The Southern United States has time and time again proven to be an endlessly intricate bubble of cultural identity and history. This region, most often remembered by its bloody, rebellious, and oppressive past has had to grapple with many changes to their institutions as the rest of the United States progressed without them. The most significant of these changes was the demolition of the institution of slavery following the loss of the Civil War. In spite of this, the remnants of the status quo have managed to persist with the help of the propagation of the myth of the Lost Cause. Despite the Civil War taking place more than 150 years ago, attitudes and ideas from antebellum times have managed to worm their way into the collective memory and culture of the South. The culture of the Southern United States is aptly described by Tim Jacobson: More than any other part of America, the South stands apart. Thousands of Northerners and foreigners have migrated to it … but Southerners they will not become. For this is still a place where you must have either been born or have “people” there, to feel it is your native ground. Natives will tell you this.
They are proud to be Americans, but they are also proud to be Virginians, North Carolinians, South Carolinians, Tennesseeans, Mississippians and Texans. But they are conscious of another loyalty too, one that transcends the usual ties of national patriotism and state pride. It is a loyalty to a place where habits are strong and memories are long. If those memories could speak, they would tell stories of a region powerfully shaped by its history and determined to pass it on to future generations. This attitude holds true in a vast portion of the United States, spanning from Virginia to Mississippi to Texas. Yet, in spite of the South making up such a significant portion of the contiguous United States, outsiders will more than likely have trouble understanding the pervasive culture of the South. The perception of this culture is fraught with stereotypes. These stereotypes range from the more innocent, such as the importance of hospitality, to the inflammatory, for instance, the likelihood of inbreeding. As with most stereotypes, they hold mostly untrue. The culture of the South is one that is so complex that it would be impossible to gauge based off of a few inaccurate stereotypes. To truly understand the intricacies of modern Southern culture, studying the history of the region provides the most valuable insight. The majority of native Southerners are descended from four groups: Native Americans, West Africans, English colonists, and Scots-Irish settlers. With the exception of Native Americans, each of these groups settled the region in the 17th and 18th centuries. While the populations of the other groups flourished, Native Americans were plagued by Western disease and destruction.
Animosity towards Native Americans grew so great that President Andrew Jackson (a Southerner by way of Tennessee) ordered the removal of Native Americans that is most popularly remembered by the term Trail of Tears. In spite of this decimation of the Native American population, the influence held by this group still persists to the present day (look at the name of the state of Mississippi). However, far greater influence is held by the groups of English and Scots-Irish settlers and West African slaves that came to dominate the demographics of the region. The influence of the English and Scots-Irish has predominantly persisted in the the areas of religion, agriculture, and the culture of honor in the South. Religion played a significant role in the lives of settlers of English and Scots-Irish backgrounds (their personal brand of Christianity being Anglican and Presbyterian, respectively). This influence can be seen in the rise and persistence of Southern tent revivals, which are religious gatherings with intense degrees of religiosity that often take place outdoors and last for long periods of time. These tent revivals are comparable to the religious meetings that would take place outdoors in the religious tradition of the Scots-Irish and coincided with the First Great Awakening. Such religious fervor was something that settlers carried with them when coming to restart their lives in the American colonies and has persisted in the American South to the present day.
Also brought along was the agrarian lifestyle that a majority of English and Scot-Irish settlers were accustomed to. As author David Hackett Fischer notes, Both regions [Virginia and southern England] were marked by deep and pervasive inequalities, by a staple agriculture and rural settlement patterns, by powerful oligarchies of large landowners with Royalist politics and an Anglican faith. In addition to the agrarian lifestyle and religiosity wrought by these settlers, cultural attitudes were brought across the pond and have melded into the previously mentioned Southern culture of honor. The culture of honor is aptly described yet again by David Hackett Fischer: From an early age, small boys were taught to think much of their honor, and to be active in its defense. Honor in this society meant a pride of manhood in masculine courage, physical strength and warrior virtue. Male children were trained to defend their honor without a moment’s hesitation lashing out instantly against their challengers with savage violence. This method of child rearing was used mainly for boys. The daughters of the backcountry were raised in a different way. Mothers were expected to teach domestic virtues of industry, obedience, patience, sacrifice and devotion to others. Male children were taught to be self-asserting; female children were taught to be self-denying. It has been thought that this attitude was derived from the social constructs that existed in the cultures of the Scots-Irish and English settlers of the region. Violence was pervasive in the British Isles as there were constant clashes for control, often for the sake of pride and honor.
This carried over, though perhaps with lesser degrees of violence, to cultivate the Southern culture of honor. As the slave trade spread to the new world, a diaspora of West Africans populated the Southern United States, and with them came their cultural additions. As the agrarian traditions brought forth by the English and Scots-Irish flourished in the fertile South, the need for slaves increased exponentially. By 1860, the enslaved made up a whopping 32.27% of the population of slave and border states. Culturally, people of African descent contributed to many aspects of food, religion, and art. However, the most significant (and inadvertent) contribution made to pre-Civil War society was their role in the social stratification of the South. Leading up to the Civil War, African American slaves were the lowest rung of the hierarchical ladder, followed by free African Americans, white people that didn’t own slaves, and slaveholders. However, the status quo of Southern society was about to change drastically with the advent of the Civil War. A large misconception is that the Civil War was fought primarily over states’ rights. There is no simpler way to put the truth but this: the Civil War was fought predominantly to protect slavery as an institution. When this institution was inevitably deconstructed when the war was lost by the South, the blow to the pride of Southerners was unbearable to many. Along with the economic decimation caused by the loss of slave labor, the culture of honor that prevailed in the South required consolation and justification to nurse the still fresh wounds from the loss of the Civil War.
