Donald Trump and the new Lost Cause

If you want to know how the Big Lie will go down in revisionist history, look to the South and the Civil War

By Lucian K. Truscott IV
Published June 19, 2021 8:00AM (EDT)
Donald Trump, a painting of the Confederate army losing and the January 6, 2021 US Capitol Riot (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump, a painting of the Confederate army losing and the January 6, 2021 US Capitol Riot (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Lies are a denomination of power. The bigger the lie, the more power it represents. Right now in this country, we are being treated daily to the Big Lie that Donald Trump was the true winner of the presidential election of 2020, and the only reason he's not in the White House right now is because the election was stolen from him.

You may have noticed that the people pushing the Big Lie today are very good at it. This is because many of them have been pushing an even bigger Big Lie for most of their lives: the lie of the Lost Cause, that the Civil War wasn't really fought over the disgraceful secession of the Southern states and slavery, it was instead a noble cause fought for the "honor" of the South, and that slavery itself wasn't bad or immoral, because enslaved people were happy workers living much better lives than they would have lived where they came from in Africa.

The Lost Cause was — or still is, because it lives today across a broad swath of America — the foundational ethos of racism and was used to perpetuate the racial crimes of the Jim Crow era, when Black Americans in the South were stripped of the right to vote and segregated from whites and subjected to the pernicious political and social discriminatory practices of white supremacy.

The Civil War was, of course, lost by the Confederacy, but you wouldn't know it if you lived in the South through the disgraceful years of Jim Crow or even today in the states which comprised the Confederacy. One of the truths about wars is that they are often won or lost not in the big battles which become famous and end up celebrated — or lamented — in the history books, but in smaller out-of-the-way battles that get largely forgotten.

The battle of Franklin, Tennessee, was one such battle in the Civil War. Little celebrated in the history books or anywhere except Franklin itself, the battle was fought late in the war, on November 30, 1864, and was part of the campaign by the Army of Tennessee following the Confederate defeat by the Union Army of Lt. Gen. William T. Sherman in the battle of Atlanta. Commanded by Confederate General John Bell Hood, the Army of Tennessee, instead of pursuing Sherman after he left Atlanta and began his famous "March to the Sea," turned westward and began a campaign to take Nashville from the Union forces which occupied this important manufacturing center of the South.

The battle of Franklin and the battle of Nashville, which followed quickly on its heels, were a disaster for the Confederacy. The Army of Tennessee began its campaign with 38,000 men in November of 1864. By January of 1865, the Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, who was in overall command of the Confederate armies in the West, would report to Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, that his army was reduced in strength to 15,000, having lost more than 6,000 men on a single day in the battle of Franklin, and 2,500 more in the battle of Nashville. More than 2,000 losses were attributed to desertion in the ranks during both battles.

John Bell Hood was incompetent as a tactician and bloody awful as a combat commander. His campaign after the loss in Atlanta was "unfortunate" in the words of some sympathetic texts about the war. Confederate losses in the battle of Franklin were by some counts the largest in a single day in the war. Fourteen Confederate generals were either killed or wounded, along with 55 regimental commanders, decimating the leadership of the Confederate army in the west.

While living in Franklin a few years back, I visited part of the Franklin battlefield at Carnton Plantation with my son on a Cub Scout troop excursion. The house was transformed into a Confederate hospital during the battle of Franklin, and on the property is a cemetery containing 1,481 Confederate graves. The 48-acre site was the location of a plantation consisting of about 1,000 acres of land owned by Randal McGavock, who had been a state supreme court clerk and mayor of Nashville. The 1850 census showed 28 enslaved people working at the Carnton plantation. The plantation house and all the outbuildings, including a large sawmill, were built with slave labor. Records show that in 1859, McGavock's son John, who had inherited the plantation upon his father's death, "purchased a slave" for $2500 to run his sawmill. Currently owned by the Battle of Franklin Trust, you can visit the "historic" site seven days a week. An adult ticket costs $18, a child's ticket $8. All of the land you walk on was worked by the people enslaved at Carnton plantation. Every structure you walk through on the tour was built by  enslaved people. Throughout the time the plantation existed, there were more enslaved people on the property than there were white people who owned them.

During the tour of the house, I was stricken by the way the docent described the battle of Franklin. Facing a group of us from a few steps up on the house's grand staircase, with a lavishly furnished entrance hall behind us, the docent went on at some length about what an "idiot" General Hood was, how he should never have been given command of a Confederate army, how his foolishness had led to so many sad deaths on the day of the battle. All of those now lying in the cemetery less than a hundred yards from the house were killed under Hood's command, due to his malfeasance as a commanding general.  The docent's emphasis throughout his talk was on the tragedy of the deaths of so many good Southern boys.  He didn't mention once the "cause" they fought for.  In fact, the the words "slave" or "slavery" didn't pass his lips.  It was as if the fact of slavery and the enslaved people owned by the McGavock family didn't exist.

