Title: The Myth of the Lost Cause:
Why the South Fought the Civil War and Why the North Won
Author: Edward H. Bonekemper III
Rating: 4.5 of 5
In my high school American history book (published by Bob Jones University Press) the Civil War (always referred to as “The War Between the States”) was presented something like this: This conflict was about states’ rights flowing out of conflicting priorities in the industrial North and agricultural South. Slavery (a largely benevolent institution) had practically nothing to do with it and was a red herring brought into the narrative by the despotic, manipulative Abraham Lincoln to bolster Northern support for the unjust war. Robert E. Lee was one of the greatest generals of all time and one of the godliest men ever (second only to Stonewall Jackson in his piety) who led the South in a series of glorious victories. In the end these saintly men lost their noble cause only because Ulysses S. Grant (a profane, drunken butcher) had access to unlimited resources.
I never found this narrative believable, so I was excited when I ran across this book. In it, Edward H. Bonekemper III declares this “myth of the lost cause” to be “revisionist history” and “a tangle of falsehoods.” He vigorously backs up this assertion with solid research and well-constructed (though occasionally repetitive) argumentation.
His assertions that slavery was a brutal institution and that its preservation was indeed the primary cause of secession and the war are nearly indisputable given the primary source evidence he produces (e.g. the secession documents, the cornerstone speech, and similar primary sources from before and during the war). I would have liked to have seen him deal with the protectionist tariffs that my old history book went on about, but the evidence he did produce was damning enough without that.
Some of his analysis regarding Lee’s weaknesses as a general, Grant’s tactical acumen, and the winnability of the war for the South may be a bit more open to interpretation, but I found most of it compelling. I have seldom read a book where Lee is spoken of with anything other than practically religious awe or Grant with anything better than a dismissive attitude, so this part of the book definitely enhanced my understanding of the Civil War.
Overall: if you are at all interested in American Civil War history you need to read this book. Yes, the author has an axe to grind, but that does not change the value of his research in the pursuit of truth (even if you do not completely agree with the conclusions he draws from it).