The Lost Cause and Confederate memory

Two views of the Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond, Virginia. On the left, a crowd gathers to watch the unveiling of the equestrian statue of Lee in 1890. On the right, the statue with graffiti after the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. The statue was removed from Monument Avenue in Richmond on September 9, 2021. Antonin Mercié, <em>Robert E. Lee Monument</em>, 1890, bronze (photo left: The Valentine; photo right: Mk17b, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Two views of the Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond, Virginia. On the left, a crowd gathers to watch the unveiling of the equestrian statue of Lee in 1890. On the right, the statue with graffiti after the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. The statue was removed from Monument Avenue in Richmond on September 9, 2021. Antonin Mercié, Robert E. Lee Monument, 1890, bronze (photo left: The Valentine; photo right: Mk17b, CC BY-SA 4.0)

In 1870, five years after the conclusion of the Civil War, Robert E. Lee, the leader of the Confederate Army and the focus of white southern adulation for his role in the rebellion, died of pneumonia in his home. White women of the South—the wives, widows, and daughters of Confederate veterans—vowed immediately that Lee should have a monument equal to his southern cultural status. It took twenty years to complete, but in 1890, an equestrian statue of Lee was unveiled in Richmond, Virginia, amid a crowd estimated at 150,000 people. It was the first monument to a Confederate leader on Richmond’s Monument Avenue, a stately two-mile boulevard populated with monuments to the “heroes” of the Confederacy, unveiled between 1870 and 1920. Cities and towns around the South followed suit by placing thousands of monuments dedicated to local Confederate veterans on courthouse lawns and in public parks.

Removing the monuments

In 2020, 150 years after Lee’s death, Black Minneapolis resident George Floyd was murdered in a horrific display of brutality by a white police officer. Video of Floyd’s murder went viral and prompted nationwide protests against the everyday violence and discrimination Black Americans face across the United States. Protesters often targeted public monuments as symbols of white supremacy, toppling, tagging, or campaigning to remove statues of racists from the landscape. In 2020 alone, nearly 100 Confederate symbols were removed from the South, as schools, university buildings, and highways dedicated to Confederate leaders were renamed. [1] Monument Avenue was slowly depopulated of its bronze and marble Confederates; by the end of Summer 2021 the Lee statue was alone. In September 2021, it too was removed from its place of honor on Monument Avenue and shipped to a warehouse. Its pedestal, which became a canvas for projected art installations and graffitied messages of protest, remained on site until the end of the year.

Chart data based on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s <a href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener">“Whose Heritage?”</a> database; numbers for 2010s are incomplete as data does not include years past 2017. “Confederate symbols” include schools, roads, and other facilities named after Confederates in addition to monuments.

Chart data based on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Whose Heritage?” database; numbers for 2010s are incomplete as data does not include years past 2017. “Confederate symbols” include schools, roads, and other facilities named after Confederates in addition to monuments.

More than 1,700 public markers, monuments, and memorials honoring the Confederacy have been installed since the end of the American Civil War. To put that in perspective, there are more visual reminders of the Confederacy than there were calendar days that the Confederacy existed (1,548 days, between February 1861 and May 1865). Of these varied symbols (including historical plaques as well as the names of towns, schools, roads, and buildings), about 800 are statues. Confederate monument-building peaked in the first decades of the 20th century, coincident with the growth of white membership in the Ku Klux Klan and the firm establishment of Jim Crow.

The pace of monument-building accelerated again in the 1950s and 1960s, just as the Civil Rights Movement was making progress desegregating schools and public accommodations, and securing voting rights for Black people in the South. At the same time, celebrations of the centennial of the Civil War reinvigorated national interest in the conflict and its memory. White southerners who pledged “massive resistance” to school desegregation mandated by the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (decided May 17, 1954) identified with the Confederate defiance of the federal government.

