most devoted to the “pro-life” cause, also seem to have a fixation with the Lost Cause movement. “Life begins at conception” unless you are owned by a Southern planter. Then it is A-OK to treat human beings life as breeding stock (forced rape) and to “cull” infants who are born with defects or an embarrassing resemblance to the female slave’s owner. Infanticide was a common practice for planters and slave traders.

United We Stand
Although the United States government attempted to support the demands of slaveholding states, appeasement was never going to work. How can the state enforce human enslavement in one jurisdiction when freedom is beaconing just a few miles away? Despite efforts to re-frame the Civil War in terms of “states rights”, every state in the Confederacy named slave ownership as their principal justification for secession. They were most concerned about their “right” to own another human being.

Five Myths About Why the South Seceded