Outside we had passed reenactors in Confederate army costumes. Inside the house, listening to the docent describe the incompetent General Hood and the incredible losses suffered in the battle, we could hear the reenactors firing blanks, showing the tourists how the Confederate soldiers fired their rifles. Omitted from the reenactor's demonstration was the fact that their rifles were fired in vain in a battle that cost the lives of several thousand Confederate soldiers attired just like them.

It was impossible to miss the implications of the whole scene at the plantation. The life of the distinguished McGavock family within the house was orderly, elegant, refined. The furnishings in the house were beautiful. The battle, as reenacted in a minor way outside and described by the docent inside, was tragic only in that the dastardly Hood had lost it. The Confederate soldiers had fought bravely, nobly for their cause, the Lost Cause that was on display all around us in the structures and land and furnishings. Unstated was the fact that the house itself was built by the enslaved and furnished and cleaned by them, the land was worked by the enslaved, indeed the life of the McGavock family had been made possible by slavery.

Carnton in its day was one of the grandest plantations in the whole Nashville area and had been voted "best farm" at the Williamson County Fair in 1860. For your $18 admission fee, you support the Franklin Battlefield Trust and visit this tribute to the nobility of a time and a way of life that is still celebrated in Tennessee and at similar sites of plantations and other battlefields across the South. Cherished for its "historical" value, the Carnton plantation is all the evidence you need that the Lost Cause was lost in name only.

The Lost Cause of Donald Trump's defeat at the polls is being celebrated in much the same way every day across the land by his supporters who send money to his political action committee, who buy and wear MAGA gear, who wave huge TRUMP flags alongside Confederate flags at MAGA demonstrations, and of course who wore and waved all of their Trump gear when thousands of them assaulted the Capitol on January 6 in his name.

Some of them are even paying for memberships to his personal plantation at Mar-a-Lago, and to his golf clubs in Sterling, Virginia; Bedminster, New Jersey; and Briarcliff Manor, New York. It has recently been reported that Trump himself has been seen wandering through Mar-a-Lago and his golf clubs, stopping to visit gatherings of members at their weddings and birthdays — in effect acting as his own docent, delivering lengthy descriptions of the Battle of the 2020 Election, which while lost, was nonetheless fought valiantly, nobly by his supporters. The battle is still being fought today in places like Arizona by his own army laboring tirelessly in reenactments in their so-called "audit" as they shove ballots beneath black lights looking for shreds of bamboo fibers which would show their origin in China and give evidence of having been "stuffed" into ballot boxes on election day on behalf of the dastardly Joe Biden.

They're going to keep this up. They've kept up the fiction of the Lost Cause of the South's defeat in the Civil War for more than 150 years, so why shouldn't they keep pushing the Lost Cause of Donald Trump's defeat in the election of 2020? The South has been enslaved by the lies they have told about the Civil War. Look at John Bell Hood! They even managed to get a United States Army base named after the man who lost more Confederate soldiers on a single day than anyone during the entire war!  Why give up now? Next thing you know, they'll be pushing to erect monuments to General Michael "Let's have a coup!" Flynn! If they can celebrate the criminally incompetent Hood, why not the criminally pardoned Flynn? Why not rename the FBI building after Rudy "Hunter Biden! Burisma!" Giuliani? Or re-name the building housing the Department of Justice after William "What Mueller report?" Barr? Or erect a grand statue of Mitch "I forgot where I was on January 6" McConnell? Or name a federal courthouse after Sidney "I lost every election lawsuit I filed" Powell?

Just watch what they're going to do with the assault on the Capitol, which is perfect for the Lost Cause of Donald Trump. It's like their very own Battle of Franklin. They failed to stop the certification of the Electoral College ballots.  Joe Biden was named president.  They lost the battle of the Capitol, 400 have been indicted, and they accomplished exactly nothing. All they need now is a new Lost Cause battle flag. Or maybe they'll just adopt the old one, the Confederate battle flag, because that's what the followers of the new Lost Cause have become: Donald Trump's Confederacy of Dunces.


Lucian K. Truscott IV

Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist and screenwriter. He has covered stories such as Watergate, the Stonewall riots and wars in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels and several unsuccessful motion pictures. He has three children, lives on the East End of Long Island and spends his time Worrying About the State of Our Nation and madly scribbling in a so-far fruitless attempt to Make Things Better. You can read his daily columns at luciantruscott.substack.com and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.

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Big Lie Capitol Riot Civil War Commentary Confederacy Donald Trump Maga