Bree Newsome with flag. "Activist takes down Confederate flag outside South Carolina capitol," <em>Reuters</em>, June 27, 2015 (photo: <a href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener">Reuters/Adam Anderson Photo</a>)

Bree Newsome with flag. “Activist takes down Confederate flag outside South Carolina capitol,” Reuters, June 27, 2015 (photo: Reuters/Adam Anderson Photo)

Georgia redesigned its state flag in 1956 to include the “stars and bars” of the Confederate battle flag in response to Brown, while South Carolina hoisted the battle flag of the Confederacy above their state house in 1961, ostensibly to celebrate the Civil War’s centennial. It was not removed until 2015, after a white supremacist murdered nine Black churchgoers in Charleston and activist Bree Newsome scaled the flagpole on the state capitol grounds to remove it, forcing the state to take action. 

Southern whites spent substantial sums (equal to millions of dollars in today’s money), building these monuments. Most notably, monuments to the Confederacy were not the work of one generation or even two, but rather built in waves between 1865 and the present day. More than 30 new monuments have been erected since the year 2000. [2] 

Why have these monuments to the Confederacy been the focus of so much time, energy, and money in the South, both to raise them and to bring them down? Although supporters claimed they were reminders of the Confederate past, they are in fact shrines that were designed to shape the beliefs and politics of the period in which they were built. They are visual arguments that the people who fought to maintain slavery were heroic and justified, and testaments to the ongoing power of white supremacists to dominate southern society. Placed in town squares and on courthouse lawns—centers of commerce, politics, and justice—they have served as warnings to Black citizens of the violent reprisals they can expect from whites if they attempt to trespass the economic and political restrictions that have ensured Black citizens’ second-class status. It is not surprising, then, that protests against white supremacy have targeted Confederate statues.

The Lost Cause

In the years immediately following the war, white southerners who had supported the Confederacy struggled to come to terms with their changed society. Unwilling to accept that the South’s cause was unjust—which would require the admission that slavery was wrong and that the men who had died fighting to protect it were wrong—white southerners crafted an alternate narrative of the causes and outcome of the Civil War. First named by Virginia journalist Edward A. Pollard in an 1866 book called The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates and then popularized in the late 19th century by the histories of the war and memoirs written by former Confederate leaders, the “Lost Cause” is a set of beliefs that many white southerners embraced with an almost religious fervor. Its basic tenets include the following: 

  • Slavery was a benevolent institution, in which honorable white slaveowners provided for the needs of enslaved Black people and contributed to their moral development; 
  • Southern states seceded not to protect the institution of slavery but rather because the federal government was trampling their “states’ rights;” 
  • The U.S. government (the North) was the aggressor in the war, not the seceding South;
  • The U.S. Army succeeded only because it had “overwhelming numbers” of soldiers, not due to any deficiencies of the Confederate Army, which fought valiantly;
  • Reconstruction (the period immediately following the war) was a tragic period of misrule by uneducated and barbaric Black men, who were merely puppets of unscrupulous white politicians and profiteers from the North. [3]
Everett B. D. Julio, <em>The Last Meeting of Lee and Jackson</em>, 1869, oil on canvas, 102 x 74 inches (<a href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener">American Civil War Museum</a>)

Everett B. D. Julio, The Last Meeting of Lee and Jackson, 1869, oil on canvas, 102 x 74 inches (American Civil War Museum)

The Lost Cause in art

Art was and remains central in establishing and spreading the false narrative of the “Lost Cause.” Images that portrayed Confederate generals as honorable and heroic proliferated after the war, creating a set of saints for white southerners to venerate. Everett B. D. Julio’s grand painting, The Last Meeting of Lee and Jackson, portrays two Confederate generals, Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, at a poignant moment—riding side-by-side, the evening before Jackson was mortally wounded in a friendly fire incident.

The artist was a student of the history painter Emanuel Leutze (well known for his 1857 painting of George Washington Crossing the Delaware), and his ambition for this painting is clear in its scale—it’s more than 8-feet high. The choice of this moment was also significant in the war: Chancellorsville was a great victory for the Confederacy, made possible by the apparent tactical brilliance of Lee and his generals in the face of a considerably larger U.S. Army force. This battle emboldened Lee to invade the North and suffer defeat at Gettysburg two months later. The moment Julio depicts shows the heroes of the Confederacy at the height of their powers. A white southerner would have viewed this painting with the knowledge of Jackson’s imminent demise, with the sunset in the background perhaps signaling the Confederacy’s coming downfall. Though the painting failed to find a buyer, this image was widely reproduced as an inexpensive print (such as the interpretation by Kurz and Allison), showing its popularity among white audiences in the South.

