Jun 23

The Myth of the Lost Cause: Why the South Fought the Civil War and Why the North Won, by Edward Bonekemper III ★★★★

I have already read and reviewed a number of books on the civil war, including biographies of Lincoln and Sherman, as well as the magisterial biography of Grant by Ron Chernow. Those reviews can be found far below on my website. I still have on my bookshelves waiting to be read the classic (though abridged) biography of RE Lee by Freeman as well as tackling Shelby Foote’s 3 volume history of the civil war. Bonekemper, in this short volume, does an excellent though not complete work of countering the “Lost Cause” arguments of the South and present-day Southern sympathizers.

Bonekemper addresses a number of myths regarding why the civil war was fought and why the south lost. Most prominent of those myths was that the war was NOT about slavery, but mainly about other issues such as state rights. The author thoroughly dispels this myth from a number of angles. State rights were never a discussed issue until after the war. In fact, state rights were off the table when the issue of run-away slaves in northern states was brought up. The argument that the use and profitability of slaves were withering and would have been gone in a few years is countered by the increasing economic advantage of slaves as well as the demand of southern states to grow into the new territory. Bonekemper does not bring up a recent argument that issues of import/exportation taxes that were unequally affecting the south; yet, even this argument fails when doing a strictly historical examination of the export tax issues.

There were war issues. After the war, the argument went that the south could never have won the war against a numerically superior north. This statement misses the point. The south did NOT need to win a war. The north needed to win, but the south needed only to drag things out a few years, and the increasing unpopularity of the war in the north would have ended the conflict. Instead and against the advice of many generals, Lee decided to engage in a completely unnecessary offensive war, with two invasions of the north (Antietam and Gettysburg) which were both essential losses to Lee and most costly to him in terms of life and materiel lost, something that he did not have replacements for. Was Lee a great general? Was he the best general of the war? The answer is most clearly “no”. Though Lee was beloved by his troops and carried himself with an aura of aristocracy and of Christian exemplary nature, he made multiple failed decisions as a general which ultimately cost the south the war. Bonekemper details these decisions, so I will spare the current reader and encourage them to get a copy of this book and read it.

Against the apotheosis of General Lee was the charge that General Grant was a bloody, drunken hack that won the war merely by brute force. Oddly, no mention is made of the Vicksburg campaign, where Grant was at a severe numerical disadvantage on foreign territory but conducted a campaign strategy of such brilliance that he is easily identified as one of America’s greatest generals of all time. Further defense of Grant might be found in Chernow’s biography on Grant, another book very much worth reading.

Bonekemper also takes an interesting side discussion of the issue of Longstreet. The Lost Cause folk have decided that Longstreet was the cause of the failure of the Gettysburg Campaign, and thus the ultimate cause for the south losing the war. Unfortunately for this argument, this argument was NEVER raised immediately after the battle of Gettysburg, especially by Lee. It was Lee’s own incompetence, well discussed by Bonekemper, that cost the south a horrible loss. Perhaps it is because Longstreet became Republican after the war and worked to aid in the reconstruction of the south, that he was pounced on by the Lost Cause folk. Contrary to Longstreet, Lee did not end the war in an honorable fashion, but instead worked to develop the Lost Cause myth, and sink into a pity party that continues to this day about a glorious South with the noblest intentions, the most Christian of all possible cultures, but defeated by a savage, unChristian, barbarian North. Our pity is that many today still believe in the Southern myth, and fail to see that the resultant behaviors (the KKK, Jim Crow Laws, segregation, etc.) in the South have since contributed in large part to the race problems that the USA (and the world) are now experiencing.

Bonekemper’s text is heavily referenced and very well studied. One cannot fault him for conjuring up data. My only dislike for this book is its repetitious nature. His summaries, which are found at the end of each chapter and finally in the last chapter of the book, offer simple word-for-word restatements of the main points that were made. A concluding analysis would have been far more beneficial. I can heartily recommend this book; I enjoyed reading it, and it is short enough to be read in several evenings.

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4 Responses to “The Myth of the Lost Cause”

  1. Bruder Dennis says:

    Nothing is said in the review about Britain’s role in the War or how the British textile industry was supplied by the South, or that the U.S., still fresh in remembrance of the French-Indian War and the War of 1812 against the British, were not looking kindly upon this favorable relationship between Britain and the Confederacy, and how this might have influenced the treatment of the South by the North. Yet these are among the most important factors leading to the conflict going military.

    This issue of slavery, to which Lincoln in his speeches while running for President, did not oppose, was Northern virtue-signaling – a good moral cause for rallying support for the War.

    • Kenneth Feucht says:

      The book did speak of the issue of British and French demand for raw products produced mainly by the south. They did not address the issue of tariffs, which was more an issue of the 1830’s than of 1860. In this, libertarian Ralph Raico is wrong.
      Your comments regarding slavery engage the same mental gymnastics as the south. Both sides “virtue-signaled”. State rights issues were highly selective for the south, with the south opposing northern state rights to NOT return run-away slaves. Slavery wasn’t an issue because of the wish to not offend border states who were union-leaning yet had slaves, like Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri. Yet, it was clear that the burning issue was slavery. I don’t see where virtue-signaling is an issue.

      • Bruder Dennis says:

        The root cause of all modern wars, including all wars involving the United States, has been the Money Power. Britain in Canada and Spain in Mexico were at the northern and southern borders, ready to come in to the war-torn US and take it over. And who prevented them? Who saved the USA twice in its history?

        (Drum roll) … the Russian navy!
        Да здравствует Россия!

        • Bruder Dennis says:

          See my entry under your James Madison book review for details on how Russia saved the USA during the 1860s War.

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