An old African proverb says, “God made man, because he liked to hear a story” (What is a Myth?). In fact, one of the most ancient storytelling devices is myth creation. Mythologies have been used to explain good, evil, human origins, weather phenomena, birth, death, and the possibilities for an after-life. Mythologies elevate a culture’s history from basic dates and places into the realm of the supernatural. Joseph Campbell boils these various mythologies that cultures create into four functions: mystical, cosmological, sociological, and pedagogical (6-10). After the Civil War, mythologies grew out of both the winning Northern states and the defeated former Confederacy. These newly developed myths functioned as sociological tales to preserve the order for the dominant (white) class. In the south the myth of the Lost Cause sought to reclaim victory from the north and preserve the rule of white supremacy. At the same time, from the place of war victory the myth of Northern Innocence grew somewhat passively. The Northern myth grew over time, solidifying the military win and economic power of the north while not admitting any moral culpability with regard to the institution of slavery.
Many scholars have noted that the process of mythologizing the Civil War began almost at the moment the war ended. In this section I will seek to define the two myths and show how the myth creation worked against full representative history. First, the pervasive Southern myth of The Lost Cause contains three parts: naming, defending slavery, and redefining the cause of the Civil War. Second, Northern Innocence, which has been less clearly defined throughout the years, worked in two ways: 1) moral superiority for freeing the slaves; 2) denial of any responsibility for the institution of slavery.
Robert Penn Warren wrote about the myth creation in his seminal book The Legacy of the Civil War; he says, “Only at the moment when Lee handed Grant his sword was the Confederacy born; or to state matters another way, in the moment of death the Confederacy entered upon its immortality” (14-15). That is, the South as we imagine it now depends on it having lost the Civil War: in its loss the South is defined. When the Confederate troops surrendered, “the South was more conquered than convinced, it was overpowered rather than fully persuaded” (Price). The Southern people did not see an end to the war completely when Lee surrendered, merely a change in the type of combat. The war changed from one of physical fighting to one over ideas. Edward Pollard, wartime editor of the Richmond Examiner and author of the 1866 The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates, explicitly sought to shape the nation’s view of the South through the book that still gives us the name of the Southern myth: The Lost Cause (Blight 51). With this powerful and wildly popular book the Civil War became mythologized and Southerners attempted to cleanse themselves of their loss (Blight).
Secondly, the Lost Cause myth needed to find a new role for slavery in a country where it was no longer legal. The myth cemented the idea of the happy and faithful slave who had been taken care of by a kind and benevolent master, which was a popular trope prior to the war as a Southern defense of slavery (Blight 287; Janney 8). The folklore of a faithful, happy, and loyal slave gave way to an idea of “black Confederates” (Janney 210), which was enslaved people fighting for the Confederacy. Tales of these so-called black Confederates’ bravery and loyalty were told in periodicals dedicated to the Confederate veteran population. However, these depictions of enslaved people ignore the fact that in each of these scenarios they had no legal right to exercise their free will.
Third, Southerners actively re-framed the cause of the Civil War from having its foundations in the legalities of slavery to the idea of States’ Rights. This line of reasoning dictates that the Founding Fathers left the relationship between the federal government and the local state governments an open question. The Southern states were, therefore, sacrificing themselves for the greater good of the United States by testing the national laws (Blight 37). In 1961, Robert Penn Warren put it more bluntly: in the case in which “the situation is given by history, the Southerner therefore is guiltless; is in fact, an innocent victim of a cosmic conspiracy” (56). Confederate repositioning of the Civil War as fixing a Constitutional loophole placed them in company with, if not above, the country’s founders since they were the ones who had left the problem unresolved.
As the Southern or Confederate myth of the Lost Cause became the civic religion of white southerners, they were able to unify around the iconography and ideals to create a culture of continued white dominance (Blight 291). The new story of the Old South would be transmitted down through the generations by a cottage industry more concerned with image and ideology than facts and truth.
In the same manner, the Union or the northern states also developed a mythology to enshrine their history. I define this new myth as Northern Innocence, which is formed by a moral superiority for emancipation of the slaves and overlooking any of the benefits the North received from the institution of slavery. An earlier discussion of a Northern myth centers on the self-righteousness gained by emancipating the slaves. Robert Penn Warren named the first version of the myth:
The Treasury of Virtue, which is the psychological heritage left to the North by the Civil War, may not be as comic or vicious as The Great Alibi [The Lost Cause] but it is equally unlovely…the Northerner with his Treasury of Virtue, feels redeemed by history, automatically redeemed. (59)
Because in this myth the Northerner was released from any blame by history, the North was not compelled to make a public reckoning for its past.