The University of Virginia: Academic Incubator of the Lost Cause?
    by Ian Iverson

The following essay, analyzing an 1866 UVA commencement address, begins a series of short articles to consider the University of Virginia’s prominent role in creating and nurturing the “Lost Cause.” A term coined by UVA alumnus Edward A. Pollard in his 1867 work The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates, the Lost Cause narrative of the Civil War arose as a postbellum apologia for the Confederate national project and as a denunciation of contemporary Reconstruction measures. As concisely stated by historian Elizabeth R. Varon, “the essence of the Lost Cause was that the Civil War was not lost, and could yet be won by new forms of racial proscription and segregation.” Cultivated by leading ex-Confederates at the University of Virginia, this distorted narrative gradually developed a national prestige. Later adopted by many Northerners in a misguided attempt to relate “the other side,” key tenents of the Lost Cause concerning the conflicts origins and effects, along with its deification of Confederate military leaders, became part of the mainstream narrative of the “War Between the States” by the mid-twentieth century. Examples include Douglas S. Freeman’s Pulitizer Prize Winning Multi-Volume Biography of Robert E. Lee (1934-1935), Margaret Mitchell’s acclaimed novel Gone with the Wind (1936) which was subsequently adapted into an Oscar-award Winning Film (1939) starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, and the egregiously ahistorical film Santa Fe Trail starring Errol Flynn and Ronald Reagan. Although the Civil Rights Movement helped to trigger a review of this twisted story of Confederate honor and beneficence, the Lost Cause remains a powerful force in American popular memory. At the beginning of the observance of the Civil War’s sesquicentennial in 2011, 48 percent of Americans identified “states’ rights” as the war’s primary cause as opposed to slavery. Some 60 percent of respondents under the age of 30 took the “states’ rights” position, a powerful indicator of the continued disconnect between academic historians— who unanimously identify slavery as the principal cause of the war— and the general public.  [1.]


Stuart’s Commencement Address
Delivered in front of the Rotunda on June 30, 1866, barely a year after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Alexander H.H. Stuart’s commencement address sought to reframe the recent past into a heroic myth. A UVA alumnus and former Congressman from Staunton, Stuart had also served as U.S. Secretary of the Interior under President Millard Fillmore and had vehemently opposed secession in the spring of 1861. Nevertheless, during the conflict, Stuart had thrown his support behind the Confederacy and despaired at the South’s defeat in 1865. Through an astounding combination of distortion and self-deception, Stuart framed the Civil War as the inevitable clash of two rival civilizations. Laying the foundation for future advocates of the Lost Cause, Stuart insisted that tensions over slavery may have served as the proximate cause of the war, but that by 1860, fundamental social, cultural, and economic differences had created irreconcilable differences between North and South.

Among other issues, Stuart pointed to New England’s advocacy of Federal consolidation and high tariffs— measures which supposedly threatened the sovereignty of the Southern States. Stuart neglected to explain how he reconciled this conclusion with his own antebellum views, when as a Henry Clay Whig, he supported Federally funded internal improvements and protective tariffs for American manufacturers. Stuart also identified cultural traits, such as the Southerners' “high sense of personal honor,” “liberal spirit of toleration,” and “devout reverence for the Christian religion” as features which distinguished the noble Virginia Cavalier from the fanatical Puritan Yankee. Yet, had Stuart reflected on his own experience at the Virginia Secession Convention— where he himself had defended the virtues of Union with the North— he might have remembered that while the topic of slavery was raised on some 1,100 occasions, the delegates mentioned the tariff  a mere 81 times, State’s Rights on 51 occasions, Christianity 36 times, and the famed Cavalier and Puritan dichotomy only seven times. [2.]

With this clear break from reality, Stuart hoped to reshape the memory of the war in a way that might galvanize a backlash against Federal Reconstruction and reestablish the political dominance and social supremacy of white Southerners. Applying the same rhetoric of paternalism long used by Southerners to justify slavery, Stuart instructed graduates in “their duty to care for the unfortunate and dependent race that had been cast loose” by the conflict. In disregard for the events so recently witnessed by his entire audience, Stuart insisted that the ties which had bound the enslaved to their white masters "had been rudely broken through no agency of theirs.” In fact, during the Union Army’s sole foray into Charlottesville a little over a year before, in March 1865, dozens of enslaved people had welcomed the blue coated troops and eagerly accompanied them as camp followers rather than remain in bondage. The deep political engagement of Albemarle County’s African American population in the aftermath of the war, along with the community’s fierce efforts to establish distinct social institutions, cast further doubt on Stuart’s narrative of black helplessness in the aftermath of freedom. [3.]

