The parallels between the Confederate ‘Lost Cause’ movement of the American Civil War, and the myths that – even today – surround the Boer War are remarkable.
For those who are unaware, the Lost Cause of the Confederacy is not based on historical reality, and is instead a rather unpleasant pseudohistorical, negationist mythology preferred by extremists and nut-cases in America[i]. The basic idea is the Confederate States were heroic and admirable, and that they were standing up to an all-powerful bully. Adherents of this fantasy like to point to Southern notions of honor and chivalry, downplaying the brutal, inhuman realities of slavery and denying that it was the main reason for the Civil War. Instead, they prefer to cling to the belief that the war was fought in a Just Cause, and was all about states’ rights, and to counter Northern aggression[ii]. Lost Causers consider the Confederate army to have been amazing in all respects, and to have been blessed with outstanding Generals… with the inconvenient reality of Union victory explained away as simply being due to the Northern States having a larger population and far greater industrial base.
This self-pitying nonsense was identified as far back as November 1868, when US Army General George Henry Thomas reported the frantic attempts made by former rebels to paint the cause of the Confederacy in an implausibly positive light:
The greatest efforts made by the defeated insurgents since the close of the war have been to promulgate the idea that the cause of liberty, justice, humanity, equality, and all the calendar of the virtues of freedom, suffered violence and wrong when the effort for southern independence failed. This is, of course, intended as a species of political cant, whereby the crime of treason might be covered with a counterfeit varnish of patriotism, so that the precipitators of the rebellion might go down in history hand in hand with the defenders of the government, thus wiping out with their own hands their own stains; a species of self-forgiveness amazing in its effrontery, when it is considered that life and property—justly forfeited by the laws of the country, of war, and of nations, through the magnanimity of the government and people—was not exacted from them.[iii]
By this point, anyone who has listened to the endless rubbish spewed out by Defenders of the Boer War Myths will already have spotted plenty of startling similarities. And just like the nonsense some choose to believe about the Boer War, the Lost Cause did not come about by accident, with both being allowed to develop unchecked due to the victors in the respective wars turning the other cheek in the name of reconciliation. As one commentator put it:
They say that history is written by the victors, but the Civil War has been the rare exception. Perhaps the need for the country to stay together made it necessary for the North to sit silently and accept the South’s conception of the conflict. In any case, for most of the past 150 years, the South’s version of the war and Reconstruction has held sway in our schools, our literature and, since the dawn of feature films, our movies.[iv]
And so, in the name of nation-(re)building, America was treated to the attempted reinvention of the South as the gallant under-dog, nobly fighting a Just Cause against impossible odds; of a simple, bucolic life of stunning plantation houses, smilingly cheerful slaves and debutantes’ balls; of old-fashioned manners, and iced tea on the lawn… not to mention squadrons of beautiful Southern belles, Charleston Dandies, and a veritable cavalcade of heroically dashing warriors in immaculate uniforms… a halcyon life which was cruelly smashed by an aggressive and overwhelming enemy, backed by the smoke-spewing horrors of modern industry. By buying into this fantasy, one could conveniently ignore the fact that the South started the war, and that they were fighting for the ‘right’ to continue one of the most inhuman practices in history. Southern victories could be trumpeted as ‘humiliations’ for the North, whereas Southern defeats (and their ultimate loss) could be waved away as only being because they were facing overwhelming numbers.
