The Lost Cause Ideology and its impact on Civil War history

Analysis of the movie "Cold Mountain"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2009

15 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Lost Cause ideology and its impact on Civil War history

3 Cold Mountain as a tale of the Lost Cause

4 Conclusion

5 Works Cited

1 Introduction

150 years after the outbreak of the American Civil War, the remembrance of it remains in a way elusive. Notwithstanding the consensus among historians, who in the past generation have come to identify the institution of slavery as the definite cause of the war, the public mind still tends to deny this rationale as contemporary Americans debate a wide array of contradictory arguments instead. It is, however, more than a matter of denial. National healing respectively sectional reconciliation, as David W. Blight, a leading authority on this topic, has argued in his recent book Race and Reunion, could only be achieved at the cost of forgetting and obscuring – both the historical details surrounding the conflict and, perhaps even more important, the increasingly problematic race relations at the time and during the decades that followed. For almost the entire first century after the Civil War – up to the moment when the civil rights movements restarted the striving for equality –, (white) historians, politicians, novelists, and later filmmakers thus joined hands in the perpetuation of a biased and multi-layered collective amnesia concerning the deeper meanings of the war, emphasizing a convenient sentimental remembrance of that most transformational and traumatic moment in U.S. History.

With hindsight to this combined effort, it is hardly surprising that the average American's (that is the people outside of academia and therefore unaware of the most recent scholarship on this subject) understanding of the war nowadays is to a certain extent misguided, if not deficient. Undeniably, the source of information is a relevant factor here and it is fair to say that – much to the dismay of many academic historians – generations of Americans have been “educated” about the past by the country's most popular form of entertainment, the Hollywood motion picture. Thus, not uncommonly, contemporary American's formed perceptions of the Civil War derive rather from classic movies like The Birth of the Nation and Gone With the Wind, both powerful cultural images, than from critically acclaimed recent nonfiction books dealing with the conflict.

Over the previous decades, however, Civil War history came under scrutiny. Concurrently, revisionist historians and cultural scientists have hinted at the inherently problematic nature of the films in question and many more following over the first decades of the 20th century: These movies depict a blatantly distorted picture of that pivotal moment in American history; distorted by an incredibly tenacious and moreover distinctively racist Southern interpretation of the Civil War and its underlying reasons that emerged during the Reconstruction era and is commonly referred to as the Lost Cause. The scholarly revision of the conflict, Gary W. Gallagher argues in his lengthy up to date analysis of the Civil War movie genre Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten, certainly had an impact on Hollywood also, as the motion picture industry increasingly shunned this long obsolete Lost Cause narrative in more recent films. Gallagher's assertion eventually leads to the question, whether something as established and opaque as this ideological, cultural, and historical phenomenon can really be dismissed at will or whether recent films inadvertently and merely in more subtle ways still perpetuate Lost Cause ideology.

In the following, I will first briefly outline the origin and ensuing development of the Lost Cause, its content, and its impact on America's collective memory. Subsequently, I will analyze the recent blockbuster Cold Mountain (2003) in search of remnants of this presumed discarded ideology – a movie based on the bestselling novel by Charles Frazier of the same title (which I will not neglect entirely) that drew considerable numbers of moviegoers into the theaters. Although at first view a love movie and thus designed for a particular audience, the Civil War nonetheless serves as the story's setting. Therefore, it is interesting to speculate what lessons this and other audiences – in terms of Civil War history and remembrance – might draw from Cold Mountain.

2 Lost Cause ideology and its impact on Civil War history

The expression the “Lost Cause”, which was first popularized in Edward A. Pollard's 1866 history of the Confederacy of the same title1, denotes both a specific cultural practice and a set of arguments and ideas. Moreover, its meaning has changed over time. Consequently, it is rather difficult to determine a precise definition for the phrase. In very broad terms, David W. Blight describes it as “a mood, or an attitude towards the past”, even granting it mythical traits2, whereas Thomas L. Connelly and Barbara L. Bellows suggest it to encompass “the core of that enduring memory of southern defeat”3.

The initiators of the Lost Cause ideology were “thoroughly beaten but largely unrepentant”4 white southerners (primarily, but not exclusively former Confederate soldiers), who on the one hand grappled with the disastrous consequences as well as the collectively felt cultural trauma of their all-encompassing defeat in the Civil War5 and on the other hand continually believed in the worthiness respectively righteousness of the cause they were fighting for. Out of this desolate position, these incorrigible Confederate diehards quickly pieced together and henceforth nurtured a remarkably seamless and favorable narrative of the conflict and the historical developments preceding it while at the same time celebrating their antebellum society. By this means, Gary W. Gallagher explains, “[t]hey sought to collectively justify their own actions and allow themselves and other former Confederates to find something positive” in their “shattering defeat” and further “provide their children and future generations of white Southerners with a 'correct' narrative of the war”6. Organizations such as the Southern Historical Society, which assumed responsibility for the last-mentioned task of shaping and overseeing the historical discourse, at that point functioned as institutional foundation for the emerging movement7.