In the words of David W. Blight, For most white Southerners, the Lost Cause evolved into a language of vindication and renewal, as well as an array of practices and public monuments through which they could solidify both their Southern pride and their Americanness. The Lost Cause myth is complicated and multifaceted in nature; at times, it is difficult to understand, as myths often are. The central claims of the myth are as follows: slavery was not the central issue, the issue of slavery was manufactured by abolitionists, slavery would have eventually ended without Northern intervention, slaves were content with their position in society, and that the South was culturally distinctive from the North. The Lost Cause myth can be seen as a last-ditch attempt to maintain some semblance of the institutional status quo that was lost with the loss of the Civil War. As noted by Anne E. Marshall: The conservative racial, social, political, and gender values inherent in Confederate symbols and the Lost Cause greatly appealed to many white Kentuckians, who despite their devotion to the Union had never entered the war in order to free slaves. In a postwar world where racial boundaries were in flux, the Lost Cause and the conservative politics that went with it seemed not only a comforting reminder of a past free of late nineteenth-century insecurities but also a way to reinforce contemporary efforts to maintain white supremacy.
In spite of the bitter loss of the war, the propagation of the Lost Cause mythos has by many metrics been successful in implementation. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, organizations such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the United Confederate Veterans, and the Southern Historical Society played integral roles in the spread of the Lost Cause and the emergence of neo-Confederacy. The United Daughters of the Confederacy, an integral organization to the spread of the myth of the Lost Cause, made clear in their founding documents that their purpose was to collect and preserve the material for a truthful history of the war between the Confederate States and the United States of America; to honor the memory of those who served and those who fell in the service of the Confederate States. While at first glance it may seem like a purely innocent motive, the actions taken by the United Daughters of the Confederacy showed that their motives weren’t entirely transparent. An interesting dichotomy is shown by the writings of the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s historian-general Mildred Lewis Rutherford: What was the condition of the Africans when brought to this country? Savage to the last degree, climbing [coconut] trees to get food, without thought of clothes to cover their bodies, lind sometimes cannibals, and all bowing down to fetishes ” sticks and stones” as acts of worship. This unfair and racist characterization of the African American slave is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the massive amounts of publications released by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and associated people.
The propaganda played into the rising tensions between races as the United States approached the Civil Rights Era and contributed to feelings of white supremacy which were realized with the advent of the Ku Klux Klan (which was often met with the support of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Though the Civil War and even the Civil Rights Era seem far removed from today’s Southern society, the myth of the Lost Cause still persists in the modern culture of the South. A prime example lies in Oxford, Mississippi. The University of Mississippi’s history is steeped in racial struggles, from the University Greys regiment to the bloody admission of its first black student, James Meredith. The role that the Lost Cause plays in life on this university’s campus. J. Hardin Hobson described the prominence of such as follows: The pages of student publications including yearbooks, magazines and newspapers are littered with paeans to the Confederacy and to the Old South, which southern soldiers had sacrificed to protect. On the centerpiece of the campus lies a Confederate monument fitted with a contextualization plaque, which sits surrounded by Confederate flags at football tailgates, where fans cheer on their beloved Ole Miss Rebels. It stands sentient as a reminder of the pervasive Lost Cause ideology, in spite of faculty recommendations to remove it. In spite of the seemingly obvious faux pas committed by those who, knowingly or unknowingly, perpetuate the Lost Cause ideology, it’s difficult to recognize the egregious historical discrepancies when Lost Cause material is quite literally published in school textbooks.
In a study conducted at East Tennessee State University, Lost Cause propaganda was found in Tennessee textbooks from the year 1889 up to the year 2002. When such information has been spread across the span of multiple generations, the inadvertent ignorance is so widespread that it is difficult to prevent its spread. Southern culture today is undoubtedly a culture that is vastly different than that of the antebellum South. In the 21st century, the South is more diverse than ever before, with people from every corner of the earth. In spite of this, the vestiges of the Old South remain, and to native Southerners, the influence it holds is still very significant. Much of this stems from longstanding racial prejudices that come from the social stratification of the South under slavery. The Confederate flag is a symbol to many Southerners of their culture of honor and on a deeper, perhaps even unconcious level, ingrained racism. The culture of the South has reached yet another crossroads. The perpetuation of Lost Cause ideology in this culture is at odds with the world at large. Symbols of Confederate support are analagous to outsiders with racism and alt-right propaganda, which in spite of what many Southerners would say, often holds true. The election of Donald Trump has inspired a revival; this time, the revival is of neo-Confederate ideals. White supremacy, which used to be thought of as a very fringe and minimal issue, has now taken the main stage.
Racial tensions are at a level higher than what one would expect in a 21st-century society. From the decimation of an African American church by mass murderer Dylann Roof, to nooses being hung at the Mississippi State Capitol prior to a special election with an African American candidate (with a sign that read, We’re hanging nooses to remind people that times haven’t changed.), racial violence and support for the past institutions of the South seem to have made a comeback. Lost Cause propaganda has taken on a polarizing role in modern-day Southern culture. To many, the revisionist history of the Civil War is all that they know, and the pride that comes with that has been deeply ingrained. Long-standing symbols of the supposed honor of the Confederate cause have numbed many residents of the South to the reality of the region’s perilous history, egregious human rights violations, and bloodied ground. The culture of honor in the South, in spite of having to adapt to modern society, has aided in perpetuating the Lost Cause. Because of the pervasiveness of revisionist history, many cultural mainstays from times past, such as social stratification in the form of racism, have been able to quietly maintain their role in Southern society. For many, it is difficult to seperate themselves from this pride they were raised on, eliciting anger stemming from the culture of honor. However, it is essential for progress in the South for people to relearn their history, as without knowing their past, it may be impossible for the South to move forward and diversify.
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