Kurz and Allison after Everett B.D. Julio, <em>The Last Meeting of Lee and Jackson</em>, c. 1885, lithograph, 28 x 22 inches (<a href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener">Kentucky Historical Society</a>)

Kurz and Allison after Everett B.D. Julio, The Last Meeting of Lee and Jackson, c. 1885, lithograph, 28 x 22 inches (Kentucky Historical Society)

The equestrian format (a horse and rider) goes back at least to ancient Greece and usually was reserved for political and military leaders. From the ancient Roman equestrian sculpture of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, to Donatello’s Renaissance sculpture of the military leader Erasmo da Narni (known as Gattamelata), to Van Dyck’s 1633 painting of King Charles I, equestrian paintings and sculptures generally bestowed a sense of power and calm confidence on the sitter. 

The equestrian format had another advantage: it allowed for a distraction from the moral and ethical issues of the war. As the art historian Kirk Savage and others have argued, the memorial in Richmond showing Lee on horseback “became the embodiment of the confederacy and helped to turn the remembrance of the Civil War into a story about a military struggle rather than a political one centered on the protection of slavery.” [4] The painting of Lee and Jackson is best understood as a history painting that focuses our attention on a successful battle, the heroism of two generals, and the nobility of their endeavor and sacrifice—not the issues about which they had fought.

White women and memory work

Although the Lost Cause concentrated on vindicating the deeds of men, memorializing the Confederate dead often became the domain of women. At first, women assumed this role for practical and legal reasons: women performed funerary rituals during the war when men were away fighting, and immediately after the Civil War Confederate veterans who had taken loyalty oaths to the United States were barred from publicly honoring the defeated nation with memorials or monuments.

William D. Washington, <em>Burial of Latané</em>, 1864, oil on canvas, 38 x 48 inches (<a href="">The Johnson Collection</a>)

William D. Washington, Burial of Latané, 1864, oil on canvas, 38 x 48 inches (The Johnson Collection)

In William D. Washington’s 1864 painting The Burial of Latané women take the center role in a painting which brought several powerful Lost Cause myths together. Based on the story of the funeral of Confederate Captain William Latané (a Virginian who practiced medicine and managed his family’s plantation and its 200 enslaved men, women, and children), the painting honored the white women and the enslaved members of their household whom legend said gave him a proper burial when his own family could not do so. [5]

In the center of the painting, a woman in black leads the funeral service for Latané behind an open grave. For a moment, she lowers the book she is reading to look heavenward. Her head, bathed in light coming from the left, rises above the horizon line. She is the focus of our attention. Our eyes move next to the right, where we see five beautifully dressed white mourners. On the left, behind the coffin, a small blonde child holds a wreath of flowers, as two enslaved men and two enslaved women, dressed in work clothes, look on. The Black man in the foreground wears pants torn at the knee and leans on a shovel. He is the gravedigger, and his tattered hat on the ground before him makes a sharp contrast to the ribboned hat held by the child at the far right who turns her gaze away. This enslaved man, located on the opposite side of the coffin as the woman dressed in black, is understood to be a loyal slave who mourns the death of Latané as much as the white figures. [6]

The painting embodies not just the myth of the faithful slave—part of the Lost Cause ideology that insisted that enslaved Black people had loved their enslavers and preferred slavery to freedom—but also the idea of a Confederate soldier as a righteous Christian knight and martyr who nobly sacrifices his life for his homeland—another element of the Lost Cause belief system that cast Confederate men as honorable protectors of the white southern woman. Women, in turn, were idealized in Lost Cause mythology as loyal, steadfast, and pious keepers of the home and hearth. Importantly, beyond the deceased, no white men are present in this painting (all of them are doing their duty fighting for the South), so women are tasked with the work of burial, memory, and mourning. 

