The ‘Lost Cause’ Version of Slavery: It’s a Wonderful Life

The Master’s House: Wish you were here.
Source for this and other images: Social Life in Old Virginia Before the War, from the University of North Carolina’s Documenting the American South website


The Lost Cause is the name commonly given to a literary and intellectual movement that sought to reconcile the traditional white society of the Southern United States to the defeat of the Confederate States of America in the Civil War of 1861–1865. Those who contributed to the movement tended to portray the Confederacy’s cause as noble and most of the Confederacy’s leaders as exemplars of old-fashioned chivalry, defeated by the Union armies not through superior military skill, but by overwhelming force. They also tended to condemn Reconstruction.

Some of the main tenets of the Lost Cause movement were that… Slavery was a benign institution, and the slaves were loyal and faithful to their benevolent masters…
Lost Cause of the Confederacy, Wikipedia

What is this ‘Lost Cause’ stuff, anyway? Those who are not into the history or historiography of the Civil War might wonder what all of the fuss is about.

The Lost Cause ‘viewpoint’ or ‘interpretation,’ simply put, is a way of looking at things – a pro-Confederate way of looking at history, which glorifies the Confederacy; tends to demonize the Union in general and certain people in the Union in particular; and marginalizes the role of slaves and slavery before and during the Civil War. This view was created after the Civil War, and aspects of it have persisted ever since.

The ways that slaves and slavery have been represented by Lost Causers in art and literature have drawn the interest of historians. In his book The Planter’s Prospect: Privilege & Slavery in Plantation Painting, John Michael Vlach’s comments that prior to the Civil War,

“When planters commissioned paintings… they opted for pictures that confirmed their own centrality and the slaves marginality, works of art that by and large managed to conceal the presence of the black majority [on plantations]. Artists who were aiming to capture the scenic beauties of an agricultural setting found they could simply ignore the armies of enslaved laborers that lived and worked on plantations. Slaves were basically painted out of the picture. What, the artists might have argued, could such a lowly, even barbaric, element contribute? Out in the fields, blacks were controlled with the lash; inside the picture frame, they could be controlled with a paintbrush.

Before the war, slaves were seen as “debased” and “detestable,” “brutish animals” that were “unworthy subject(s) for a work of art,” says Vlach. But after the war, “southern writers concentrated on rehabilitating the reputation of their region. They focused once again on the key elements of the plantation legend: fine houses, courtly white gentlemen, exquisitely gowned white ladies, bountiful harvests, and contented slaves.”

A poster child for this idyllic view of slavery is the 1897 book Social Life in Old Virginia Before the War, written by Thomas Nelson Page, with illustrations by Genevieve Cowles and Maude Cowles. As described by Mary Alice Kirkpatrick in her summary of the book,

Page devotes equal attention to the admirable inhabitants of the mansion, who reflect the moral perfection and godliness that permeate Page’s characterizations of southern aristocratic life. Having already provided a brief account of the external social structure governing the “servants” who, he indicates, are referred to as “slaves” only in legal reports, Page presents the authoritative and devoted “Mammy,” whose importance in running the house cannot be overestimated. Other honored family members include the butler and the carriage driver. These contented servants enjoy happiness and a “singular sweetness” throughout their lives.

The depictions of the “servants” are dignified, admirable and even touching. In the following image, a “mammy” lovingly gazes at the face of her young charge; as the grandfather of a one year old, it kind of got to me. But then I wondered who was raising this woman’s children or grandchildren…

In the next image, the butler is young, stout, and manly in stature, in contrast to the typical Uncle Tom-ish portrayal of butlers as older, submissive, and unintimidating. This butler, we are told, was often “severe” and “to be feared.” But how many slave masters would want their children to be afraid of a slave? Certainly this wasn’t a fear that was based on the threat of physical violence. I wonder how long it would be before the child in the picture would go from looking up at his servant, to looking down on him?

In his book, Page describes how wonderful slave life was:
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US Colored Troops Symposium in Kinston, NC – March 11-13, 2011

The Seventh Annual US Colored Troops Symposium will be held in Kinston, NC, on March 11-13, 2011. The organizers of the project consider it to be the most significant gathering of historians, re-enactors, storytellers, students and heritage travelers on the subject of the USCT.

The theme of this year’s symposium is “Civil War To Civil Rights.”

The event will be at the Hampton Inn, Kinston, NC 28501, phone number 252-523-1400.