The “architects of the Lost Cause”8 constructed a consistent interpretation of the war that was grounded on four main ideas respectively recurring themes. First, they insisted that the North's overwhelmingly superior material sources and numbers simply had been too great to overcome in this gallant but from the onset hopeless fight – notwithstanding the heroism and bravery of the individual Confederate soldier, who steadfastly resisted the foreign aggressor – and accentuated the sheer magnitude of physical destruction in the South.

Second, they downplayed the centrality of slavery as a cause of the war. According to their line of reasoning, the South’s antebellum planter aristocrats had not decided to secede and establish a Confederate nation to preserve the institution of slavery but to secure nothing more than the individual and state rights granted by the Constitution. On rare occasions, where Lost Cause advocates engaged the issue of slavery, they did so to emphasize the loyalty of African Americans to their masters during wartime or to highlight the institution's inherent attainment of “Christianizing” these otherwise uncivilized beings.

Third, they canonized Robert E. Lee – who early during the war had assumed the position of the most prominent Confederate figure – as an archetypal, dutiful and blameless Christian soldier as well as military genius and at the same time as an embodiment of the virtuous Southern gentlemen transcending politics.

The fourth recurring theme of the Lost Cause interpretation of events concerned the portrayal of the home front. In this regard, its proponents made great efforts to depict the population of the South as an unified Confederate people determined to collectively – in other words not only the gallant soldiers fighting at the front, but also patriotic women and loyal slaves “at home” – resist the Yankee aggressors from the North.9 Pieced together, these for frequently recited arguments amounted to the framework of that distinctively Southern interpretation of the Civil War that proponents of the Lost Cause threw into the “contested historical landscape”10 of the time.

Over the course of time, however, the emphasis of this Lost Cause vision changed. What in the beginning had been little more than the “stubborn resistance” of a few diehards, evolved into a widespread celebration of Southern morality and culture. This development was fostered to a great extent by the prevalent repudiation of Reconstruction policy among the white Southern population11. As North and South began to move toward reconciliation in the 1880s and beyond, white Southerners, as Blight notes, “succeeded, by and large, in helping shape a national reunion on their own terms”12. Reconciliation, however, required a collective form of amnesia over the causes of the war – much to the disadvantage of African Americans. Triumph over Reconstruction was then integrated into their “narrative of Confederate heritage”13.

Henceforth, elements and assumptions of the particularly Southern interpretation of the Civil War were willingly adopted by the North.

Lost Cause ideology eventually was nationalized and “endured to haunt America into the 1920s and beyond”14 – not least because of the two immensely popular epic films The Birth of the Nation by D.W. Griffith (1905) and David Selznick's Gone With the Wind (1936)15 which embedded key aspects of the Lost Cause into popular culture. Even to this day, Connelly and Bellows argue, the culture of the South contains a subliminal “awareness of defeat, alienation from the national experience, and a sense of separatism from American ideals”16.

3 Cold Mountain as a tale of the Lost Cause

The 2003 feature film Cold Mountain, it is fair to say, has not been quite as popular as the above mentioned earlier works17. Based on Charles Frazier's bestselling novel and directed by David Minghella, the film nonetheless has appealed to large theatrical audiences – not least because of the assemblage of some highly renowned actors. It recounts, as Gallagher concisely recapitulates, the “story of a Confederate deserter's Odysseus-like trek home to North Carolina from the Virginia battlefront”18. Hinting in particular at the white female protagonists' modern attitudes and sensibilities – that is their general disdain or indifference for the war, which clearly differs from the typical Lost Cause portrayal of Confederate women –, he suggests to treat Co ld Mountain best “as a feminist antiwar film that turns almost every Lost Cause convention on its head”19.

Not taking Gallagher's assessment (per se) for granted, I will subsequently re-examine Cold Mountain in search for remnants of Lost Cause ideology. The above enumerated recurring themes and assumptions of the distinctively Southern interpretation of Civil War history will provide an adequate framework for this analysis. Furthermore, I deem it convenient to every so often take a brief comparative look at Frazier's novel. Despite his Confederate ancestry and possibly due to his academic history, Charles Frazier, as Paul Ashdown emphasizes, “professes a personal dislike for the long-cherished southern romanticism of defeat”20 – a potential indication for an absence respectively intentional repudiation of Lost Cause ideology in his novel and thus potentially in the subsequent film.

