Friday, November 19, 2010

Found: The Lost Cause - Its Origins as a Phrase

By Don Shelton

Most of us have wondered at some point about the origin of the phrase “The Lost Cause”, or even why it is the title of this journal. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the use of “Lost Cause” to refer to the Confederacy’s bid for independence began in the 1860’s; indeed, by the time Sam Watkins published “Company Aytch” twenty years later he used the term with such familiarity and pride that it had obviously been an established part of the Southern lexicon for quite some time. The subtle but crucial transformation in usage happened almost immediately after the War—the struggle for Southern Independence was no longer “a lost cause” in the colloquial, but instead became “The Lost Cause” in reverential reflection on the idealism of defense of home and constitution from invasion—both physical invasion and invasion of philosophies repugnant to the agrarian, traditionalistic South and to the original intent of the Constitution. To stand against these invasions was seen as a victory unto itself; using “The Lost Cause” a backhanded way to recognize the military reality of defeat while saying that The Lost Cause was also The Right Cause to a Southern nation which placed honor above life itself—a conceptuality which is foreign to the modern mind saturated with Jerry Springer and Howard Stern.
Our Southern ancestors were also much better trained in literary allusion and historical reference than we are today. When Moses Ezekial created the Confederate monument at Arlington cemetery, he inscripted upon it the Latin phrase: “Victrix Causa Diis Placuit Sed Victa Caton” which translates to “The Victorious Cause was Pleasing to the gods, But the Lost Cause to Cato.” This is a quote from Lucan’s epic Pharsalia (Civil War) written about Julius Ceasar’s Roman civil war with Senator Pompey. The phrase doesn’t mean much, though, without knowing who Cato was. In his 1999 address given at the Arlington monument, Rev. Fr. Alister C. Anderson, Chaplain (Colonel) U.S. Army (Ret.) and Chaplain-in-Chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans explained:
You may remember that Julius Caesar made himself dictator of the Roman Empire for life and he marched against Pompey and the republican forces who resisted Caesar’s military and political grab for absolute control and power. Pompey was an admirer of Cato the Younger, who lived one hundred years earlier and was devoted to the principles and virtues of the early Roman Republic. Cato had one of the greatest reputations for honesty and incorruptibility of any man in ancient times, and his Stoicism put him above the graft, bribery and mad despotic ambition so prevalent in Roman politics of his day. Pompey’s army, however, was defeated by Caesar's legions at the Battle of Pharsalia in the Balkans, and Caesar went on to become what can be called the first of the Roman Emperors.
The Latin quote illustrates the truth of an historical and political continuum from the time of this ancient war to that of the War for Southern Independence. “Victrix Causa,” “the victorious cause”, referring to Julius Caesar’s inordinate ambition and his lust for total power and control, is compared with President Lincoln and the federal government’s desire for power to crush and destroy the South. Next we read “diis placuit” which translates “pleased the gods”. In this context, gods are with a small “g” and refer to the gods of mythology; the gods of money, power, war and domination, greed, hate, lust and ambition. Next we come to the noble climax of this quotation, “sed victa catoni” which translates “but the lost cause pleased Cato.” Here Lucan, the poet, refers to Pompey’s fight to retain the old conservative, traditional republican government of Rome. Even though Pompey was defeated by Caesar’s greater military power, his defeat, nevertheless, pleased the noble Cato. And here, of course, Cato represents the noble aims of the Southern Confederacy. The South fought politically to maintain the Constitution which had guided her safely for eighty-seven years. She merely wanted to be left alone and be governed by it.
In this context the use of “The Lost Cause” by Southerners becomes much more clear. The allusions to the virtuous cause of Pompey in fighting to save traditional values against overpowering tyranny would have instant appeal to Southerners, and taking into account Lucan’s Pharsalia would have been familiar reading to educated Southerners like Ezekial, this two thousand-year-old quote has to be considered the leading candidate as origin for usage of “The Lost Cause” term by Confederates.
The phrase has not, though, had universal acceptance among Southerners, with some feeling it to carry a negative or defeatist connotation; the most notable critic of the phrase was the renowned S. A. Cunningham, publisher of the original Confederate Veteran magazine. His criticism has been taken to heart by some in support of their disdain for usage of the phrase. In the December, 1902 issue of Confederate Veteran Cunningham called the term “detestable” in complaining that correspondents were using it in submitted articles. Cunningham said it “assuredly originated in the minds of prejudiced Northerners”. However, few people who quote Cunningham are aware that the original Confederate Veteran magazine and the original Lost Cause magazine were competing publications, and occasionally sparred with each other in print (as Stewart Cruickshank’s accompanying article will show). Taken in that light, it is possible that Cunningham’s criticisms may have had less than completely altruistic motivations (after all, Cunningham was a shrewd and experienced businessman), and such context should be taken into some consideration by those who base their dislike for the phrase solely on Cunningham. Ironically, a biography of Cunningham was published in 1994 and when it was reviewed by Book News Inc. the reviewer’s first sentence called Cunningham “a central figure in the Lost Cause movement in the post-Civil War South” and that quote now accompanies virtually every site listing the biography for sale. That a reviewer would use a term to describe a man who found it so detestable he refused to print it in his own magazine is a posthumous insult no one should have to suffer, especially a man who did so much for Confederate heritage as S. A. Cunningham.
When the Kentucky Division of the SCV was re-formed in 1983, choosing the name of a turn-of-the-century Confederate publication originating in the Bluegrass State as the title for the division newsletter seemed only natural to the division leadership (just as the national SCV had taken up the title for its magazine from Cunningham’s). While publication of The Lost Cause has been somewhat erratic in the twenty-two years since, the current magazine format is a serious effort by the Kentucky division to carry out the mission of the original publication: “to be a(n) illustrated journal of history”, both of our Kentucky Confederate ancestors, and our SCV today.
Originally published in the Spring 2005 issue of The Lost Cause.


Anonymous said...

The quote unquote virtuous cause of owning other human beings.

Brad Seawright said...

Your an idiot IF you assume no northerner ever owned another human being. Even "honest" abe had slaves until he decided it would look bad too free the slaves while owning some, so he sold them to the south. Honorable, huh?