In the wake of the Boer War, the victorious British were in a similar position to the Northern States after the American Civil War, and – again with the best of intentions – also made the mistake of sitting back and letting the myths be invented and spread, rather than risk rocking the boat. They too had been attacked by an enemy which wished, not just to maintain an odious regime in power, and to deny basic human rights to any but a self-appointed Master Race, but also to bring all of South Africa under their control. As I have mentioned in an earlier blog article, a draft of General Maurice’s Official History of the conflict described the reasons for the war thus:
The war, which these volumes record, was in nothing more remarkable than in this, that it was a contest most unwillingly waged by a great peace-loving empire against small states which, at the time when the war began, had come under the dominion of an autocracy based on an oligarchy. For many years the one purpose of the autocrat and his agents had been to organise the whole people for war. That preparation had only one object, the expulsion of British authority and the substitution for it of the autocracy as supreme throughout South Africa.[v]
Though a perfectly fair and accurate assessment of historical reality, this passage was omitted from the final version, due to intervention from the War Office. The newly-appointed Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Sir Neville Lyttleton, said that by stating ‘officially to the Boers that they fought and died not for their republic but for the personal autocracy of Mr Kruger’, Maurice was highly likely ‘to give offence to our new fellow subjects in South Africa’.[vi]
Instead, Lyttleton, who had striven to build good relations with the Boers after their surrender, instructed that magnanimity and political expediency should take precedence over historical accuracy in such matters:
The political history contained in the official history of the war should be made as concise as possible and should be limited to a colourless narrative of events and conditions and that all expressions that might be regarded as of His Majesty’s Government on controversial points should be omitted. He is particularly moved to make this suggestion by his desire that nothing, which can be avoided, should be done to impede the reconciliation of races in South Africa.[vii]
Just as American ‘Lost Causers’ seek to downplay just how ghastly slavery was, and try to pretend the Southern States didn’t actually go to war for the right to continue it, so the Defenders of the Boer War Myths also tie themselves in knots in their attempts to portray Kruger et al as the benign, innocent victims of a (completely made-up) British invasion. By so doing, and whether consciously or not, they are frantically defending a regime which was in every way worse than the later Apartheid system.
Rather amusingly, in their next breath, both movements also stress just what wonderful God-fearing Christians their heroes were, in stark contrast to the way they seek to paint the Northern States and the British Empire as ungodly, grasping capitalists. Just as the Lost Causers talk about ‘The War of Northern Aggression’, despite it being the South which started the war[viii], so the Defenders of the Myth pretend the Boer War was caused by the British, despite it being the republics which declared war and invaded British territory. Similarly, both movements also cheerfully embarrass themselves by ignoring what their historical heroes actually said at the time, sweeping under the carpet outbursts from Confederate leaders defending the right to retain slaves, or pretending that Kruger’s clique didn’t really want to build an Afrikaans Empire ‘from the Zambesi to Simon’s Bay’.[ix]
In terms of how, and why, the Lost Cause myths developed over time, Professor Gaines Foster of Louisiana State University, wrote:
Scholars have reached a fair amount of agreement about the role the Lost Cause played in those years, although the scholarship on the Lost Cause, like the memory itself, remains contested. The white South, most agree, dedicated enormous effort to celebrating the leaders and common soldiers of the Confederacy, emphasizing that they had preserved their and the South’s honor.[x]
Similarly, Professor Gary W. Gallagher, of the University of Virginia, claimed that:
The architects of the Lost Cause acted from various motives. They collectively sought to justify their own actions and allow themselves and other former Confederates to find something positive in all-encompassing failure. They also wanted to provide their children and future generations of white Southerners with a ‘correct’ narrative of the war.[xi]
Professor Rollin G. Osterweis of Yale University, stated:
The Legend of the Lost Cause began as mostly a literary expression of the despair of a bitter, defeated people over a lost identity. It was a landscape dotted with figures drawn mainly out of the past: the chivalric planter; the magnolia-scented Southern belle; the good, gray Confederate veteran, once a knight of the field and saddle; and obliging old Uncle Remus. All these, while quickly enveloped in a golden haze, became very real to the people of the South, who found the symbols useful in the reconstituting of their shattered civilization. They perpetuated the ideals of the Old South and brought a sense of comfort to the New.[xii]
Again, the parallels with Boer War myth are plain to see, and there was a similar desire to find positives in the abject failure of Kruger’s attempt to drive the British from South Africa. The defeated Boer was hastily reinvented as a gallant, almost invincible, Christian warrior, Kruger’s dream of building a huge Empire was quietly forgotten, and the fact that tens of thousands of Afrikaners either kept out of it, or sided with the British, was air-brushed from the tale.
As we saw, the ’Lost Causers’ carefully reinvented the Southern States as an idyllic fantasy of plantation mansions, and gorgeous blondes called Emma-Lou and Savannah-Lee bustling about in hooped-dresses, clutching matching parasols. The pre-war Transvaal has similarly been reinvented as an advanced, fabulously wealthy and peace-loving paradise, rather than – in reality – a chaotically-run, antisemitic, corrupt, aggressively expansionist, and deeply racist oligarchy.
