Delanie Tarvin: The “Lost Cause” and Civil War Denialism

In “The Anatomy of the Myth,” Alan T. Nolan discusses Civil War denialism, specifically focusing on the “Lost Cause” perspective. Nolan outlines the claims that Lost Cause proponents make, and then explains the purpose this view serves. First, Lost Cause proponents claim that neither the South’s secession nor the war were fought to protect slavery. Nolan explains that the Lost Cause view claims “slavery was not the critical issue”; rather, the core causes were state rights, liberty, and independence that the South felt entitled to (Nolan, “The Anatomy of the Myth”). Second, they claim that it was actually the abolitionists, not the South, who provoked the war. To Confederate “revisionists,” abolitionists “virtually manufactured a disagreement between the sections that was of little or no interest to the people and had little substance” (Nolan, “The Anatomy of the Myth”). Third, they claim that the South would have given up slavery without the war on its own time. This supports their first claim that the war was not about slavery, as, if it were, the war would have been unnecessary. It also places blame on the North. Nolan explains that “from this premise, it is claimed that the war was foolish, a vain thing on the part of the North” (Nolan, “The Anatomy of the Myth”). Fourth, Lost Cause proponents revise the characterization of the slave as “faithful,” and as seeing themselves as a part of their masters’ families. Finally, Lost Cause proponents claim that the basis for disagreement between the north and south were nationalistic and cultural differences, describing Northern and Southern people as descendants from different peoples. In addition to these claims, Nolan explains that Lost Cause proponents characterize the South as being overwhelmed rather than defeated, as the “massive Northern manpower and material” made the outcome of Northern victory an unfair inevitability (Nolan, “The Anatomy of the Myth”). Further, proponents idealize Southern culture, confederate soldiers, and military leaders.

After outlining the claims and aspects of the Lost Cause version of Civil War history, Nolan explains the consequences of such a view. Nolan explains that, following the Civil War, Northerners generally accepted the South’s promotion of this view, and this led to a smoother reunification. He credits this view with the fact that, “by the mid-80s, most southerners had decided to build a future within a reunited nation” because they felt the North appreciated their “heroism and “nobility” (Nolan, “The Anatomy of the Myth”). The consequences were also negative, however, as the Lost Cause perspective also preserved the normalization of the lower status of African Americans. Nolan states that “the virulent racism that the North shared with the South, in spite of Northern antislavery views, was a premise of the Lost Cause and the principal engine of the North’s acceptance of it” (Nolan, “The Anatomy of the Myth”).

Nolan makes it clear that does not believe the Lost Cause perspective. He calls it a myth throughout the article, and he openly argues against it.  He uses primary source evidence, including quotes of Jefferson Davis and other Southern leaders to show that slavery was a primary cause of the South’s secession. He also uses secondary sources, citing multiple historians and explaining their views on the Lost Cause. Nolan focuses on the cultural history of the South (both past in present) when explaining the reasons people promote the Lost Cause perspective.

Nolan presents an informative and strong critique of the Lost Cause perspective. Nolan clearly disagrees with Lost Cause proponents and his article is argumentative rather than purely historiographical; however, he justifies his argument with ample primary and secondary source evidence. He uses this evidence to show the errors in the Lost Cause perspective. The article’s strong evidence and organization allows the reader to understand both the Lost Cause perspective and Nolan’s reasons for rejecting it.


Word Count: 591

Source: Nolan, Alan T. “The Anatomy of the Myth,” In The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History. by Gallagher, Gary W., and Alan T. Nolan. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed October 31, 2017).


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