As sinister sounding phrases go, it is a whopper. Throughout the monuments controversy Mayor Mitch Landrieu, and the media that supported him, have made reference to something called, “the Cult of the Lost Cause.” During his speech on the day that the Robert E. Lee statue was removed, the mayor used the phrase several times, and the media dutifully followed.
Even if someone does not know what the phrase means, a “cult” for a “lost cause” sounds dastardly, clearly something that might require inoculations. What could be worse than combining the implied mystery of a cult with the hopelessness of a lost cause? Yet, it is really not as bad as it sounds, and may even have some curative qualities.
“Lost cause” arguments trace back to the early years after the war when Southern leaders were being memorialized. As frequently happens after wars, the defeated side is recalled in terms of what might have been. War recollection becomes akin to the fisherman’s tale about the one that got away.
There is, however, a key point in in evaluating wars.
CIVIL WARS ARE DIFFERENT FROM OTHER WARS AND THEIR AFTERMATH NEEDS TO BE CONSIDERED DIFFERENTLY.
Soon after the Lee statue went down, a guest columnist in the Chicago Tribune defended the removal of all Confederate monuments. He pointed out that American colonialists took away a statue of England’s King George III as their revolution intensified. George, however, was a distant despot not to be seen as part of colonial life. Civil wars are neighbors vs. neighbors; sometimes kin vs. kin; certainly familiar destinations embattled against each other. Because of the proximity of people and places there needs to be more sensitivity to the healing. London is a distant outpost; Vicksburg and Gettysburg are not,
There are now scholars who argue that the sensitivity to the Lost Cause was good, in that the statues and monuments provided the South some dignity in soothing its wounds. That, in turn, would create a stronger feeling about the nation, perhaps explaining why the South has generally tended to be the most patriotic section of the country, frequently waving the American flag even in the presence of the Confederate stars and bars,
Bruce Catton, one of the distinguished scholars of the war whose books include This Hallowed Ground and A Stillness at Appomattox, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize, argued that the Lost Cause myth helped achieve national reconciliation between North and South: “The legend of the lost cause has served the entire country very well.”
Certainly our nation was much more benevolent in its Civil War reconstruction than other countries, such as France, where the guillotine became a symbol. To the credit of the nation’s leaders, they allowed the Confederacy to be remembered but not to rule.
We are blessed that the Confederacy lost the war; otherwise the continent, and perhaps the world, would be more fragmented. Slavery might have lasted a little longer but not endured. Ultimately the social issues touched off by the evils of slavery would be fought, and won, more in the courtroom and not the battlefield. Most of all, with the South’s loss we would remain forever as united states.
We could have done better though: Imagine if the monuments had not been removed but embellished with plaques providing more context of their history. Imagine also if there was currently a community drive to create new monuments to celebrate diversity. We think there would have been strong community support, including ours. (The idea is not unique to us but we like the suggestion of establishing a monument to musical genius Allen Toussaint to be located somewhere near the Fair Grounds where the Jazz Fest is held.)
Instead, in the year leading to our Tri-Centennial, when we could have been united as a city, we were needlessly divided by cult phobia.
Our own personal cult is that of What Could Be.