One Man’s Opinion

Dick Nicholas

Volume 16, Number 4
April 2008

The historiography of Southern history is a fascinating subject, almost as much so as the history of the South itself. Through every generation, various historians have sought to define and explain Southern history, and by extension, its ultimate expression in the Confederacy and the origins of the Civil War. (I prefer the term “The War for Southern Independence,” but that’s a topic for another day.)

It is safe to say that today the dominant paradigm of the Civil War in much of academia and within the cultural elite emphasizes the issues of slavery and race, and insists that the basic motivation of the war was to end slavery. But this perspective was not always dominant. It gained strength in the second half of the twentieth century and resulted in the decided shunning of any suggestion that there may have been other root causes for the conflict, or (gasp!) that traditional Southern culture may have had some virtues. Way back in 1969, Frank E. Vandiver, one of my favorite historians of the traditionalist mode, saw the handwriting on the wall. He wrote, “Currently the tide of historical interpretation is running against the Confederacy,” pointing to scholars’ avoidance, even then, of defending the Confederacy. Somewhat plaintively he noted “that even Southern historians have shied away from a positive approach.” Certainly this is even more apropos today with the ascendancy of political correctness in our culture. They plead for diversity, but will only tolerate conformity in thought.

It is somewhat comforting however, to look back on history, and note that historians’ viewpoints, emphases, and interpretations tend to shift from one generation to the next. Furthermore, even in the midst of today’s political and cultural orthodoxy, there remains a significant public countermovement that focuses on the war itself rather than on its ideological causes and effects. This probably explains the growing popularity and proliferation of roundtables, fraternal organizations, re-enactor events, books, and magazines, etc.

Another focus of many of the current crop of Civil War historians and fashionable sycophants is the emphasis on the “Lost Cause.” Modern prevailing sentiment suggests that post-Civil War Southerners spent all their waking hours in the later decades of the 19th century inventing history and creating heroic myths about the war and the leaders of the Confederacy—all intended to distort the facts and demonstrate the righteousness of the South’s “Lost Cause.”

Even Robert E. Lee foresaw the inevitable controversies involving future historical accounts of the war when he explained his own efforts to write the history as he knew it: “I want the world shall know what my poor boys, with their small numbers and scant resources, succeeded in accomplishing.” No myth, no falsehood, no “Lost Cause,” he was only determined that the “world understand the odds against which we fought.” I am reminded of a recent biographer of George Washington who concluded that the reality of the man even exceeded the myths that had been created about him. Maybe the next generation of Civil War historians might reach a similar conclusion about Lee and the Confederacy.

Fortunately there are still a few lonely historians around to offer counter-viewpoints to the prevailing orthodoxy about the “Lost Cause.” Bob Krick, for example, sees things differently. He doesn’t question the fact that old-age memories are often flawed, but suggests that this is a common characteristic of all of us, and especially of soldiers of every war—”Won Causes” as well as “Lost Causes.” In fact, says Krick, the insistence that Southerners engaged in a conscious conspiracy probably tells us more about authors who espouse that point of view than it does about the old vets themselves. Amen! I can hardly wait to hear his talk on the “Myths of the Won Cause.”