Jul 052011

The three arch-apologists — John Esten Cooke, George Bagby, and Thomas Nelson Page, all of whom were Virginians — set out to defend the antebellum society of their state from the attacks of others. They were quick to master the techniques of exaggeration and revision of historical fact. With ingenious, but, from our perspective, at times muddled logic, they attempted to justify antebellum life, even going so far as to defend slavery, which most Americans by the 1870s considered to have been a deplorable institution.

Virginia Historical Society

The winners don’t always write the history. When the Union defeated the Confederacy, when the Civil War ended and Reconstruction gave way to Redemption, the North and South needed to reconcile, if for no other reason than proximity. And so, the winners didn’t insist on framing the history of the war and what led to it. Jefferson Davis, President of the defeated Confederate States of America, wrote the history, instead.

The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government

Jefferson Davis published his defense of his own actions and those of the slave-owning interests that seceded from the Union, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, in 1881. Davis defends the Confederacy in the most exacting detail. The book is laborious and difficult to plod through. Every action must be justified. Every favorable facet of the narrative, no matter how minute, must be marshaled forward in defense of the South.

Davis was justified to point out Northern hypocrisy, particularly the North’s role in the slave trade. But in Davis’ view, slavery played a minor, tangential role in the war. The U.S. Constitution supported the Confederate response to Lincoln’s election, supported peaceful secession. The Confederates fought for their homes in a conflict caused by regionalism, not by slavery. Although Davis refused to argue the morality of slavery, or as he called it, “the merits or demerits of slavery,” he did call American slavery “the mildest and most humane of all institutions to which the name ‘slavery’ has ever been applied.”

Davis’ book was not a resounding success — it did not spare him financial difficulties in his last years — but, with other contemporaneous writing, it set the stage for the “Lost Cause” mythology of the Civil War. The “Lost Cause” mythology paints the Confederate as a noble planter, responding to the aggression directed at his home. Despite being outnumbered and out-gunned, he bravely fights on. And slavery, slavery was a benign institution, part of the natural order of things; an institution that provided for black people’s well-being owing to the deep bonds of affection between slave and master – a view through lavender glass, framed by lace curtains.

Watch the fine lecture by David Blight, Professor of American History at Yale, on the rise of the “Lost Cause” mythos, among other topics.  Blight suggests pieces from this version of the history even find their way into Ken Burns’ epic documentary.

Jefferson Davis’ version of history had some traction. Thirty years ago, I remember learning about the Civil War. I remember slavery being only vaguely involved, but Sectionalism, that’s what really caused the Civil War. And it was common wisdom that the Confederate Army fought more courageously, Lee commanded more brilliantly, and the Union prevailed only through an immigrant-as-cannon-fodder strategy.

Eastman Johnson's Life in the South

Uncle Essick by Rudolf Eickemeyer, Jr

Others promoted this sentimental view in media other than history accounts.

Thomas Nelson Page wrote short stories, like Marse Chan, where every slave owner was a benevolent gentleman and every slave, a happy part of the extended family. This slant found its way into visual art, music (Carry Me Back to Old Virginny, for example) and essay and memoir, like Charles D. Deshler’s brief reminiscence of a trip through the South after the war. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer arguably falls within this style.

But, in this environment, against this tide of sentimental white-wash, Mark Twain writes the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.


  One Response to “Slavery’s Sentimentalists and Apologists”

  1. There is a minister here in shreveport teaching he read a book that stated that slavery would have ended if slaves have not killed the one that tried to run away. He said slaves would have free if their own have not kiled all of those that attempted to free themselves. It was the slaves fault the civil war was ffougt . He has a large church with a large amt of black members . His name is McGinnis.

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>