By employing deception and out-right lies, the careful creation of Boer War fables became a crucial building-block in the nationalist Afrikaner history: ‘a myth of national origin’[xiii] as Professor Bill Nasson termed it. Few Afrikaans books on the war emerged until the 1930s, but thereafter they started spewing out thick and fast, all falling over themselves to portray the national character as:
…wiry, valiant, and persevering … it was equally vital to commemorate superhuman bravado, exemplified by the gritty epic of bittereinder resistance and the seemingly clairvoyant genius of the younger Boer generalship … the courage and determination of the diehard Boer fighters revealed those character traits supposedly typical of the Afrikaner.[xiv]
Nasson also notes that the myths manufactured by the Apartheid Government were used to defend any and all of their actions: ‘…nationalists made it clear that Britain ought not even to dare to criticize ‘race’ politics in South Africa when it had earlier attempted genocide against the Afrikaners.’[xv]
Needless to say this ridiculous claim refers to the ghoulish legends created around the concentration camps. These remain the most well-known and emotive, and certainly did not come about by accident. Dr Elizabeth van Heyningen’s excellent history of the subject describes these myths as resulting from a ‘haze of informal history’, mainly based on poetry and semi-fictional accounts of camp life, many of which were written a generation after the event. These legends were then nurtured by Afrikaner nationalists in the 1920s and ’30s, and then extremely exaggerated by the Apartheid regime to become the utter nonsense that we have to listen to at braais today.
The National Party’s determination to build the myth was remarkable. During the Apartheid-era, works by respected South African historians such as Professors Walker, Macmillan, Keppel-Jones, and Fouché were all excluded from the approved list, but a hastily-written school textbook called Die Konsentrasie Kampe was eagerly snapped up by the Transvaal Education Department.[xvi] Written by one Dr J. C. Otto, it was a self-pitying work of myth-building propaganda so abysmally appalling that a fellow Afrikaans historian described the error-strewn drivel as an ‘emotional outburst from beginning to end’.[xvii] Nevertheless, Otto’s ahistorical rubbish fitted the National Party’s determination to squeeze every drop of political capital they could from the Boer War, and this tripe was considered exactly the sort of thing all South African school children should be studying. So it was that the endless propaganda around the concentration camps was used to help create a myth of national victimhood, one which some simple-minded folk still delight in basking in even today. As Liz Stanley and Helen Dampier wrote:
‘The number’—that is, the Vrouemonument and its number—has continued over the time since then to accrue public meaning around repetitions and reinterpretations, the most powerful of which involved the strategy under apartheid to legitimize Afrikaner nationalism and racism by reference both to the past history of the concentration camp deaths, and also increasingly by reference to viewing ‘the number’ as inscribed on the Vrouemonument as ‘a story of the facts’ in and of itself. This has been supported by the huge comparison that has been made through repetitions of the words ‘concentration camps’, which by their post-Nazi meaning and power seem to have explanatory power in association with ‘the number’ of an ‘it was genocide’ kind by claiming tacit kindred between these deaths and the six million in the Nazi camps.[xviii]
Even today, many are still desperate to believe the carefully cultivated, and long perpetuated, nonsense that all the residents of the concentration camps were well-educated, wealthy, cultured, urbane, middle-class Afrikaners. All the evidence, however, suggests that a majority of the residents were actually landless, destitute bywoners. Prior to the war, the large numbers of such impoverished whites had been noted by the Dutch Reformed Church and it was reckoned that the ZAR spent one third of its budget on poor relief. One historian suggests that half of the rural whites on the Highveldt were bywoners by the end of the century.[xix]
As uncomfortable as it may be for some to accept, this reality is certainly supported by records kept at the time. Looking at the finances and land holdings of residents in six very different camps,[xx] it was found that 70 per cent of families owned no property whatsoever, and those that did held very small amounts. The register at Irene Camp, for example, showed that of 2,386 heads of families, only 270 were land owners[xxi]—a statistic which hardly supports the notion that the camps were full of successful, well-to-do people. Indeed, it is perfectly logical that disproportionate numbers of people from the poorer (and, almost inevitably, less well-educated) end of society should have ended up in the camps; where refugees could support themselves, the Imperial authorities encouraged them so to do, and thus many wealthier families sought refuge with relatives, or in towns and villages, or left South Africa entirely.[xxii]
Just as the defeat of the Confederate States devastated many white Southerners economically and – perhaps even more so – psychologically, the same was true in the former Boer republics. British victory brought major changes and upheaval, as well as sometimes unwelcome reform and progress in those territories, shattering the self-appointed status of the Boers as ‘God’s Chosen People’, and turning their world upside down. Before the wars, many in both the Confederacy and in the Boer republics proudly believed that their supposed warrior prowess would see them win without too much difficulty – especially as the Almighty would obviously be on their side. After both starting wars which they inevitably lost, and with their lives ruined as a result, many sought much-needed comfort by explaining away their defeats by attributing it all to factors beyond their control, such as the number of their enemies, and the use of unfair and overwhelming brutality.[xxiii] Anything, in fact, to help them come to terms with not living up to their self-appointed martial brilliance.
