How the Lost Cause Myth Led to Confederate “Monument Fever”

What caused the South to start building Confederate monuments long after the end of the war?

Robert E. Lee's statue is lifted off its pedestal by a crane

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Most Confederate monuments in the U.S. were not erected by the Civil War generation to honor their dead. Instead, they were built almost two generations later. What was the cause of this “Monument Fever” that bloomed in the early 1900s, long after the end of the war?

Chart showing when, and how many, Confederate statues went up.
Chart showing the number of Confederate monuments, schools and other iconography by year created. (Volunteer Marek, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license / Wikimedia Commons)

Few Confederate monuments appeared in the South in the years following the war because of the poverty that the war had brought and the reluctance of southerners to put up statues honoring Confederate heroes while federal troops were still stationed in their states.

Southerners of the late 1860s were more concerned with their personal losses, tending the graves of loved ones and struggling to put their own lives back together. In time, though, the economy revived and more southerners could afford monuments that recalled the Confederate dead and their cause.

In 1894, Caroline Meriwether Goodlett and Anna Davenport Raines founded what would become the United Daughters of the Confederacy. They wanted a group that would tell of the Confederacy’s “glorious fight” and keep the memory of its soldiers alive. The UDC denied that it promoted white supremacy, but it strongly supported the memory of the original Ku Klux Klan and actively supported its revival. As late as 2018, the Daughters’ website declared “slaves for the most part, were faithful and devoted. Most slaves were usually ready and willing to serve their masters.”

Eighteen-ninety-four was a year where the reassuring past seemed to be fading away. The country was in a deep recession. Organized labor was staging strikes in major industries. Disruptive technology, in the form of the telephone, was heralding unexpected change. The Civil War was falling out of living memory; many of its famous veterans had already died. Older southerners were concerned the next generation would only know of the war what they learned from the unsympathetic accounts in northern schoolbooks.

The United Daughters wanted to preserve a history that centered on “The Lost Cause”: an interpretation of the war that gave a nobility to the Confederacy’s cause and its defeat.

The Cause involved far more than defending the property rights of slave holders. The South, it asserted, was defending its culture against the North’s influence — a defense of Christianity, social order, and states’ rights.

The Lost Cause emphasized the stories of noble, chivalrous warriors — the type of people who belong on a pedestal. It presented the antebellum South as a land of gracious, cultured living. And it opposed anything that would upset the traditional racial, political, and industrial status quo. It also kindled resentment against the North over what had been lost in the war.

But the narrative of the Lost Cause omits, minimizes, or mis-remembers the most troubling aspects of the war. Professor of History of the Civil War at the University of Virginia Caroline E. Janney calls the Lost Cause as “an important example of public memory, one in which nostalgia for the Confederate past is accompanied by a collective forgetting of the horrors of slavery.”

Henry Louis Gates describes the Lost Cause as “a brilliantly executed propaganda campaign that successfully changed the narrative of the cause of the Civil War from freeing the slaves to preserving states’ rights and a people’s noble way of life.”

The Lost Cause, and the appeal to southerners’ pride, proved successful to the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Between 1900 and 1917, membership grew from 17,000 to 100,000. The Daughters sought to raise awareness of the Lost Cause and to preserve southern virtues by choosing textbooks for schools that best represented their version of the Civil War. But their chief focus was on the construction of Confederate monuments.

In 1907, Goodlett told the United Daughters that, in hindsight, she’d envisioned something for the organization beyond raising statues and funding memorials. She had waited for “the monument fever to abate” so the organization could take on a more important goal. The greatest monument the Daughters could build in the South, she added, “would be an educated motherhood.” But the year that Goodlett made her comments, monument fever was an all-time high and wouldn’t slow for another decade.

Today, about 700 monuments honoring the Confederacy, its soldiers and its statesmen, can be found in 31 states and D.C., though the Confederacy only incorporated 11 states. Given when almost all were built, they are not so much memorials of the 1860s as tributes of the twentieth century to honor a version of southern history that’s goal was to, as Mayor Landrieu put it, “rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity.”

Featured image: Statue of Robert E. Lee is removed from its pedestal on May 17, 2017 (Abdazizar, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license, Wikimedia Commons)

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Comments

  1. Corwin amendment?

    If truly about slavery then why wasn’t the emancipation proclamation not issued in 1861?

    Why was no Confederate convicted of treason?

    Why did the north continue to enforce fugitive slave laws?

    Why did the north continue to keep their slaves even after the war?

    Would 6 million men die to free them today. If Lincoln was such a great president why not a political solution?

    Being a railroad lawyer did he continue the tariffs in the south to finance his cronies?

    This war was fought because of. Manifest destiny. Anything that stood in Lincoln’s way was obliterated.