White women’s role in memorializing the Confederate dead continued to be central to Lost Cause propaganda even as the federal government ceased its intervention in the South and legal decisions stripped Black citizens of the protections afforded by the 14th and 15th Amendments.

By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, support for Reconstruction waned among white northerners and Jim Crow segregation gained ground across the South—ushering in an era of virulent, nation-wide racism scholars have described as the “nadir of American race relations.” [7] Confederate monument builders no longer felt the need to hide their admiration for the Confederacy and the tenets of the Lost Cause. In the 1890s, thousands of southern white women joined a new organization, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), that sought not just to memorialize the past but to instill Lost Cause ideology in white children going forward.

United Daughters of the Confederacy

The most powerful women’s organization in the South during the peak era of women’s clubs in the United States, the UDC invested heavily in monument-building as well as education, ensuring that every white classroom in the South had a Confederate battle flag for display, reviewing school textbooks to ensure they represented the Confederate cause as honorable and just, and founding auxiliary organizations for Children of the Confederacy. [8] They printed “catechisms” (using the word for instructing Christians in religious principle beliefs) for the Children of the Confederacy, booklets with questions and answers for white children to memorize. The questions distilled the Lost Cause ideology down to its essence, with children instructed how “Reconstruction was unjust to the South” as the federal government sought “revenge and to place [the South] under military rule and negro domination.” Only the valorous actions of the white supremacist terrorist organization, the Ku Klux Klan, “saved a civilization and made it possible for white people to reside in the State.” [9] The UDC sought to vindicate the actions of the Klan during Reconstruction and would support later incarnations of the KKK during its resurgences in the 1920s and 1950s.

Postcard depicting a “human Confederate flag” created by arranging children at a Confederate Memorial Day celebration under the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond. Huestis Pratt Cook, <em>Human Confederate Flag</em>, c. 1907, postcard (<a href="">Library of Virginia</a>)

Postcard depicting a “human Confederate flag” created by arranging children at a Confederate Memorial Day celebration under the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond. Huestis Pratt Cook, Human Confederate Flag, c. 1907, postcard (Library of Virginia)

Monuments were part of the UDC’s education program as well. In addition to portraying Confederate leaders as brave and the cause as a valiant defense of states’ rights, Confederate monuments were focal points for instruction. Memorial days and national holidays (after the era of Reconciliation) occasioned community-wide gatherings around the statues. The monument builders also intended these statutes to have an instructive function for the Black citizens: to intimidate Black voters and to claim public spaces for white citizens only. Courthouse lawns were common sites where the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected monuments, and also common sites for lynchings. A recent study confirms that there is a statistically significant correlation between the number of lynchings in a county and the number of Confederate monuments it contains, demonstrating the link between these statues and racially-motivated violence, so often done in the name of protecting southern white women. [10]

Protesting the Lost Cause

But art celebrating the Lost Cause was not universally celebrated by those who viewed it in homes or museums or lived in the shadow of monuments. Black southerners resisted the monumental landscape of white supremacy in ways both large and small. Mamie Garvin Fields, a Black resident of Charleston born in 1888, recalled how she and her friends would surreptitiously deface a monument to John C. Calhoun (a pro-slavery white politician who died in 1850). “We used to carry something with us, if we knew we would be passing that way, in order to deface that statue—scratch up the coat, break the watch chain, try to knock off the nose,” she reminisced. Later, the statue was removed and replaced in a spot too high for would-be vandals to reach. [11] Formerly enslaved Black people in Charleston, South Carolina, may have held the first Memorial Day in U.S. history when they gathered to properly bury and honor the hastily interred remains of U.S. Army troops who died in a Confederate prison camp at a nearby race course. [12]

Civil War Union Soldier Monument, West Point Cemetery, completed in 1920 (<a href="">Visit Norfolk</a>)

Civil War Union Soldier Monument, West Point Cemetery, completed in 1920 (Visit Norfolk)

Sergeant William Carney holding the American Flag, c. 1864.  John Ritchie, Carte-de-viste album of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, c. 1864 (<a href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener">National Museum of African American History and Culture</a>)