Indeed, both movements frantically attempt to get round the ticklish problem of their supposedly invincible heroes having lost the wars they started, by squawking about ‘impossible odds’. A key element in Lost Cause legend is that the Southern Generals were all amazing, and the courage and fighting ability of the rebel forces was beyond compare… so defeat is all blamed on the massive size of the North’s industrial machine, and the allegedly enormous armies they could raise. Likewise, Defenders of the Myth like to pretend that the Boers were all born warriors led by brilliant Generals, so they too will have you believe that they only lost because the British outnumbered them by 100:1 (or whatever other number they simply pluck out of the air). No explanation is ever offered for the fatally flawed strategy of the Boers, or their complete inability to take Ladysmith, Kimberley or Mafeking (let alone Durban or Cape Town) while they still outnumbered the Imperial forces by over 2:1.
And no one ever troubles themselves to explain why the Almighty didn’t get involved to help his ‘Chosen People’.
Some of the specific tenets of Lost Cause lore make for entertaining reading, especially when one compares them to the rubbish that Defenders of Boer War Myths buy into:
1. The concept of ‘the Southern Cavalier ideal’ is central to the Lost Cause, and focuses on men such as General Nathan Bedford Forrest[xxiv]. Forrest had enlisted as a private soldier and (in another echo of the Boer way of doing things) was soon promoted, without any training, to a General. Forrest was said to have revolutionised cavalry tactics… and it is on that which his hero-worshippers tend to focus, rather than on his ordering the massacre of hundreds of black Union soldiers at the Battle of Fort Pillow[xxv].
Also especially revered by believers in the Lost Cause are those Confederate commanders such as John ‘the Gray Ghost’ Mosby, who were involved in the guerrilla war which raged behind the Union lines; of course, they do not view them as bandits, bushwhackers or terrorists, but instead as noble freedom fighters. Claims of their courage in the face of heavy odds, their horsemanship, marksmanship and manliness are all part of the legend[xxvi].
The parallels here with the myths surrounding the Boer Generals are obvious. Myths which are only kept alive by completely ignoring all the times that they were defeated by the ‘bumbling’ British forces… and by overlooking their casual mass-murder of black people. Even the allegedly chivalrous De la Rey did nothing to stop his men murdering non-white prisoners after the battle of Tweebosch.[xxvii]
2. As touched on previously, Confederate Generals like Lee and ‘Stonewall’ Jackson are held up as representing all the virtues of Southern nobility and are lionised for their bravery, brilliance and humanity. Indeed, the hero-worship of General Lee is a central pillar of the Lost Cause: ‘Already revered during the war, Robert E. Lee acquired a divine mystique within Southern culture after it. Remembered as a leader whose soldiers would loyally follow him into every fight no matter how desperate, Lee emerged from the conflict to become an icon of the Lost Cause and the ideal of the antebellum Southern gentleman, an honorable and pious man who selflessly served Virginia and the Confederacy. Lee’s tactical brilliance at Second Bull Run and Chancellorsville took on legendary status, and despite his accepting full responsibility for the defeat at Gettysburg, Lee remained largely infallible for Southerners and was spared criticism even from historians until recent times.’[xxviii]
In stark contrast, the Lost Causers characterise Northern generals as all being brutal butchers and / or incompetent.[xxix]
Again, the similarities with the Boer War myths are clear, with True Believers sycophantically affording both De la Rey and De Wet a God-like status, akin to that given to General Lee. Many genuinely believe they were unbeaten (and, indeed, unbeatable) throughout the war, despite both suffering plenty of hammerings… perhaps Bok van Blerk couldn’t work that unfortunate reality into his song about De la Rey?
