The Apologists and Their Lost Cause

(aka: Bullshit!)

“If I was audacious, I couldn’t hold a candle to the “apologists” who championed the “Lost Cause.”

For better or for worse, Custis never forgot me.  There’s nothing I would have liked more than knowing he lived a happy life, but alas, it wasn’t to be.  To start off, the Federals turned his family estate, Arlington, which was to be his inheritance, into a war cemetery.  He taught at the Virginia Military Institute in the years following the war, and then served as president of Washington and Lee University—succeeding his father, who died in 1870.  But while his father had excelled in the role, Custis’s heart was never in it. He descended into alcoholism, and suffered from the same dreadful arthritis that crippled his mother at an early age.  Who knows, maybe the physical pain drove him to drink.

Still, as if he hadn’t already proven his loyalty, Custis managed to pay a visit to my grave in 1910.  He was an old man, almost 80 years old (which in 1910 was old!), and he travelled all the way down to my gravesite in Jacksonville, Alabama, just to give me a telescope as a present. “Why a telescope?” you ask.  Well, he remembered that I was interested in astronomy, and especially comets. He’d heard that Halley’s Comet was nearing the earth again in 1910, just as it does every 75 years, and he wanted to make sure I could see it.  Can you imagine—he remembered me telling him that I’d left my telescope at West Point when war broke out and he was determined to replace it prior to the comet making itself visible in the night sky. A lot of silly fools thought the comet meant the end of the world was at hand (just as they’ve assumed about all the great comets throughout history), but needless to say, the human race has gone on to threaten its own existence without any help from the heavens.

Another reason I mention Custis coming to visit is because of the laugh we shared at all the statues and monuments being erected in honor of the “Lost Cause” and its so-called “heroes.” As it happens, around 1910 was when romanticizing the Lost Cause reached its peak, although it might have been a few years later when that awful movie, The Birth of a Nation, depicted the Klan as saving the South.  Anyway, Custis’s father, General Lee, probably had more statues erected in his honor than anyone in history, with the possible exception of Jesus on the cross.

“. . . the war was a heroic fact that could not be denied, and it now seemed to him that in some strange and transcendental way the South had been gloriously triumphant even in defeat, and that he himself had played a decisive part in bringing about this transcendental victory. He was no more consciously aware of the psychic processes by which he had arrived at this conclusion than were thousands of others all over the South who, at this same time, were coming to the same conclusion themselves.  But once the attitude had crystallized and become accepted, it became the point of departure for a whole new rationale of life. Out of it grew a vast mythology of the war—a mythology so universally believed that to doubt its truth was worse than treason.  In a curious way, the war became no longer a thing finished and done with, a thing to be put aside and forgotten as belonging to the buried past, but a dead fact recharged with new vitality, and one to be cherished more dearly than life itself. The mythology that this gave rise to acquired in time the force of an almost supernatural sanction.  It became a kind of folk-religion. And under its soothing, otherworldly spell, the South began to turn its face away from the hard and ugly realities of daily living that confronted it on every hand, and escaped into the soft dream of vanished glories—imagined glories—glories that had never been. Thomas Wolfe The Plumed Knight

The Lost Cause? Pardon me while I retch vomit!

The Lost Cause is nothing but a myth portraying the Confederacy as noble and its leaders as chivalrous.  The myth conveniently omits the fact that the true cause of the war was slavery—the greed of the Cotton Kingdom and its slave-holding class.  People who still believe in the Lost Cause are euphemistically called “apologists” and accused of engaging in “historical revisionism,” but if you ask me, they’re nothing but a bunch of out-and-out lying fools.  Liars or fools, leastwise, and most likely both.

Please understand, I respected General Lee, and I’ll always owe him a debt of gratitude for dubbing me the “gallant Pelham” and making me famous throughout the South, but to my way of thinking, saints don’t slaughter tens of thousands of people on behalf of the economic interests of a bunch of greedy, power-hungry slave owners.  All his supposed martyrdom in the name of honor, his being torn between loyalty to his country and his home state of Virginia—what a bunch of bullshit! Custis, in fact, once told me, I remember the bar in Richmond and exactly where we were sitting, that the only reason his father fought for the Confederacy was because all of his family’s land—not just Arlington estate—was in Virginia.  I never let on my feelings to Custis, but it was just turnabout fair play when the Federals ended up seizing Arlington. And don’t even get me started about Southern men and their ridiculous obsession with honor!

I need to say one thing, however, on behalf of General Lee, as well as my old boss, Jeb Stuart, and probably most of the Confederate leaders who have been immortalized in stone and metal all across the South.  And that is this: I’m fairly certain that most of those men—putting aside that pyschopath Nathan Bedford Forrest and his cronies, who helped start the Klan in the first place—wouldn’t be very pleased with all the evil that was committed in their name during Jim Crow, or since.  It’s true they all succumbed to fighting for an evil cause, as did I, but I can’t imagine them putting on white hoods, burning crosses, and killing innocent people like the Klan did. In particular, I remember the Klan going through their gruesome rituals beneath that huge carving of Davis, Lee and Jackson on the side of Stone Mountain outside of Atlanta.  If it was their intention to honor their heroes’ memory, they’ve done them no good.

That’s something I’ve never been ever to reconcile for myself.  On the one hand, as I said before, I firmly believe it was the slaveholding class that was responsible for the war and its destruction, not the common man who did most of the fighting—and dying.  In other words, a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight, as the saying went at the time. But then, after the war, something happened that caused those poor, common men to think the fight for slavery had been their own, and they were willing to do anything to keep the blacks in their place—as lesser beings who weren’t equal to even the poorest, lowliest white person.  And the greatest, saddest irony, of course, is how, judging from their behavior during Jim Crow, they were willing to sink to any level to prove they were better than the Negroes. Anyway, I dare say those men up on the side of Stone Mountain have had frequent cause to vomit in their graves as well.

Maybe James Baldwin was right—the rest of us can’t be free until THEY are free.