The USCT Symposium and re-enactments are free. Award Banquet ticket fees are $25 in advance, $35 at door. Those interested in attending may register for the symposium by calling 252-523-1239 or go to and download the registration forms and seminar schedule. Exhibitors and sutlers may also call 252-523-1239 or send an email to .

More details are below.

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Colored Soldier and Family, circa Civil War

Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters
Source: Library of Congress

From the Library of Congress description of the photograph: This photo shows a soldier in uniform, a wife in dress and hat, and two daughters wearing matching coats and hats. In May 1863, U.S. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton issued General Order No. 143 creating the Bureau of U. S. Colored Troops. This image was found in Cecil County, Maryland, making it likely that this soldier belonged to one of the seven U.S.C.T. regiments raised in Maryland. (Source: Matthew R. Gross and Elizabeth T. Lewin, 2010)

More details can be found at the Library of Congress record for the photo, which is here.

This framed picture is from the Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs. You can browse the entire set of photos in this online collection by starting here.

The Confederate soldier’s view of the colored soldier, Part 2: Sketches from Prison (“De’ Bottom Rails on Top Now”)

Drawing of a US Colored Troop prison guard and a Confederate prisoner at Point Lookout, Maryland. The guard tells the prisoner: “Git away from dat dar fence white man or I’ll make Old Abe’s Gun smoke at you I can hardly hold de ball back now. De bottom rails on top now.”
Source: “Guard challenging Prisoner,” from Point Lookout Sketches


In antebellum America, and in the American South in particular, the black male slave had no honor or manhood. He was considered “degraded,” lacking any rights that a white man was bound to respect, and lacking any dignity that a white man was bound to recognize.

And then the Union decided to arm the slaves in its war against the Confederacy. And everything changed.

What a sight it must have been for Confederate soldiers to see: former slaves on the battlefield, armed, dangerous, and fighting for a different vision of the South. It was one of the Confederate soldier’s worst fears, come to life.

Imagine how much worse it must have been for a Confederate soldier to be taken prisoner, and having those former slaves as his prison guards. Now, it was the black man who was keeping the white man from freedom. Just imagine…

A USCT guard warns a Confederate prisoner, “You little Reb wid de red shirt double quick into line or I’ll pop a cap at you.” First prisoner: “Oh I’m nearly broke down.” Second prisoner (with red shirt): “Oh me! I’m nearly froze.”
Source: “On a cold night in January,” from Point Lookout Sketches


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26th Regiment USCT Flags

During the Civil War, many military units had their own regimental flags that they would carry into battle, and this was true of units in the United States’ Colored Troops. On the third day of the month, I’ll display a flag from each of those regiments – depending on my ability to find these flags through internet searches and other sources.

This is the regimental flag for the US Colored Troops 26th Regiment Infantry, New York. The motto at the base of the flag is “God and Liberty.” Source: New York State Military Museum.

These are the national colors for 26th Regiment. Source: New York State Military Museum.

According to the NYS Military Museum, this regiment was organized at Riker’s Island, New York on February 27, 1864. It served in the Department of the East to March, 1864; in the District of Beaufort, Department of the South, to April, 1865; at Port Royal, S. C., until it was honorably discharged and mustered out, August 28, 1865.

More details about the 26th USCT are at the here at Civil War

The homepage for the New York State Military Museum is here.

View all of the USCT flags on this cite to date by going here.

The Confederate soldier’s view of the colored soldier, Part 1: “the war will not be conducted in a civilized way hereafter.”

Depiction of the Fort Pillow Massacre, Harper’s Weekly, 1864

“The colored population is the great available, yet unavailed of, force for restoring the Union. The bare sight of fifty thousand armed, and drilled black soldiers on the banks of the Mississippi, would end the rebellion at once.”
President Abraham Lincoln in a letter to Tennessee Governor Andrew Johnson in March, 1863

The sight of black Union soldiers did indeed draw an intense reaction from Confederates. But it was nowhere near the kind of response that Lincoln predicted. Far from fear, the sight of black men in Union dress fostered a rage in the Confederate soldier that led to merciless – and often unapologetic – acts of violence against African Americans on the battlefield. White Confederates and black Union men became engaged in a war within a war that was constrained only by the smaller numbers of black soldiers and their combat role during the Civil War. (In the first half of the war, colored troops were less likely to do combat duty than white soldiers. This changed as the war lasted into 1865.)

