In 1882, Carlton McCarthy--Confederate veteran, prolific writer, and future mayor of Richmond, Virginia--reflected on the significance of the American Civil War: "No country likes to part with a good earnest war," he wrote. "It likes to talk about war, write its history, fight its battles over and over again, and build monument after monument to commemorate its glories. " (2)
Over the course of McCarthy's literary and political career he would do all those things and more. His historical significance, however, is not in the battles he fought or the monuments he built; rather, it is in the way he enabled white Southerners to remember with a divided mind.
Through his writings and speeches, McCarthy manufactured parallel accounts of Confederate history, so inculcating white Southerners with bifurcated memory that modern-day defenders of Confederate symbols anchor their arguments in McCarthy's logic, if not in the alternate reality he concocted.
Historians have long been interested in the rhetoric of the Lost Cause, and for good reason. As is evident from current firestorms over public memory, Confederate mythology continues to shape the way many white Americans interpret the past. (3) In his study of Lost Cause rhetoric, historian W. Stuart Towns contends that through their speeches, white Southern orators forged a "paradigm" that continues to inform present-day discourse over public memory. (4) That this rhetorical paradigm persists today, despite its negationist underpinning, only supports historian W. Fitzhugh Brundage's assertion that "[n]o longer can we presume the existence of fixed images of the past that we retrieve intact through acts of memory." Historical memory, he writes, "is not simply the articulation of some shared subconscious, but rather the product of intentional creation." (5) Indeed, the Lost Cause fabrication was not merely a subconscious phenomenon. Rather, as historian Adam Domby notes, white Southerners harnessed the Lost Cause for the "political ends" of sustaining "racial hierarchies." (6.)
This article explores why the Lost Cause has had the staying power it has, and what part McCarthy had in establishing the discursive framework from which many modern-day partisans continue to operate. While scholars have dedicated needed attention to Lost Cause rhetoric, they have largely overlooked McCarthy, whose writings, orations, and political initiatives equipped white Southerners with the tools they needed to vindicate the South rhetorically in a way they had failed to do militarily. His example reveals that what sustained the Lost Cause was not just mythologized past and coded white supremacy (although both did), but a divided memory that allowed white Southerners to salvage Southern virtues from the ashes of Confederate defeat. Here I argue that McCarthy was a progenitor in the effort to bifurcate Confederate memory, and that this bifurcation is a principal reason that the Lost Cause remains a powerful force today.
Carlton McCarthy was born on August 18, 1847, in Richmond, Virginia. His father, Florence, was an Irish immigrant who worked as a merchant in the city. Julia Ann Humes, Carlton's mother, traced her lineage to Scotland. She and Florence had eight...