Enduring Legacy:
Rhetoric and Ritual of the Lost Cause

By W. Stuart Towns
University of Alabama Press, 2012, 208 pp., $37.50

Reviewed by Gordon Berg

            The Lost Cause, like Faulkner’s past, is not dead and, according to W. Stuart Towns, it’s not even past.  In his incisive exploration of the rhetoric and ritual associated with the South’s most enduring myth, Towns maintains “that twentieth-century white southerners learned much of how they were going to think about race, about the North, about the Civil War and Reconstruction, and about themselves from the rhetoric of the Lost Cause.”

            A former communications professor at Southeast Missouri State University, Towns examines the public oratory that formed the bedrock of southern ideology after the end of the Civil War.  His prose is clear, concise, and unfailingly direct; his hypotheses are boldly stated and scrupulously supported with evidence; and his conclusions are solidly based in logic and data. 

            Towns is non-judgmental about the post-war South's white supremacy ideology.  His aim is to show how ceremonial speaking and other forms of public address  were    the “primary vehicles for creating and disseminating the Lost Cause to the South's oral culture.”  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.”

            Many of the orators Towns investigates are not household names today.  But prominent people like Tennessee Senator William B. Bate, Florida Governor Cary A. Hardee, and veteran John Warwick Daniel, known as the “Lame Lion of Lynchburg” were regular speakers at civic gatherings like the 1910 reunion at Little Rock, AK that drew 150,000 spectators to watch 12,000 Confederate veterans and 14 bands pass in review.  

            The idea of redemption was an essential component of Lost Cause ideology.  It gave white Southerners the hope of setting things right again after their long night of radical, black dominated, Reconstruction.  “This redemption,” Towns argues, “was strongly reinforced by southern speakers in words that echoed for several generations as a cornerstone for the white-controlled, absolutely segregated, 'Solid South.'”

            Towns argues, persuasively, that Lost Cause orators spread their social vision so effectively and so 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, Towns maintains, 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 and direct link between the “right of secession” and “sacred honor” rationales offered by former Confederate generals John Bell Hood and John Brown Gordon in the 1870s and the code words of “states’ rights” and “constitutional liberty” used by governors Ross Barnett and George Wallace in the 1960s.

            Towns hopes that the sesquicentennial commemoration will be used by people North and South to discuss and more fully understand the rhetoric underlying what Robert Penn Warren called “the great single event of our history.”

Gordon Berg is a past President and member of the Civil War Round Table of the District of Columbia (http://www.cwrtdc.org/).  His reviews and articles appear in the Civil War Times and America's Civil War, among other publications.

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