Sergeant William Carney holding the American Flag, c. 1864.  John Ritchie, Carte-de-viste album of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, c. 1864 (National Museum of African American History and Culture)

Black southerners also erected statues of their own. A rare (and perhaps entirely unique) citizen soldier monument featuring a Black soldier is located in West Point Cemetery, an African American graveyard in Norfolk, Virginia where dozens of Black soldiers and sailors who served in the Civil War are buried. The model for the soldier was Sergeant William H. Carney, who was born into slavery in Norfolk and who served in the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment. He later became the first Black soldier to be awarded a Medal of Honor. The monument and cemetery only exist because of the efforts of James E. Fuller, the first Black councilman in Norfolk, himself a U.S. Army veteran, who founded the Norfolk Memorial Association in 1886 to commemorate the Black soldiers from Norfolk who gave their lives during the Civil War. [13]

A new generation of activists

A ubiquitous presence on the southern landscape in the form of statues, place names, and images, visual culture has been a key medium for the promotion of Lost Cause ideology. Enshrining the leaders of the Confederacy in sculpture and paintings whose compositions portray them as honorable and just, picturing southern white women as stalwart and virtuous defenders of home and family, and casting Black subjects as faithful slaves, art said quietly what white supremacists said out loud. But a new generation of activists—following in the footsteps of many generations before them—has begun the process of removing Lost Cause imagery from the public square and reconsidering how we ought view the legacy of the Confederacy.


[1] Data from the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Whose Heritage: Public Symbols of the Confederacy,” 2021. See also Karen Cox, No Common Ground: Confederate Monuments and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Justice (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2021)pp. 6–8; and Hilary Green, Confederate Monument Removal mapping project.

[2] Sabrina Tavernise, “A Boom in Confederate Monuments, on Private Land,” The New York Times, August 30, 2017.

[3] Charles Reagan Wilson, Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865–1920 (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1980).

[4] Maurie D. Mcinnis, “‘To Strike Terror’: Equestrian Monuments and Southern Power,” The Civil War in Art and Memory (Washington, D. C.: National Gallery of Art, 2016); and Kirk Savage, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018).

[5] Ryan N. Danker, “The Propaganda of Martyrdom: The Latanés and Confederate Nationalism,” Essex County Museum and Historical Society Bulletin, 2009.

[6] Rachel Stephens, “‘Whatever is un-Virginian is Wrong!’: The Loyal Slave Trope in Civil War Richmond and the Origins of the Lost Cause,” Panorama: Journal of the Association of Historians of American Art  6, no. 1 (Spring 2020).

[7] On the “nadir” of race relations, see Rayford W. Logan, The Betrayal of the Negro, from Rutherford B. Hayes to Woodrow Wilson (New York: Collier Books, 1965 reprint).

[8] See also Karen Cox, Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003).

[9] United Daughters of the Confederacy, South Carolina division, UDC Catechism of South Carolina Confederate History (Clemson, SC: Chambers Printing Company,1923), pp. 13–14. 

[10] Kyshia Henderson, et. al., “Confederate monuments and the history of lynching in the American South: An empirical examination,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 18, no. 42 (2021).

[11] Cox, No Common Ground, p. 61.

[12] Adam H. Domby, The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2020) and David Blythe, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002).

[13] In 1862 Norfolk (located inside Confederate territory) was taken by U.S. Army forces and held through the remainder of the war. As a result, many enslaved people escaped to Norfolk.

Additional resources

Learn more about monuments over time with Monument Lab’s National Monument Audit and interactive map

Map the removal of Confederate monuments with Dr. Hilary Green

Caroline E. Janney, Burying the dead but not the past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2008).

Alice Fahs and Joan Waugh, eds.The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

Learn more about how the Confederate flag became an enduring symbol of racism from National Geographic

Explore data visualizations of Confederate monuments from FiveThirtyEight

Cite this page as: Dr. Kimberly Kutz Elliott, "The Lost Cause and Confederate memory," in Smarthistory, April 20, 2023, accessed June 14, 2024,