In the years to come, Stuart, with the assistance of members of the class of 1866, would play a critical role in reestablishing Virginia’s racial hierarchy. Leading the “so-called” Committee of Nine, Stuart negotiated a constitutional settlement with the Federal Government which allowed Virginia to reenter the Union in 1870 in exchange for a de jure recognition of black political rights. Alone among the former Confederate states, Virginia never underwent a period of “radical reconstruction” and ex-Confederates quickly reemerged as the state’s political elite. Although many African Americans would retain the right to vote until the first decade of the twentieth century, the new state government minimized their role in public affairs. Stuart himself served several terms in the new General Assembly in the 1870s as well as the Rector of the University of Virginia (1874-1882, 1884-1887) and president of the Virginia Historical Society (1881-1891). [4.]


The full text of the speech as reported in the Richmond Daily Dispatch appears below: 

Daily Dispatch, Richmond, VA., July 2, 1866

From the Third Day of Commencement Exercises at the University, June 30, 1866

Mr. Stuart’s Address

After Dr. Maupin had concluded his remarks there was an intermission of about twenty minutes, during which the Baltimore Blues Band executed some choice pieces of music. The Faculty and Marshalls then entered the hall escorting the Hon. A. H.H. Stuart, the orator of the day, who was received with applause. He was introduced by Mr. Micajah Woods, President of the Washington Literary Society, and delivered his address, which occupied near two hours. We have not room to publish it, but present our readers with the following sketch:

Mr. Stuart, addressing the society, said: We have assembled here today under circumstances of peculiar interest and solemnity. Six years have elapsed since a similar exhibition was held in this hall. During that period a civil war has desolated our country, and brought anguish and mourning into every household. Thousands of those nearest and dearest to us have fallen and died in camps and hospitals. Hostilities having ceased, we have no met to commemorate the close of the first session of the University since the restoration of peace. Under these circumstances the first thought of every mind is of the gallant men who suffered and died in the discharge of what they believed to be their duty, and the first impulse of every heart is to offer a grateful tribute to their memories. But for reasons which will be appreciated by this intelligent audience, I forbear from giving utterance at this time to many thoughts which would be pleasing to me to express and to you to hear. When the excitement and irritation engendered by the recent conflict shall have passed away it will be no less our duty than our privilege to do full justice to the motived and conduct of those who died in defense of their families and firesides. On this occasion I desire to direct your thoughts to other subjects, which, in my judgment are intimately connected with the future and prosperity and welfare of the country.

The speaker continued then his remarks with a short review of the present condition of the country, the past with its troubles, and the aspects of affairs for the future; and with this entered into the consideration of the following subjects: The recent revolution, its causes and consequences, and the duties and responsibilities which it has imposed on the people, and especially upon the young men of the south. He trusted that if, in the course of his remarks, he should refer to unpalatable facts, his hearers would remember that he would be actuated only by a strict regard to truth and justice.”
It was a common mistake to assume that slavery was the cause of the late war. It would be as correct to presume that the tax on tea was the cause of the revolution in 1776 as that slavery was to the cause of the war of 1861. But they both sprang from deeper cause, and the tax on tea on the one hand, and the apprehended interference with slavery on the other, were but the occasions for the development of the consequences of dissensions that had long been growing, and which were destined to occur. In order to obtain a just view of the true causes of the war, it was well to recur to the rise and progress of the different colonies of North America.

The speaker here entered into a historical sketch of the British in North Carolina from the time of the settlement of the North and south colonies of Virginia in 1607. To show one of the causes which contributed to form the peculiar character of the people of New England, he quoted the following concerning a law passed by them in the earliest days of their colony, to wit: “A law was passed declaring that none hereafter shall be admitted freemen, or be entitled to any share in the Government, or be capable of being chosen magistrates, or even serving as jurymen, but such as have been received into the church as members.
By this law all persons not members of the church were thrown out of society and deprived of the rights of citizens; and it was not surprising that aspirants for power or place should attempt to curry favor by affecting the sanctimonious manners and canting dialect which were known to be the surest passports.
The people who settled the south colonies were of no settled or particular religious faith, and carried to their homes the great body of English jurisprudence and the cardinal principles of constitutional liberty. The settlers of New England , on the other hand, went as organized bodies, bound together by common opinion in matters more of form rather than of faith.

