As the nineteenth century drew to a close, the seeds of Southern mythology idealizing the service of the South’s aging Confederate veterans began to take root. Defeated militarily, in the decades following 1865 the South struggled to vindicate the decisions that had led to secession and to an armed conflict that had cost so many men their lives. From the ashes of war and the turbulence of the Reconstruction period, a cultural identity took shape, grounded in ideas and attitudes referred to collectively as the Lost Cause.
Celebrations of the Lost Cause took many forms: annual civil and religious services honoring the Confederate dead, veterans’ reunions, the deification of Confederate military leaders, the erection of Confederate monuments, and the emergence of groups such as the United Confederate Veterans (U.C.V), United Sons of Confederate Veterans (U.S.C.V.), and United Daughters of the Confederacy (U.D.C.). Politicians on the stump used the language of the Lost Cause (language denoting moral superiority based on abstract notions of honor and chivalry) to garner votes, and ministers espoused Lost Cause virtues from the pulpit. State supported textbooks “educated” generations of white school children on the nature of the war as a noble struggle of principle, lost only in the face of superior Northern resources.
For a century after the war, the Lost Cause gave cultural authority to Confederate symbols, most prominently the “stars and bars” rebel flag. As they entered into the twentieth century, the states of the old Confederacy did their best to maintain this cultural identity by accenting the New South with many of the cosmetic trappings of an idealized old South.
While local support for the ex-soldiers took many forms in Tennessee, its most public manifestation involved annual gatherings of the surviving veterans, their families, and friends. Reunions of surviving Confederate veterans became a sacred ritual of a post-war South struggling to justify war and defeat. The national and state organizations of the United Confederate Veterans sponsored many, but most were community events organized by local United Confederate Veterans chapters and other civic groups.
The reunions were well attended by both the ex-soldiers and members of their communities, and were usually marked by speeches from prominent veterans and local politicians. More importantly, they served as a primary venue for the communal celebration of the Lost Cause, and for the men to pay homage to the war itself as the central event of their lives.
By the time the generation of Tennessee males that had fought in the war began passing from the scene, their exploits as Confederate soldiers had already entered the realm of legend. In the South every veteran, regardless of rank, became a larger than life hero and every battle, big or small, won or lost, drew comparisons with the great battles of history. As the old soldiers disappeared, the communities in which they lived made efforts to preserve their memory forever. At hundreds of sites throughout the states of the old Confederacy, recognition of the veterans took the form of some type of statue or monument bearing appropriate names and inscriptions. The unveiling of these Confederate monuments were central rituals in the celebration of the Lost Cause, and were usually conducted as part of a grand ceremony replete with patriotic speeches and emotional appeals. Today the monuments still cast long shadows over courthouse squares throughout Tennessee, mute testament to the South’s unique past.
Blight, David W. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.
Wilson, Charles Reagan. Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920. Athens, GA: University Press of Georgia, 1980.