The Declining Significance of the Lost Cause

Kevin Levin assesses Newt Gingrich's historical novel The Battle Of The Crater which, at once, seeks to award manly honor to the black soldiers that fought there and avoid any slight toward the Confederates who massacred so many afterward:


While in one respect the desire to introduce a long-neglected story to the general public is laudable, the particular shape of this narrative raises questions related to Newt Gingrich's current run for the presidency, as well as the increased influence that black Americans now wield on all levels of political life. It is impossible to imagine a presidential candidate writing such a book 50 years ago, during the Civil War Centennial, not simply because the stories were unknown, but because African Americans did not form a crucial political constituency. 

However, increased access to voting booths following the civil rights movement not only led to broader representation in state and national government, but made it possible for African Americans to advocate more directly for a more inclusive history. This is not to suggest that the authors' stated goal for this book is disingenuous, but that the choice of subject and perspective, as well as the timing of its publication, ought not to be viewed as an accident... 

The presence of black soldiers at the Crater confirmed for slaveowners and non-slaveowners in the ranks just what was at stake in the event of Confederate defeat. The massacre of black soldiers constituted a calculated response when viewed alongside the actions of white southerners throughout the antebellum period to slave rebellions both real and imagined. 

The authors go out of their way to remove any sense of how Confederates responded to the presence of black soldiers, even going so far as to construct a fictional meeting in which Robert E. Lee encourages General William Mahone to take steps to ensure complete victory and prevent the mistreatment of captured black soldiers: "I want the full honor of war observed. Those who surrender are to be treated as proper prisoners, with respect, their wounded tended to, their officers shown the respect due their rank."

This pattern those sympathetic to the Confederacy acknowledging the sacrifice and honor of black soldiers is relatively new. Kevin's right that it's often tied into a hesitancy to see the Confederacy as it really was. But to my mind, Gingrich's novel is progress--not the ultimate solution, but progress. For a century, the Lost Cause rendition of history meant writing black people, as agents, out of it. The newer Lost Cause histories actually work to integrate black people--if speciously--often as soldiers. 

Indeed one of the strongest pieces of evidence against the black Confederate mythology is the fact that Lost Causers only discovered them in the 1960s and 1970s. Jubal Early would have laughed at the notion of a black Confederate soldier--indeed he likely would have considered such a claim an insult. But progress in history is a virus, and even those who would normally oppose that progress find themselves infected, altered, if not to the terms we would like, surely to something which could not have existed before. That's how progress work. It's the long war.

One other note: I've always had trouble making a morality play out of The Crater because it seems pretty clear that the black soldiers who fought there, themselves responding to the Fort Pillow massacre, were ready to exact revenge and ignore the laws of war and surrender. Indeed there's quite a bit of anecdotal evidence from the commanders of black regiments that that's exactly what happened in some instances. 

This is painful to write but it seems essential to ask--What do we make of men who were prepared to massacre, who were themselves massacred? Perhaps asking the question, and thinking of them in that way restores some bit of humanity. I don't need the USCT to have been the green berets. "Manly honor" isn't the point. Agency is.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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