The Civil War, then and now: 'The Myth of the Lost Cause'


By Samuel Damren

Historian and attorney Edward H. Bonekemper III’s recent book, “The Myth of the Lost Cause,” is noteworthy for two reasons.  First, it is a comprehensive refutation of the fabricated reasons, known as the “Lost Cause,” for the Confederacy’s defeat in the Civil War.  Second, though not discussed by Bonekemper, because the recipe for creating this myth also underlies the “Big Lie” – that Trump won the 2020 election.

According to Bonekemper, the myth of the Lost Cause has several components, including, that slavery in the Confederate States was a benevolent institution but in decline when Northerners provoked the Civil War, that the protection of State’s rights (not slavery) was the driving reason for secession, that (but for Gettysburg) General Robert E. Lee would have overcome incredible odds to win the war for the South, and that General Ulysses S. Grant was an incompetent drunken butcher who sacrificed his troops in greater numbers than his adversaries to win a war of attrition.

As Bonekemper establishes in thorough detail, these components and all the other components of the myth of the “Good Cause” are demonstrably false.

This commentary is the first in a four-part series titled, “The Civil War, Then and Now.”  Based on the Bonekemper book, this commentary examines the contrasts between General Lee and General Grant, as commanders in the Civil War, and then shifts focus to conflicting views on the treatment of monuments of General Lee in today’s political environment.

Contrary to “The Myth of the Lost Cause,” General Lee was not a brilliant commander and strategist.   Instead, according to Bonekemper, he squandered many military advantages that the Confederacy had at the onset of the war.  In contrast, General Grant was actually the very model for the modern military  commander in his approach to strategy, tactics and decisive but flexible decision-making.

Propagandists of the Lost Cause claim that from a military perspective, the Confederacy was doomed  from the start as a result of Northern industrial might and superior troop numbers.  But, as Bonekemper persuasively explains, those facts were more than offset by the different strategic challenges facing the respective armies.  In order for the United States Army to win the war, it would be required to invade and conquer the South.  In order for the Confederate Army to win the war, it did not have to invade the North, much less conquer it. 

The land mass of the Confederacy was close to the size of Europe.  As a result, conquering the South was a considerable challenge for any army of the time.  This challenge was made even greater by technological advances in armaments and explosives during and after the Napoleonic Wars.  With those advances, frontal assaults on fortified positions became almost impossible even where defenders were significantly outnumbered.  With these advantages, all the Confederacy had to do to win the Civil War was dig in, protect vital positions across an immense territory and wait for Yankee resolve to wane.

In Bonekemper’s view, General Lee was a regional commander who never left Virginia except for ill-advised incursions into the North.  He repeatedly refused to help fellow Confederate commanders in other critical regions of the conflict; and, in fact, at high cost to the Confederacy often convinced  Jefferson Davis to draw down troops in those areas to lend greater support to Virginia.

Propagandists of the Lost Cause, point to Lee’s purported successes against United States armies that outnumbered his troops while claiming that Grant steamrolled Confederate positions only because of numerical advantage.  The facts set forth by Bonekemper in “The Myth of the Lost Cause” are  decidedly otherwise.

Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis agreed on one thing in their respective assessment of military  strategy in the Civil War: Vicksburg, Miss., the point on the map that controlled traffic on the Mississippi River to and from the Gulf of Mexico was the strategic linchpin of the entire conflict.  If the South could defend Vicksburg, they would win.  Whereas, if the United States Army took Vicksburg, they could split the Confederate forces in half and control all commerce and shipping for the entire length of the Mississippi River.

The overall campaign leading to the Battle of Vicksburg began in late March and ended early July 1863.  When he began the campaign, the U.S. General who directed it faced Confederate troops in equal number to his forces.  Vicksburg and surrounding forts and cities were strongly fortified and protected by heavy artillery.  Reinforcing troops for the U. S. Army were hundreds of miles away when the U. S. General chose to separate his army into different attacking and diversionary forces to confuse the enemy.

Against long odds and through a series of flawlessly executed and daring decisions, the U.S.  General secured the unconditional surrender of Vicksburg on July 3.  In the overall campaign, Confederate Army casualties far outnumbered U.S. Army casualties. The U.S. General was Ulysses S. Grant. The Battle of Vicksburg is cited by Princeton historian James M. McPherson as “the most brilliant and innovative campaign of the Civil War.”  

That was the Civil War 150 years ago when military combat raged across the United States.   But what, if anything, does it have to do with the political civil war polarizing the United States today?  One need only look to the differing perspectives of political adversaries regarding whether monuments to General  Lee and other “heroes” of the Confederacy rightfully belong in public squares today.  Democrats and many others, including notable Republicans, recognize that these statutes are an affront and continuing act of oppression to African Americans.

In a three-paragraph “Statement by Donald J. Trump, 45th President of the United States of American” on September 8, 2021, excerpted in part, Trump disagrees – Just watched as a massive crane took down the magnificent and very famous statue of “Robert E. Lee On His Horse” in Richmond, Virginia … Robert E. Lee is considered by many  Generals to be the greatest strategist of them all.  President Lincoln wanted him to command the North, in which case the war would have been over in one day.  Robert E. Lee instead chose the other side because of his great love of Virginia, and except for Gettysburg, would have won the war ... If only we had Robert E. Lee to command our troops in Afghanistan, that disaster  would have ended in a complete and total victory many years ago …”

Even novice political writers know that when a politician writes or voices high regard for a historical  figure, the intent is for the audience to liken the politician to the historical figure.  Here, to liken the  “magnificent and very famous” Robert E. Lee to the “magnificent and very famous” Donald J. Trump. But, there is a lot more going on in the former President’s September 8 statement than narcissism.

Donald Trump began seriously seeding the underpinnings for the myth of the “Stolen 2020 election” as the present-day version of the myth of the “Lost Cause” when the only candidate he truly feared, Joe Biden, became the Democratic frontrunner with heavy support from African American voters.  From Trump’s perspective, which he drumbeat for months, the 2020 election would only be legitimate if he won; and, if Biden won, could only be the product of fraud.

When Trump later lost the November voter count, his supporters launched scores of unsuccessful lawsuits to overturn the result.  The factually baseless allegations targeted voter count in minority communities, including Atlanta, Detroit, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Phoenix.

Trump supporters next engaged – as a seemingly last-ditch effort to prevent a Biden presidency – in the  violent January 6, 2021 insurrection then entertained fanciful notions that Trump would somehow be restored to power on August 13, 2021.  Trump encouraged and incited these efforts. Today, future  attempts to spin the “Stolen 2020 election” to victory rest with a possible 2024 campaign. 

The next commentary in this four-part series will examine parallels between the underpinnings of the  myth of the “Lost Cause” and Trump’s drumbeat accompanying the “Big Lie.”

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