Monday, May 13, 2024

Booknotes: The Limits of the Lost Cause

New Arrival:

The Limits of the Lost Cause: Essays on Civil War Memory by Gaines M. Foster (LSU Press, 2024).

From the description: Gaines Foster's The Limits of the Lost Cause: Essays on Civil War Memory is "a collection of essays that challenge the prevailing ways of thinking about the impact of the Civil War on the American South." In Foster's introduction he discusses what he sees as the two main patterns that emerged in the interpretation of Civil War remembrance in the South. His "introduction provides a comprehensive overview of scholarship on the Lost Cause and Civil War memory that highlights the emergence of two ways of thinking about these topics: an older one, pioneered by C. Vann Woodward, that made a case for a southern identity shaped by defeat and guilt; and a more recent one, prevalent not only in current scholarship but in the press and public discussion, that suggests the South is still fighting the Civil War."

Eight essays covering a range of topics follow the introduction. More from the description: "Foster challenges Woodward's definition of southern identity in his first three essays, one of which also compares the South's response to defeat to America's response after the Vietnam War. His next four essays address diverse topics: how Civil War became the war's name and what that reveals; the promotion of racist symbolism and also a renewed nationalism in Thomas Dixon's The Clansman and D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation; an exploration of the memory of Robert E. Lee that evaluates his suitability to be a hero for today; and the white South's role in the expansion of federal power in the first half of the twentieth century."

Foster's essays challenge the interpretation, popular among many today, of the unending Civil War. Collectively, his essays "make a case for reunion and sectional reconciliation by the early twentieth century, which undermines the idea that the South was still fighting the Civil War. They also point to other lines of division within the United States, particularly between the nation's core and its periphery, in addition to the one between the North and South."

Of course, no book of this type would be complete without a discussion of the Confederate Battle Flag's place in recent public debates over historical memory and the unending Civil War. Saving that examination for the end, Foster's final essay "explores the complex divisions that have marked the fight over the public use of the Confederate battle flag over the last thirty years, making the case that the Lost Cause has had limited impact on support for the flag. Instead, Foster suggests, debates over the Confederate flag are rooted in differences in wealth and education, as well as urban-rural and deep partisan divides."

In sum: "Throughout these essays, and more explicitly in his conclusion, Foster argues that whenever one sees a Confederate flag or listens to an argument about Confederate symbolism, the temptation to talk about a continuing Civil War obscures more than it illuminates. Far more important, he suggests, is the extent of reunion and reconciliation between North and South, as well as the limits of the Lost Cause."

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