As some readers may be aware, there is some debate among scholars and non-scholars about what the Confederate soldier “fought for.” The historical record provides very clear evidence that the politicians who drove the secession decision in the Deep South – the seven states that left the Union before the firing of guns at Fort Sumter – did so to protect the institution of slavery. Historian Gordon Rhea, in his essay Why Non-Slaveholding Southerners Fought, describes not so much why non-slaveholders fought, but rather, the reasons that were given by politicians, preachers, the prominent, and the press for a separate Confederate nation and the need to fight for it. All of those reasons, Rhea shows, were related to the defense of slavery, and appealed to white fears of a society overrun with free black should the Confederacy lose. We can say that the propaganda machine in the Deep South played the race/slavery card: “secession was necessary to preserve white supremacy, to avoid a race war, and to prevent racial amalgamation,” Rhea says of the arguments for the creation and defense of the Confederacy.

Did the “average” Confederate soldier accept these reasons, or have them as his own? Or was he motivated by Southern nationalism, or the basic and pressing need to protect his home from the invading Northern horde? The individual soldiers’ reasons were no doubt diverse and complex. But regardless of his own reasons, the soldier understood from his leaders that defeat would mean black freedom and equality.

But it’s one thing to talk about black freedom in the abstract; it’s another thing to see it on the battlefield. Before the war, or even in its early phases, the idea of emancipation as a consequence of defeat was just that – an idea, a concept, something that people talked about. But then the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. And now, the theoretical was the actual. In her book What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War, Chandra Manning writes “Confederates began to meet black Union soldiers in combat more frequently in 1864, which further aggravated white southern men’s sense of racial aversion. By bearing arms and mostly holding the same rank (private) as most of the Confederate Army, black troops literally presumed equal status with white southern enlisted men. ‘Damn you, you are fighting against your masters,’ howled one confederate as he faced black troops in Tennessee.”

When Confederate soldiers saw colored troops, they didn’t see black; they saw red. Historian Jason Phillips, in his book Diehard Rebels: The Confederate Culture of Invincibility, writes

The emancipation and Federal enlistment of thousands of slaves further enraged Confederates and confirmed their perception of Yankees… Emancipation and black Union soldiers verified Confederate fears that Yankees were racial fanatics…

…Rebels ridiculed Federals’ involvement with blacks. One Confederate denigrated the enemy with remarks such as, “The Yankees marched a line of battle, composed of white negroes and black negroes.” In his eyes, white northerners had descended to blacks’ racial status because of their association in a biracial army. A South Carolina soldier laughed at a dream he had in which Henry Ward Beecher and other abolitionists were “married to the blackest, dirtiest, stinkiest… negro wench[es] that can be found.” A Virginia officer wished that “all the Yanks and all the negroes were in Africa.”

Rebels’ pity and ridicule ended, however, when African Americans entered the fray. Facing black opponents implied a parity between former slaves and Confederate soldiers that many Rebels could not stomach. When Confederate soldier Nugent learned that “Lincoln demands that we treat negro soldiers upon an equality with whites,” he predicted that “the war will not be conducted in a civilized way hereafter.”

Black federal troops meant race war. Armed blacks roaming the countryside, murdering and raping whites-the nightmare that had terrified white southerners for centuries-seemed to be coming true. A soldier manning Lee’s trenches confessed that the men in his unit abruptly ended cease-fire when they realized that black Union troops had replaced white ones.

Other Rebels showed no remorse over the murdering of black prisoners at Fort Pillow. A South Carolina soldier was “glad that Forrest had it in his power to execute such swift & summary vengeance upon the negroes, & I trust it will have a good influence in deterring others from similar acts.” By killing black prisoners, Rebels revealed not only racist rage but also a chilling psychological distance from their victims. A Confederate song that celebrated Fort Pillow expressed the dehumanizing effects of war:

The dabbled clots of brain and gore
Across the swirling sabers ran;
To me each brutal visage bore,
The front of one accursed man

The reference to the Fort Pillow massacre is telling. There has been some debate as to whether there was a massacre at Fort Pillow (most believe it was), and if so, who was responsible for it (it seems to have resulted from the actions of the soldiers, and not direct orders from Confederate Major General Bedford Forrest). But at the time, many Confederates believed it was a massacre – and they celebrated it.
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