By Gordon Berg in America’s Civil War, September 2012, page 69.
The Lost Cause, like William Faulkner’s past, is not dead – and, according to W. Stuart Towns, it’s not even past. In this deftly reasoned and cogently argued exploration of the rhetoric and ritual associated with the South’s most enduring myth, Towns stresses that 20th-century white Southerners learned most of what they feel about race, the North, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and themselves from Lost Cause rhetoric.
A communications professor, Towns examines the public oratory that formed the bedrock of Southern ideology after the war ended. Speeches at Confederate Memorial Day ceremonies, regimental reunions and monument dedications extolled the valued heritage of a white society destroyed by the war. For the formerly ascendant class, Lost Cause ritual and oratory “created a sense of order and community out of the chaos, uncertainty, and despair of defeat.”
Towns argues convincingly that Lost Cause orators spread their social vision so effectively and persuasively “that they are still alive today and will remain so well into the future.” In the desegregation and civil rights decades of the 1950s and 1960s, he notes, Lost Cause rhetoric “justified, vindicated, defended, and explained states’ rights and white supremacy as enduring and fundamental planks of the ‘southern way of life.’” Towns finds a clear link between the “right of secession” and “sacred honor” rationales offered by Confederates icons John Bell Hood and John Brown Gordon in the 1870s and the code words “states’ rights” and “constitutional liberty” that Governors Ross Barnett and George Wallace used in the 1960s.
Towns hopes the current sesquicentennial commemoration will be used by the North and South to more fully understand the rhetoric underlying what Robert Penn Warren called “the great single event of our history.”