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Asheville Archives: The Lost Cause narrative

MAKING HISTORY: At the October 1893 Western North Carolina Confederate Veterans’ Association reunion, Col. J.M. Ray, featured front and center, addressed a crowd of Confederate veterans. He characterized the South’s efforts not as a lost cause, but a gallant and stubborn fight.

This week’s column is an accompaniment to the preview article on historian Karen Cox’s upcoming Pack Memorial Library presentation, “Confederate Monuments in the Jim Crow South” (see “Dixie’s Daughters: Historian Karen Cox confronts Confederate monuments,” May 16, Xpress).

Among her many talking points, Cox will address the South’s “Lost Cause” narrative, which took shape in the aftermath of the Civil War. From textbooks to newspapers, from monuments to public orations, the Lost Cause mythology sought to present the Confederates’ wartime efforts not as one of defeat, but of heroism in the face of great odds. The campaign also aimed to reimagine slavery as both a benign and beneficial institution.

On Oct. 10, 1893, a crowd of veterans boarded the westbound train, leaving Asheville for Waynesville to attend the annual reunion and encampment of the Western North Carolina Confederate Veterans’ Association. The Asheville Weekly Citizen recapped the gathering in its Oct. 19, 1893, edition. Among the highlights, the newspaper included a talk given by Col. James Mitchell Ray of the 60th N.C. Regiment, who proclaimed:

“’Tis said ours was a lost cause. Again saw we, Nay! The effort to establish slavery was lost, the lives of thousands of true and gallant braves lost, but the greatest of all for which we so ably fought, the rights of a minority as against the usurpations of a grasping, tyrannical majority, was not lost … The gallant and stubborn fight we made will serve as a salutary warning to usurpers for all time to come.”

Similar sentiment would echo for decades to come. In addition to highlighting wartime valor against an imposing federal government, the Lost Cause narrative often portrayed slavery as a system advantageous to the slave.

On Sept. 18, 1896, The Asheville Daily Citizen reported on a meeting held by the Association of Southern Hospitals for the Insane. It took place inside the Battery Park Hotel. The article read: “One especially interesting feature was the discussion of the question ‘Has Emancipation Been Prejudicial to the Mental and Physical Health of the Negro?’”

According to the paper, findings presented at the meeting suggested freedom had in fact had an adverse effect on African-Americans, especially former male slaves. The article went on to include the opinions of several doctors present at the event. One suggested that before emancipation, the slave “had as a rule been well treated. His master compelled him to remain in at night, he did not frequent the saloon, and at night he was well housed.” Another claimed that “during the period of servitude the negro was really more profitted than the slave owners.”

The Lost Cause narrative would spread beyond the perimeters of the South. On June 3, 1901, The Asheville Daily Citizen included the transcription of a speech delivered by former Confederate Capt. Richmond Pearson Hobson of Alabama. The oration took place in Detroit at a ceremony honoring deceased federal soldiers. (“Another sign of the changes time has wrought,” the paper declared.) Within his speech, Hobson proclaimed:

“I believe that slavery as it had existed from the foundation of our nation was a part of divine providence to redeem a portion of the benighted races of Africa. How else would natives have ever been brought over? How else even if such a thing as voluntary immigration could have taken place, could the unhappy emigrants have taken care of themselves when found adrift in a new continent? How could they in such a condition have been brought under the uplifting influences of a higher civilization? There is no answer except that slavery was for these reasons necessary. And, my friends, believe me, for I have seen the old darkeys and have listened to their accounts of the times before war, that on the whole the condition of slavery with the highly cultured people of the south was indeed a beneficial one. Thus instead of the fact of slavery being a blot I consider it in all its elements a credit to the south.”

Exactly 10 years later, on June 3, 1911, The Asheville Gazette-News reported the local Memorial Day speech delivered by a Rev. Saumenig. The article’s headline read, “Defeat of South not a Lost Cause.” Early on in his talk, Saumenig bemoaned his own absence from battle, stating:

“It was my misfortune not to have been born in time to share the privations of those of my friends and brethren who manfully, honestly and bravely and with righteous, holy and well defined purpose fought under the flag of the Confederacy.”

Near the end of his speech, Saumenig addressed the duty of all Southerners moving forward:

“It is the bounden duty of the southerner, the profound obligation imposed upon the Daughters of the Confederacy, as an organization, to employ every honorable means within their power to see that the text books of history used in our public schools shall be those giving the facts and truths about the cause and the war of ‘61-’65.”

Five years later, author Daniel Harvey Hill would publish his 1916 textbook, Young People’s History of North Carolina. In addressing the question of slavery and its role leading up to in the Civil War, Hill wrote:

“The Abolition party of the North was growing stronger each year, and was by its pushing zeal keeping the nation stirred to its depths. Already many Southerners, feeling that the Constitution was being violated, were declaring the need of withdrawal from the Union.”

Later in the textbook, Hill claimed relations between former slaves and ex-Confederates would have remained peaceful had it not been for the introduction of federal agencies in the South during Reconstruction. He wrote: “If they and their former owners had been left alone in the State, each race would soon have been helpful to the other.”

Decades later, in the 1942 textbook, The Story of Our State: North Carolina, author W.C. Allen posed the following question to the book’s young readers: “Was slavery good or bad?”

Allen answered:

“Sometimes masters were cruel and treated their slaves brutally, but that was unusual. … It was greatly to the interest of slave owners to take good care of their slaves so that they would bring a good price when sold. Besides, the majority of slave owners in the South were good men and treated their slaves kindly, almost like members of their own families.

Some time you will read ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ a novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe, about slavery times, and you may get a different idea about how slave owners in the South treated their slaves. Harriet Beecher Stowe lived in the North and got the idea that our forefathers were cruel to their slaves. But the people who lived among us know that masters, with very few exceptions, were kind to their slaves.”

Peculiarities of spelling and punctuation as well as antiquated and offensive language are preserved from the original documents.

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