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A Controversial Museum Tries to Revive the Myth of the Confederacy’s “Lost Cause”

The ideology has been used to whitewash slavery’s role in the Civil War for generations

Confederate Memorial Day exercises at the Confederate Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington County, Virginia. (Tim Evanson/Flickr)
smithsonian.com

It’s often said that the winners of wars are the ones who write the history books, casting their vanquished enemies in a bad light. However, they’re not the only ones with the means or motives to revise history—often, the vanquished tell their own versions, too. But while looking at history through the eyes of the defeated can provide a more nuanced view of a conflict, it can also be used to try and obscure any wrongdoing on their part as well. That makes places like the future National Confederate Museum at Historic Elm Springs complicated, to say the least.

Just last weekend, groundbreaking began on the site of the museum dedicated to continuing a long-discredited myth about the beginnings of the Civil War: the “Myth of the Lost Cause,” historian Kevin Levin writes for his blog, "Civil War Memory". To adherents of the Lost Cause, a term coined as early as 1866, the Confederacy fought to uphold the supposed virtues of the antebellum South, advanced by leaders who were "exemplars of old-fashioned chivalry, defeated by the Union armies not through superior military skill, but by overwhelming force," according to the site Civil War Journeys. Historical scholarship in recent decades has since disabused Civil War students of the merits of this ideology.

The approximately $3.5 million, 18,500-square-foot museum in Elm Springs, Tennessee, has been in the works for eight years and will also serve as an administrative space for members the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the organization spearheading the project, Jay Powell reports for the Columbia Daily Herald. However, the version of history that the SCV is trying to tell is rooted in Lost Cause mythology, instead of confronting more difficult truths. In this retelling, the South is more Gone With the Wind than Free State of Jones, casting the Confederate soldiers as trying to preserve their cherished, chivalric way of life instead of defending plantation owners' reliance on slavery to keep the local economy going.

“History has been skewed, and many times in society today many people try to make those soldiers out to be something they are not,” said Tennessee state senator and SCV member Joey Hensley said at the groundbreaking, Powell reports. “Most of the Confederate soldiers never owned slaves and didn’t fight the battle because of slavery. They fought the battle defending their homelands against an invading army.”

The Lost Cause lament is ill-conceived, however. It’s true that not every white person in the pre-Civil War South owned slaves. (In fact, only a small percentage of the population did. According to 1860 census numbers, an estimated 8 percent of families in the United States owned slaves when the South seceded.) But, as James W. Loewen writes for The Washington Post, it certainly wasn't just the slaveholding elite who fought to maintain slavery. Southerners who didn't own slaves aspired to one day become slave-owners themselves one day. They viewed the institution of slavery as the white supremacist foundation that the Southern way of life was built on. Likewise, many of the people fighting for the Union were far from paragons of virtue themselves. As PBS points out, New England's economy—with its textile factories and banking industry—was built on the back of Southern slave labor.

Casting the Confederacy as a honorable force standing strong against Northern aggressors is a willful misreading of the historical truth that the institution of slavery was at the core of the Civil War, as George Washington University professor James Oliver Horton reiterates in a National Park Service history.

“While slavery was not the only cause for which the South fought during the Civil War, the testimony of Confederate leaders and their supporters makes it clear that slavery was central to the motivation for secession and war,” Horton writes.

Looking at the letters written by Confederate leaders and in their declarations of secession from the Union makes it clear that preserving slavery was central to their reasons for trying to split off into their own country in the wake of the 1860 election. These declarations often cited Lincoln's statement that "Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free," Ta-Nehisi Coates writes for The Atlantic. ​

In recent years, other museums have popped up across the United States that present their own ideological visions as the truth, like the Creation Museum, established in 2007, which attempts to present spiritual belief as scientific fact.

There is a bright side to the story of the Lost Cause: after generations, it appears to be fading. As one reader wrote in a letter to the editor to the Columbia Daily Herald in response to Powell's article, "Maury County is at a crucial point in its economic development. I encourage readers to consider — if our concept of 'Old South Charm' relies on the racist mythology of the Lost Cause, will that not hinder Maury County’s 'New South Progress' in the 21st century?"

Editor's Note, November 8, 2016: Due to errors in the reporting in the original source, we misstated the official name of the museum, its square footage, and its estimated construction cost. Those inaccuracies have since been corrected. In addition, since publishing the story, Mike Landree, the executive director of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, responded to the story, and we asked him a few questions about the museum. Below is a condensed excerpt from his e-mail:

"Thank you for reaching out to us and I am glad to provide some additional information.

...

I think any museum is designed to challenge people to learn for themselves, not present a slanted storyline to accept without question. A museum must present facts to visitors, which may even challenge their own beliefs, so that they will want to go do their own research. We won’t tell people what to believe, but we will challenge them on what they think they know. The purpose of the museum is to tell the story of the Confederate Soldier, Sailor, and Marine and it will provide facts for everyone to make their own mind up about the war. We are excited to tell the stories of our ancestors through their own words and deeds. 

...

As far as slavery goes, every museum on the war is currently obsessed with the subject. Slavery is an important subject to study in its total as an American institution, but the politicizing of it to support modern political agendas will not be addressed at our museum. However, we will address it in the context of the political, economic, social, and constitutional atmosphere of the 1860s. We’ll address states’ rights in the context of the founding principles of our country and the Jeffersonian vs. Hamiltonian views of republicanism. Unlike other museums on the war, we’ll focus our lens through the Southerners’ eyes because their perspective, which was once placed side by side with the Northern view, is now completely absent.  If other museums refuse to provide that balance, we’ll do so. The South has maintained a particular position on the war from the very beginning…and it is not the Northern view. We’ll provide these facts and allow the individual the opportunity to make up their mind as to what they believe."

Editor's note, November 14, 2016: The posted excerpt from Mike Landree originally included a paragraph about historian Kevin Levin. To avoid confusion as to the source of the factual errors, and to prevent any misunderstanding about Levin's credentials, we have removed the pragraph.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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