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Enduring Legacy: Rhetoric and Ritual of the Lost Cause by W. Stuart Towns (review)
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Southern Lost Cause rhetoric endures! Stuart Towns, in his book Enduring Legacy, argues that not only is Lost Cause rhetoric evident in the speeches, ceremonies, and memorials established throughout the post-Civil War South, but that the same arguments, memory, and coded language work rhetorically today. Beginning with the construction of white southern collective memory after the Civil War, Towns traces how the white South created and maintained the myth of the Lost Cause in epideictic rhetoric. While much has been written in the areas of history and literature regarding the Lost Cause myth, Towns focuses on public speech delivered at “various events held across the South to commemorate the fallen Confederacy and heroic Confederates” (xv).

The book is divided into six chapters. Chapter 1 justifies epideictic rhetoric’s importance in making sense of Civil War defeat to white southerners. Such rhetoric “must be taken seriously if one is to understand the twentieth-century South of segregation, conservatism, and tradition and the ongoing life of the Confederacy in the twenty-first” (13). In the following chapters Towns identifies numerous examples of Lost Cause rhetoric. He draws attention to the arguments used in the creation of memory ceremonies, such as reunions for Confederate veterans, Confederate Memorial Day celebrations, and Confederate monument dedications. Chapter 3, furthering the discussion, focuses on speeches given by public figures at these ceremonies and memorials. Next, Towns identifies scapegoats and heroic martyrs used in Lost Cause rhetoric to explain and defend the Confederate position. Included in the analysis are Confederate soldiers, Generals Lee, Jackson and Sherman, Jefferson Davis, and white southern women. For example, Towns argues the Confederate soldiers were identified as martyrs of Lost Cause rhetoric by being consistently revered for their courage and honor while being outnumbered and outresourced. In contrast, General Sherman serves as the symbolic wartime criminal scapegoat whose actions toward the South were beyond reason and without conscience. To this day, Towns argues, some white southerners still declare bitterness at General Sherman’s behavior against the South.

Furthermore, chapter 5 explains how the Lost Cause mythology further evolved as a narrative for the evolution into current day southern rhetoric. This rhetoric covers several decades beginning with, “the black days of Reconstruction, the satisfaction of Redemption, [and] the patriotic appeal of Reconciliation” (96). As orators explained how the South is redeemed and accepted back into the Union, the Lost Cause mythology reemerges in the narrative of a progressive new and future South. According to Towns, the narrative eventually leads to further racial and class divides during segregation and industrialization. This sets up Towns’s final argument in chapter 6 that the Lost Cause mythology and persuasive appeals, such as state’s rights and honor, continue throughout the Civil Rights Movement evolving into more recent debates over confederate flags on state capitals and discussions over state-supported confederate monuments. This last chapter contains Towns’s greatest contribution to discussion regarding southern Lost Cause rhetoric and memory, which is the insight that for many southern whites the narratives containing Lost Cause mythology nurture an identity. “The symbols created and used by half a century of Lost Cause orators were powerful enough to last through the twentieth century and into the twenty first” (119). Such symbols were “emotionally charged shorthand snapshots” (120) that were returned to defend state’s rights and confederate honor. Therefore, Lost Cause rhetoric and ritual leaves us with complicated consequences today: “Around the South, the past is alive and vivid to many contemporary southerners, black and white. It intrudes upon our lives, infiltrates the present and attempts to shape, influence, and persuade the future” (145). Tracing the arguments of the Lost Cause mythology and ritual to current day debates, Towns reminds scholars of the longevity, potency, and complexities of such arguments.

The book is important and worth reading for several reasons. Towns reminds the reader that southern rhetoric and its influence did not just stop with desegregation and the Voting Rights Act but that it remains a culturally entrenched mythology. In addition, Towns makes a direct and vast connection between Lost Cause rhetoric and Civil War memory by connecting epideictic rhetoric of Confederate memorial celebrations to the narrative of what it means...

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