A Controversial Museum Tries to Revive the Myth of the Confederacy’s “Lost Cause” | Smithsonian
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 Museum of Confederate History 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 $5 million, 17,000-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 them 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…