He then gave sketches of the banishment of Roger Williams for contending that the cross of St. George should not be cut out from the flag of England, which caused the foundation of Rhode Island, and of the first proclamation of woman’s rights by Mrs. Ann Hutcheson [sic.]. He also cited the historical facts to show that all the colonies of New England were the offshoots of Massachusetts, formed by seceders forced to leave their original colony to get rid of religious persecution; and were consequently all the offspring of bigotry and intolerance practiced by their own faith and kindred.

A wise proverb affirmed that “History is constantly repeating itself"; and no intelligent man could fail to perceive that “political parsons, strong-minded women, and proscriptive test oaths,” were New England institutions as distinctively two centuries ago as now.

In Virginia there was never any disposition to interfere with freedom of conscience, except when under the reign of Cromwell, the people were unwilling to extend favor to dissenters from the Church of England lest it should be construed as disloyalty to the Crown.

The different elements composing these colonies, the opposition of opinions cherished by their people, and many natural causes—such as the difference of the pursuits of the two people— the one devoting itself to commerce, manufactories, and fishing, and the other almost entirely to agriculture—served to make many causes of antagonism. In 1776 a common danger alone served to unite the people of Virginia and Massachusetts; and in that struggle they were taught that union was essentially to safety.

Historical facts were produced to show that at the outset of the Federal Union Massachusetts and Virginia agreed on the important point that the Federal Government was one of limited powers, and that ll the powers not expressly granted were reserved to the States or the people. The differences of opinion and pursuits, etc., soon, however, produced their effects. The pursuits of New England led to the formation of companies and corporations which required the fostering care of the Government, while, on the other hand, the agricultural pursuits of the south were mainly dependent for success on individual exertion and industry. Bearing this in mind, it could be understood why New England has always been in favor of an extended sphere of Federal power, while the South has ever wished to restrain it within its narrowest limits. Consolidation was but another name for despotism; and if the tendency of the New England school of politics were accepted as the true theory of the Government, one of the strongest defenses of liberty would be lost. The next steps towards despotism would be the entire obliteration of all boundary lines between the States, so as to concentrate all power in the hands of one body of man. History has always taught us that, this accomplished, it was easy, by universal suffrage to substitute imperial despotism for a republic that has ceased to exist except in name. That each of the opposing schools had at times pushed their respective doctrines to unnecessary extremes could hardly be questioned. As an example, he quoted the endeavor of the north, in 1833, to protect her fisheries and manufacturing interests by high tariffs, and the persistent opposition of the south to the measure. There was a subject for compromise, but each party adhered pertinaciously to its own dogmas; and thus sectional animosity was inflamed. The north taking the opposition of the south to the measure as evidence of hostility to her system of free labor, declared war on slave labor, and has unrelentingly prosecuted it ever since. The prejudice against slavery has been fostered, not with any view to the interest of the negro, but that in time it might serve as an auxiliary to the contest for the ascendency of New England politics and interests in the national councils. Therefore the true causes of the war must be sought for behind and beyond slavery.

The great question, whether our government was federal or national, had not yet been answered. Slavery, one of the disturbing elements, was out of the way, but it remained to be seen whether the victory gained by the advocates of consolidation was final and complete. That question was to be decided by the great West. The west had never had nay definite policy of her own. The time would soon come for the development of western idea and policy; and these were to give shape and direction to the politics of the country.

The speaker then directed his audience to the subject of African slavery as being of great importance in any review of our history on account of the influence it had hitherto exerted the whole frame-work of southern society. The census of 1860 showed that the free negro population, not withstanding the large additions received by voluntary emancipation and runaways, had only increased 12.32/100 per cent., while the slave population, in the face of a corresponding decrease, showed an increase of 23.39/100 in the same period.

He next entered into the history of the slave trade from its beginning, in 1620, and of its success as an experiment. Some of the champions of New England had denied since slavery had become odious, that it had never legally existed within her borders, and Mr. Sumner had asserted that “in all her annals, no person was ever born a slave on the soil of Massachusetts,” and “if, in point of fact, the issue of slaves were ever held in bondage, it was never by sanction of any statute law of colony or commonwealth.”

These statements were at variance with historic facts, and involved a wholesale stigma upon the memory of the slaveholding pilgrim fathers. Authentic records were extant to show that slavery was introduced into New England by law, and that New England men and New England ships were the most active agents in prosecuting the African slave trade. The report of the superintendent of the census of 1860 reported: “it is believed that the first slave ship fitted out in British colonies sailed from Boston in 1646.” From the statute recognizing and regulating slavery, passed by the legislative body of Massachusetts, it was quoted: “It is ordered by this court and authority thereof that there shall never be any bond-slavery villenage or captivity amongst us unless it be lawful captives taken in just wars, or such as shall willingly sell themselves or are sold to us: and such shall have the liberties and Christian usage which the law of God established in Israel concerning such persons doth morally require, provided this exempts none from servitude who shall be judged thereto by authority.”

