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Mildred Rutherford’s War

The “historian general” of the United Daughters of the Confederacy began the battle over the depiction of the South in history textbooks that continues today.

The long battle over American history textbooks arose from the ashes of the Civil War, which had left the white population of the South devastated. Parts of many towns and cities were in rubble; 18 percent of Southern white men between the ages of thirteen and forty-three had been killed—triple the rate in the North—and by some estimates nearly 200,000 Southern soldiers were wounded. The humiliation of military defeat quickly gave rise to a romanticization of the Old South that became known as the Lost Cause. That vanished land was happy, rural, and idyllic for all, white and Black, the myth goes, without the problems of industrial society, and it was this harmonious world that the brave Confederate soldiers had fought to defend. As the historian David W. Blight put it in Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2001),

White supremacy, a hardening of traditional gender roles, a military tradition and patriotic recognition of Confederate valor, and a South innocent of responsibility for slavery were values in search of a history.

And so determined Southern patriots set out to create that history.

The death toll among Confederate men meant that women, despite those traditional gender roles, were particularly active in crafting it. Their work began with Ladies’ Memorial Associations, which sprang up throughout the South. These groups exhumed the Confederate dead from battlefields, reburied them in special cemeteries, and staged memorial days. By 1868 Virginia alone had twenty-six Ladies’ Memorial Associations. Many Confederate widows wore black for the rest of their lives.

The next stage came in the 1890s with the founding of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which quickly became the most influential force promoting the Lost Cause. The Daughters, as they were called, grew rapidly, quintupling their membership between 1900 and 1920. Their most visible work was helping to erect monuments to Confederate leaders. Although dozens of these have been toppled in the past few years, a far greater number are still standing. Among them is an 1896 white marble obelisk in Fort Mill, South Carolina, inscribed:

Dedicated to the faithful slaves who, loyal to a sacred trust, toiled for support of the army, with matchless devotion, and with sterling fidelity guarded our defenseless homes, women and children.

The most powerful impact of the Lost Cause, however, was on schools, in large part because of a formidable woman named Mildred Lewis Rutherford. Both her grandfathers were wealthy Georgia planters; one owned more than two hundred slaves. Two uncles were Confederate generals. Rutherford was as patriotic about her class as her region. The plantation owners she celebrated were, she claimed, descended from the cavaliers, the royalists of the English Civil War, “men of the leading families of England, gentlemen of the best English society, the landed gentry born to wealth.” By contrast, the villain who had crushed their world, Abraham Lincoln, had been chosen by Republicans because they “wanted a man from the lower class to humiliate the upper class.”