When White House Chief of Staff John Kelly told the Fox News host Laura Ingraham that the Civil War was caused by the “lack of an ability to compromise,” that the war was fought by “men and women of good faith on both sides,” and that Confederate General Robert E. Lee “was an honorable man,” he was invoking a rosy view of the Confederacy echoing that of his boss.
Kelly was also reflecting a popular perception of the war that has persisted for decades, largely on the strength and influence of an organized pro-Confederate propaganda campaign that has been conducted for a century. While the scholarly consensus is that the Civil War was about slavery, popular opinion has not entirely caught up. The Lost Cause campaign was so successful that perhaps the most widely seen piece of popular history related to the Civil War, Ken Burns’s 1990 PBS documentary of the same name, retains elements of its narrative.
“Basically, it was a failure on our part to find a way not to fight that war. It was because we failed to do the thing we really have a genius for, which is compromise,” the historian Shelby Foote says in Burns’s miniseries. “Americans like to think of themselves as uncompromising. But our true genius is for compromise. Our whole government’s founded on it. And it failed.” Burns’s documentary similarly describes Lee as a reluctant rebel and a “courtly, unknowable aristocrat, who disapproved of secession and slavery, yet went on to defend them both at the head of one of the greatest armies of all time.” In The Civil War, the companion book to the documentary co-authored by Burns, the documentary's co-writer Geoffrey Ward describes Lee as someone who "never owned a slave himself."* In truth Lee opposed neither slavery nor secession, and owned slaves he inherited from his father-in-law, whom he only freed under court order.