3.1 Against all odds – The Confederate military experience in Cold Mountain

The Lost Cause emphasis on the overwhelming numbers of the North and the bravery of the heroic Confederate soldier in battle receives merely peripheral treatment in Cold Mountain – in the film less than in Frazier's novel. Presumably for cinematic purposes, director Minghella has omitted21 a number of the novel's battles at the war front and on the male protagonist's way home to Cold Mountain and thus reduced possible reference points. Nonetheless, these notions are not entirely absent.

In the novel, Frazier's male protagonist Inman delineates the Battle at Fredericksburg as resembling “a dream, one where your foes are ranked against you countless and mighty”. Frustrated and disgusted by the incessant slaughter of the enemy he continues: “The Federals kept on marching by the thousands at the wall all through the day […]. [They] kept on coming long past the point where all the pleasure of whipping them vanished. [He] just got to hating them for their clodpated determination to die”22. In the film, Inman (Jude Law) recounts his war experience to the goat woman (Eileen Atkins), similarly hinting at the sheer manpower of the North: “I could be at killing for days, my feet against the feet of my enemy, and I always killed him and he never killed me”.


1 This refers solely to the American usage of the expression, not the Lost Cause of Scottish nationalism, which to a certain degree served as predecessor. See James C. Cobb. Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 62.

2 See David W. Blight Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001, p. 258.

3 Thomas L. Connelly and Barbara L. Bellows. God and General Longstreet: The Lost Cause and the Southern Mind. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1982, p. 4.

4 Gary W. Gallagher in Gary W. Gallagher and Alan T. Nolan (eds.) The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2000, p. 1.

5 For an in-depth discussion of the psychological dimension, in particular the veterans' profound sense of anguish and humiliation in the immediate aftermath of the struggle and their various ways to deal with and respond to it, see Bertram Wyatt-Brown. The Shaping of Southern Culture:Honor, Grace, and War, 1760s-1890s. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001, chapters 10-12.

6 Gallagher in Gallagher and Nolan, The Myth of the Lost Cause, p. 1.

7 See Blight, p. 261-262.

8 Gallagher in Gallagher and Nolan, The Myth of the Lost Cause, p. 1.

9 For a more detailed discussion of the above condensed treatment of the resonating themes respectively the “cornerstones” of Lost Cause ideology and their accuracy, see in particular Gary W. Gallagher. Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know about the Civil War. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2008, p. 16-24 and Gallagher and Nolan, The Myth of the Lost Cause, Introduction and chapter 1: “The Anatomy of Myth”. Further see Cobb, p. 61-66, and Blight, p. 258-264.

10 Gallagher entitled his chapter on major interpretative traditions regarding the Civil War “A Contested Contested Historical Landscape: The Civil War Generation Interprets the Conflict“. See Gallagher, Causes Won, p. 16-40.

11 As a result of the prevalent and in part violent opposition to it (for instance the terrorist tactics embraced by the Ku Klux Klan), Reconstruction policies were finally abandoned by the US government in 1877. Thus, the white South restored both political home rule and racial supremacy. See Cobb, p. 61-66.

12 Blight, p. 258.

13 Blight, p. 265.

14 Blight, p. 258.

15 For a detailed discussion of these two immensely influential films, their impact on collective American history, and their embrace of Lost Cause ideology, see Gallagher, Causes Won, p. 42-50.

16 Connelly and Bellows, p. 137.

17 According to the Internet Movie Database, Cold Mountain has so far grossed an estimated $173,013,509 worldwide. Gone With the Wind still is one of the highest-grossing movies of all times, listed with a gross of approximately $390,500,000 worldwide. Accurate numbers for The Birth of the Nation are more difficult to establish.

18 Gallagher, Causes Won, p. 81.

19 Gallagher, Causes Won, p. 81.

20 Paul Ashdown. “Savage Satori: Fact and Fiction in Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain” in David B. Sachsman (ed.). Memory and Myth: The Civil War in Fiction and Film from Uncle Tom's Cabin to Cold Mountain. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 2007, p. 209. Charles Frazier received his PhD. from the University of South Carolina – the same academic environment that above cited Thomas L. Connelly (a leading authority in revisionist Lost Cause historiography and then member of the teaching staff) belonged to. An influence on Frazier's work is hard to prove but certainly arguable.

21 Minghella not only excluded battle scenes but further substituted the battle at the Crater for another battle at Fredericksburg as the predominant fighting scene at the war front. See Gallagher, Causes Won, p. 84.

22 Charles Frazier. Cold Mountain. New York: Vintage, 1997, p. 11.

Excerpt out of 15 pages


The Lost Cause Ideology and its impact on Civil War history
Analysis of the movie "Cold Mountain"
Free University of Berlin  (John-F.-Kennedy-Institut für Nordamerikastudien)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Lost Cause, Cold Mountain, Reconstruction, Forty Acres and a Mule, the South, American Civil War, Race and Reunion
Quote paper
Alexander Unger (Author), 2009, The Lost Cause Ideology and its impact on Civil War history, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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