    Want proof? After Sherman raped the south he turned on the American Indian destroying the buffalo and annihilating native americans!

    In 1869 a golden stake was driven into the ground to join east and west railroads. with the south and the American Indian being driven into the ground before it.

    Read and understand your history. Ask why? Come to your own conclusion. The end of slavery was a good result but not the cause

  2. I enjoyed this article about the Civil undignified War. I have learned much, only to wet my appitite for the untold Truth surrounding the war and aftermath.
    Good to know the Monuments may be Grave markers or Headstones for some. Why doesn’t the media present this explanation? Thank you

  3. And in case the previous comment is not enough, here is more from the Constitution of the Confederate States.

    Article I, Section 9, Clause 4 prohibited the Confederate government from restricting slavery in any way:

    “No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.”

    And, Article IV, Section 3, Clause 3 legalized slavery in all future territories conquered or acquired by the Confederacy:

    “In all such territory the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress and by the Territorial government; and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories shall have the right to take to such Territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the States or Territories of the Confederate States.”

  4. Look at what the leaders of the Confederacy said AT THE TIME and there is no doubt about the reasons for the war. To deny that the reason for the Confederacy was to uphold and protect the the institution of slavery is to deny reality.

    This is from the Confederate constitution:

    “In all such territory the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress and by the Territorial government; and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories shall have the right to take to such Territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the States or Territories of the Confederate States.”

    And:

    “Sec. 9. (I) The importation of negroes of the African race from any foreign country other than the slaveholding States or Territories of the United States of America, is hereby forbidden; and Congress is required to pass such laws as shall effectually prevent the same.”

    And this is from the Texas declaration of secession:

    “We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.”

  5. Was the war about slavery or not?

    Here’s how to answer that:

    Pretend that slavery did not exist.

    Would there have been a Civil War?

    Over what?

    The rights of states to do…what?

  6. Time marches on, one hundred fifty five years have passed since the end of the War between the States. As a lifelong Southerner who was told tales of deprivation and poverty following the Civil War by my grandmother who was steeped in an oral history passed down to her from her grandparents, the time since the War between the States can be counted in generations. The impact on past and current generations of true Southerners can still be felt in the continued poverty and lack of job opportunities of the Deep South to this very day. The question of why was there a surge in memorial statues 40-60 years following the War can be answered simply, many who fought for the South died far from home and were buried in unmarked mass graves all across the country. At the time of their raising, these Confederate memorials were considered grave markers for the lost soldiers who never came home. It took fifty years of economic growth for communities across the South to properly memorialize their lost ancestors. In my opinion the mass removal of Civil War memorials is tantamount to grave desecration.

  7. A concentration camp is not a statute. They were not built after the fact. Germany did not build statues of Hitler a generation after the war

  8. Not all history is about unicorns and rainbows. You should learn from it not destroy it. Place another monument beside the Confederate one of an agreed upon African American. Just as Germany didn’t tear down concentration camps. it’s a sad part of history that shouldn’t be forgotten.

  9. The reference to “eighteen-sixty-four” instead of 1894 was a typographical error.

    The “unsympathetic… northern schoolbooks” were already propagandizing the causes of the war 30 years after to justify the war. They left out many details, such as the fact that nearly half a million people remained enslaved in the Union states for over two and a half years after it was abolished by executive order in the Confederate states by President Lincoln, and almost eight months after the actual end of the war that was supposedly fought “to end slavery.” Northern states didn’t end their own slavery until December, 1865 with the ratification of the 13th Amendment.
    History is written by the conquerors.

    Today, slavery is considered to be about race instead of about economics. I feel sure that if the “slave-owners” could have run their businesses more profitably by hiring free-men, they would have done so. Furthermore, consider the race of the people who supplied nearly half a million African slaves to the future USA, and nearly 12 million sent to the rest of the “New World”… their fellow Africans. The only colors they saw were “Gold” or “Green”, not black and white.

    There are different perspectives to the issue, and demeaning someone else’s as a “myth” is to deny them their 1st amendment rights to believe differently from yourself.

    Personally, I don’t think it was a “Civil War” in respect that it wasn’t a fight to take control of the entire country. Nor was it very civil to wage war on the civilian population (a “war crime” by modern standards) as was done late in the war by the Union forces. In the North, it was known as “The war of the rebellion” and in the South it was “The war of Northern aggression”, and looking at it from each perspective… they were both correct.

  10. “ Eighteen-sixty-four was a year where the reassuring past seemed to be fading away. ”
    Is this a missed edit? The civil war didn’t end until 1865.
    An interesting article, I had always wondered how monuments were afforded, by whom and what drove the community to want to memorialize such a painful time and cause.
    Thank you for answering such interesting questions we have hundreds of years later.

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