Other statistics, which are familiar to nearly every one, were produced in proof that slavery had existed in New England until 1796, when prospective measures were adopted to get rid of it, not for the welfare of the negro, but in accordance with an enlightened self-interest, which impelled them to relieve themselves of a population which they felt to be an incumbrance. They had found by experience that the negro was not adapted to high northern latitudes. In no case did any law in the northern States grant voluntary freedom to a slave, but they were all sold to southern masters. Virginia abolished the slave trade in 1778, and Massachusetts in 1788, ten years later.

Radical writers and politicians claimed that slavery was the “sum of all villainies,” and that the slave had been degraded and debased; and yet they contended that the negro, who had for two centuries passed through this system of debasement and degradation, was amply qualified, without further ado, to assume the rights of citizenship, while the intelligent feigner was subjected to a probation of five years. According to their own showing, then, this much abused institution has been the means of converting a handful of cannibal savages into an enlightened nation of Christian freedmen, superior in the attributes of citizenship to a foreigner, and equal to the intelligent white man of New England.

Having traced the causes of the war, Mr. Stuart now entered into its consequences. He had never been a believer in an “irrepressible conflict” between the two labor systems, and had always thought that with enlightened statesmanship and catholic patriotism the difficulty could have been settled without an appeal to arms.

Several important questions had been finally and conclusively settled by the stern arbitrament of the sword; among them the following:
I. “That the right of a State to secede from the Union, or to nullify an act the Federal Legislature, must hereafter be regarded as an ‘obsolete idea.’
II. “That all debts, Confederate, State, or municipal, contracted in aid of the war, are absolutely null and void, and must be forever ignored and repudiated.”
III. “That slavery is finally and forever abolished within the jurisdiction of the United States, and freedmen are to be invested with and protected by law in the enjoyment of every necessary civil right.”

The right of secession had been authoritatively decided in the negative, and the fact must be recognized, for there was no middle ground between submission to the authority of the Federal Government and revolution. We would have to seek redress for grievances by appeal to the tribunals ordained by the Constitution. Should oppression become intolerable, we might be justified, as our forefathers did, in seeking a remedy through revolution. The repudiation of all debts contracted in aid of the war was a logical consequence of the result of the contest, and upon this point there was no room for a difference of opinion. The extinction of slavery involved much larger interests, and more practical and far-reaching  consequences than either of the other propositions, the speaker entered into a more extended notice of it.

The Virginia people had heretofore all manifest a great love for country life, and the professional man, merchant, and the professional man, merchant, and mechanic were all accustomed to look forward to the day when they might become landed proprietors. When they had succeeded, they purchased estates, and surrounding themselves with every comfort, lived in the exercise of that generous hospitality for which Virginia was always noted. But all things were to pass away. A sturdy race of yeomanry would in time possess and til the lands. Baronial mansions would go to decay or furnish material for the construction of dwellings  more suited to the laboring man. Refinement, cultivation, and elegant tastes would be constrained, as in the north, to seek refuge in the cities. To those who estimated the social condition by a financial standard, the subject would be pleasing to contemplate. For himself he did not belong to that class. To him the open door, the blazing hearth, and the warm heart of the old Virginia gentleman possessed a charm for which no increase of material wealth could supply an equivalent.

Our systems of education would have to be changed to conform to the new order of things. More attention would have to be given to natural philosophy, chemistry, and the other branches which tended to the development of our physical resources. But amidst all these inevitable changes he trusted that our people would be able still to retain many well-defined traits of southern character. He trusted that they would ever retain their high sense of personal honor; their pure standard of morals; their self-sacrificing patriotism; their liberal spirit of toleration; their unwavering regard for the sacredness of the marriage relation; their chivalric devotion to the fair sex; and their devout reverence for the Christian religion.

The speaker next refereed to the idea among Yankees that the moral and intellectual nature of the southern people had been dwarfed by the poisonous influences of slavery. He spoke of Adams, Warren, Hancock, Ames, and others who had grown up in slaveholding New England, and asked the question: Were their natures ‘dwarfed by its poisonous influences?” He next entered into a sketch of the great men of Virginia and the prominent party they had borne in all the great era of our country’s history. He alluded eloquently to the great men of other southern States. In concluding these allusions he said he could not leave this branch of his subject without a passing reference to the men and events of the late unfortunate and ill-starred war. He invited no discussion; he was looking for an answer to the question whether the south was an effete race, whose moral and intellectual had been dwarfed by slavery?