Needless to say, Defenders of the Myth roundly dismiss all the British Generals as either useless or barbaric (or both). The undeniable fact of British victory makes this one of the most amusing of the Boer War myths.
3. As far as the Lost Cause is concerned, any Confederate defeat on the battlefield is waved away as inevitable, given the North’s superiority in resources and manpower. Losses are also sometimes explained away as the result of betrayal and incompetence on the part of certain subordinates of the invincible General Lee.
The Boer Myths are similar, with any and all British victories dismissed as being due to ‘overwhelming numbers’ whether or not this is true (and it usually isn’t). The crushing Boer defeat at Paardeberg is also blamed by some on the ‘treachery’ of General Cronjé, whereas the True Believers’ favourite, De Wet, is completely exonerated for his part in the mass surrender at the Brandwater Basin (mainly because, true to form, he had already run away). Instances when the Boers, despite enjoying a preponderance of numbers, failed to achieve their objectives are simply ignored.
4. The Lost Cause overwhelmingly concerns itself on General Lee and the Eastern Theatre of operations: northern Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania – ie. the specific portion of the war where the Confederates did well for a time. By asserting Gettysburg to have been the turning point of the war, the Lost Cause ignores the Union victories in Tennessee and Mississippi, and that the much-vaunted Confederate army was completely unable to stop the Union army’s advance through Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, an advance which ended with the Army of Northern Virginia’s surrender at Appomattox.
Once more, the Defenders of the Myth take a similar approach to the Boer War, focusing overwhelmingly on just the couple of months of the war which featured ‘Black Week’ and Spion Kop. They prefer to totally overlook the complete failure of the Boer invasion of Natal, and the inability of the invading Boers to capture any of the defended towns. They also simply ignore the unstoppable advance of Roberts’ Corps, all the decisive victories he won, the capture of Bloemfontein, Johannesburg and Pretoria, and the enormous surrenders of Boers month in, month out during the guerrilla war. According to True Believers, the Boers won every battle and then… err… well… the British cheated… and, err… concentration camps… or genocide… or something.
5. The wicked Union armies destroyed property purely out of spite, not because such places were sustaining a guerrilla campaign. Lost Causers pretend there was no military justification or necessity behind any of this, and claim it was done only out of cruelty, to humiliate and impoverish, or for revenge. This charge is often specifically made against General Sherman who established concentration camps[xxx], and who employed Scorched Earth tactics during his 1864 ‘March to the Sea’ campaign. Yes, True Believers, you read it here first: the evil British did not ‘invent’ such things in the Boer War.
Again, we hear the same sort of rubbish from Defenders of the Boer War Myths. Though striking at the supply source of an enemy is a tactic as old as warfare itself, True Believers make no attempt to understand why Kitchener targeted farms which were supplying the bittereinders, or moved to destroy his enemies’ support structure. Instead, what was a perfectly legitimate – if unpleasant – military tactic is reinvented as bloodthirsty savagery by a cruel, cowardly and genocidal monster. There is also never any admission that the ‘pious’ Boers also indulged in farm burning, and brutally targeted surrendered Boers, Loyalists and blacks.
One can clearly see the similarity in mindset between the type of people who have an emotional ‘need’ to believe in the Lost Cause, and those who desperately cling to the Boer War myths. Both groups are determined to live in denial, to mindlessly champion regimes which were deeply unpleasant, to bask in the warm glow of faux victimhood (despite their preferred sides both having started the wars in question), and to maintain the fiction that their chosen heroes were magnificent, noble, gallant Christian knights… who only lost because the other side cheated. Or something.
