As statues come down, a reckoning with the Confederacy's 'Lost Cause'

As Confederate statues across the nation continue to come down as part of a national reckoning on racial injustice, the movement for change is unmasking a toxic myth in American history, the so-called "Lost Cause" of the Confederacy. 

Professor Kabria Baumgartner of the University of New Hampshire says that to appreciate what is happening now, it is important to understand when and why the Confederate symbols were created in the first place.

Many of the statues and monuments honoring the Confederacy were made to coincide with important moments in the racial history of the United States. First in the early 1900s, as states created Jim Crow laws to disenfranchise African-Americans, and then another wave of symbols during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s. 

“The monuments were really built to, I think, assert white supremacy to traffic in the idea of the Lost Cause,” Baumgartner said. 

The Lost Cause of the Confederacy is a century-old effort to reimagine the Confederacy’s role in the Civil War as defenders of liberty, rather than defending slavery.

“A lot of effort to reimagine the Confederate struggle in the Civil War as a noble struggle to defend the white race,” said Matt Karp, a historian at Princeton University.

Though dozens of the monuments have come down in recent years, hundreds still stand across the U.S., including schools, government buildings, and roads and outside courthouses in just about every county in the south, says Civil War Historian Sarah Beetham.

“That is really significant because that is the place that is really the center of government for the entire county,” Beetham said. 

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Now, groups like National Trust for Historic Preservation are rethinking the monuments and their historical purpose, supporting complete removal of the symbols for the first time.

“In many ways, these monuments, many of them, promote a false narrative of history,” said Paul Edmondson, President, and CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio has said that he wants the federal government to change the name of a road named after Confederate general Robert E. Lee at the army base in Brooklyn, while sculptures of Confederate generals have already come down at Bronx Community College, along with a tree plaque at a Brooklyn Church. 

However, while the Pentagon has moved to ban Confederate flags at its institutions, the White House is resisting calls to rename the 10 military bases honoring Confederates.

Meanwhile, as protests over racial justice continue nationwide, demonstrators have also begun tearing down statues to other historical figures they associate with oppression, like Christopher Columbus, leading President Trump to label it all vandalism and anarchy, while defending Confederate symbols as being about love of the South, not racism. 

“Confederate Monuments were built during the Jim Crow era of racial segregation, as a way to assert white supremacy and the myth of the lost cause. How powerful and meaningful would it be, if we built new monuments that, you know, stand for racial justice, that stands for black freedom, that stands for civil rights?” said Professor Baumgartner.