There were certain mental and moral qualities which, by the common consent of mankind, were recognized as the standard by which we were to judge the character of men. Among these were comprehension, generalship, profound strategy, dauntless courage, heroic endurance, rapidity of combination, celerity of movement, and vigor in striking decisive blows. These combined with Christian faith, humanity, and spotless purity of private life, go toward making the perfect man. Assuming these as the standard of human excellence, might he not, without disparagement to the merits of any, inquire (after the passions of the age should have passed away) whose names would shine with purer luster on the pages of history than those of ‘Stonewall’ Jackson and Robert E. Lee? When the Radicals of New England should produce a brighter array of names than those to which he had referred, then he would inquire into the causes of our inferiority. Until that was done, discussion would be premature.

In answer to the question, ‘What of the future?” he would answer, be of good cheer. He was hopeful of the firmness and patriotism of the Executive, hopeful of the sober second thought of the people and hopeful of the benignity of the Great Disposer of Events. Reaction was the logical consequence of excess. The passions of men were fleeting, and they would subside with a rapidity proportioned to their excess. The interests of the American people forbade them to indulge in the luxury of prolonged political excitement. Some were despondent in the idea that the death of slavery had ruined the south. It was wiser to suppose that slavery, having fulfilled its mission in cultivating and preparing the soil for the occupancy of the white man, was destined to extermination.

To the young men he addressed himself very earnestly, and spoke to them of the important mission they had to perform. In addition to turning their resources of the State, it was their duty to care for the unfortunate and dependent race that had been cast loose amongst us. There was no blame to attach to the negroes. They had been our nurses in childhood, the companions of our sports in boyhood, and our humble and faithful servants through life. The ties that had bound them to us had been rudely broken through no agency of theirs. No pains should be spared to improve their condition and qualify them as far as practicable for usefulness in our community.

Most of those present had heard with him, on the night before, the eloquent and instructive address of the representative of Jefferson Society (Major Daniels). He subscribed to all that had been said, and his remarks had suggested to him the propriety of adding a word in regard to the relations of the educated classes to the public opinion of the country.

Public opinion being but a combination of the individual sentiments of the members of the community, the more intelligence that was infused into it, the higher would be its standard. Heretofore the educated masses had not performed their duty to the country. They had too often sought to ascertain how the current flowed, and had been content to drift on its bosom. This was  a grand error. The educated men should be the masters, not the slaves of public opinion. The vice of modern times was moral cowardice. The speaker warned the young men of the danger of pursuing the course of pandering to the taste of the multitude. Their rule through life should, be to be right, without regard to the clamor of the public; and after the passions of the hour had passed away, they would enjoy the confidence of their countrymen and the consciousness of duty faithfully performed.

The people were always patriotic. They always aimed to pursue the course best calculated to advance the interests of the country. When they err it is from ignorance, and not design. What a noble office, then, was it for young men of the country to correct popular errors, to dispel popular prejudice, and to lead the public mind into those channels which best tend to insure the welfare of the whole country.

In this peaceful field the young men might achieve more glorious than those of war. The might give new life to the industry of our people and add to the sources of our national prosperity. If they would enter earnestly in the discharge of their higher duties they would earn a lasting claim to the gratitude of their countrymen. And although it might not be their fortunes
“The applause of listing Senates to command,”
it would be theirs
“The treats of pain and ruin to despise;
To scatter plenty o’er a smiling land,
And read your history in a nation’s eyes.”



1. For an overview of the Lost Cause see The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History, ed. Gary Gallagher and Allant T. Nolan (Bloomington, Ind.: University of Indiana Press, 2000); "Civil War at 150: Still Relevant, Still Divisive," Pew Research Center, April 8, 2011. 

2. Data available thanks to the Digital Scholarship Lab: University of Richmond, Virginia Secession Convention. Retrieved from

3. Accounts include Frederic Denison, Sabres and Spurs: The First Regiment Rhode Island Cavalry in the Civil War, 1861–1865 (Central Falls, Rhode Island: The First Rhode Island Cavalry Veteran Association, 1876), 441–444; Hillman A. Hall, et al., History of the Sixth New York Cavalry (Second Ira Harris Guard) (Worcester, Massachusetts: The Blanchard Press, 1908), 252–257; Anne Freudenberg, "Sheridan's Raid: An Account by Sarah A. G. Strickler," The Magazine of Albemarle County History 22 (1963–1964): 59–65.

4. S. H. Harris & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, "Alexander H. H. Stuart (1807–1891)," June 22, 2017. In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from