Indeed, probably the only real difference between the nonsense of the Lost Cause, and the self-pitying rubbish spouted by Defenders of the Boer War Myths, is that Hollywood hasn’t ever really touched on the latter. So far, at least, we have been spared a Boer War equivalent of ‘Gone with the Wind’, or ‘Song of the South’. Remarkably, such films were still being made relatively recently, with 2003’s, almost-four-hours-long ‘Gods and Generals’ perhaps one of the worst. One reviewer stated that the box office bomb:
‘brings to the big screen the major themes of Lost Cause mythology that professional historians have been working for half a century to combat. In the world of ‘Gods and Generals’, slavery has nothing to do with the Confederate cause. Instead, the Confederates are nobly fighting for, rather than against, freedom, as viewers are reminded again and again by one white southern character after another.[xxxi]
Nevertheless, and even without their own version of the generally God-awful ‘Gods and Generals’ to help keep their fantasies alive a little longer, Defenders of the Boer War Myths still frantically pretend that Kruger et al were fighting for, rather than against, freedom, and laughably squeal that the republics were the innocent victims of British aggression.
We can only hope that they will, one day, realise their desperate attempts to twist historical reality are indeed a lost cause.
[i] Just as the Boer War myths are also not based on historical reality, and are equally unpleasant pseudohistorical, negationist fantasies, most typically enjoyed by extremists and nut-cases in South Africa
[ii] Gallagher, Gary W.; Nolan, Alan T., The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History. See also: Domby, Adam H. The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy In Confederate Memory
[iii] Thomas, George Henry (December 4, 1868). ‘The Department Reports’
[iv] Romanticizing Confederate cause has no place onscreen, San Francisco Chronicle, 24 July, 2015
[v] Donaldson, Remembering the South African War, p.147
[vi] Ibid, p.147
[vii] Ibid, p.148
[viii] McGuire, Hunter; Christian, George L, The Confederate cause and conduct in the war between the states, as set forth in the reports of the History Committee of the Grand Camp, C.V., of Virginia, and other Confederate papers
[ix] Lowry, The South African War Reappraised, p.209
[x] Foster, Gaines, Civil War Sesquicentennial: The Lost Cause
[xi] Gallagher, Gary W; Nolan, Alan T., The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History.
[xii] Osterweis, Rollin G, The Myth of the Lost Cause, 1865–1900. p. ix.
[xiii] Nasson, The War for South Africa, p.285
[xiv] Ibid, p.287
[xv] Ibid, p.289
[xvi] Martin, Colonel Arthur Clive, The Concentration Camps: 1900‒1902: facts figures, and fables, p.7
[xvii] van Heyningen, The Concentration Camps of the Anglo-Boer War: A Social History, p.21
[xviii] Liz Stanley and Helen Dampier, The Number of the South African War (1899–1902) Concentration Camp Dead: Standard Stories, Superior Stories and a Forgotten Proto-Nationalist Research Investigation
[xix] ‘Fools Rush in—writing about the concentration camps of the South African War’
[xx] Aliwal North, Balmoral, Irene, Middelburg, Pietersburg, and Winburg
[xxi] ‘Fools Rush in—writing about the concentration camps of the South African War’
[xxiii] Gallagher, Gary W; Nolan, Alan T., The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History.
[xxiv] Nathan Bedford Forrest (1821 – 1877) went on to serve as the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan from 1867 to 1869 – something that doesn’t stop the Lost Causers idolising him, apparently
[xxv] Fought on 12 April 1864, Confederate forces under General Forrest are reckoned to have massacred several hundred Union soldiers as they attempted to surrender. Those murdered were mainly black. One (Confederate) witness reported that Forrest himself ordered his men to ‘shoot them down like dogs’.
[xxvi] Colt B. Allgood, Confederate Partisans and the Southern Cavalier Ideal, 1840–1920. Southern Historian (2011). Vol. 32, pp.28–42.
[xxvii] The Marquess of Anglesey, A History of the British Cavalry 1816–1919, Volume 4, p.270
[xxviii] Ulbrich, David, “Lost Cause”, Encyclopedia of the American Civil War: A Political, Social, and Military History, p.1222
[xxix] Hayes Historical Journal: The Problem of Ulysses S. Grant
[xxx] Pretorius, Scorched Earth, p.42
[xxxi] Woodworth, Steven E, Film Review: Gods and Generals, Teaching History