The Myth of the Lost Cause and the Kelly Legends

General Robert E Lee rallies the men in the Blue and Gray
Ive just finished reading a really interesting book called “The Myth of The Lost Cause, and Civil War History”. Its about the American Civil War, and how the side that was defeated promoted a particular view of what happened in the hope that history would record things somewhat differently from the reality of what actually happened. Its often said that history is written by the Victor, but this is an example of the losers attempting to write it. I found the insights into the way history is interpreted and used to meet cultural  needs very interesting indeed, and realised that this is a universal phenomenon that springs out of a deep human desire to make sense of failure, defeat and loss. An excellent Lecture about the Lost Cause given at the Smithsonian can be viewed HERE.

The ANZAC Legend is the obvious example from Australia. The other obvious example from Australia is of course the Kelly Legend, created to make sense of failure, defeat and loss by a psychopath whose charisma seemed to have induced in a few farmers of the North East, a delusional view that somehow he represented hope. 

“White Southerners emerged from the Civil War thoroughly beaten but largely unrepentant. Four years of brutal struggle had ravaged their military–age male population, vastly altered their physical landscape and economic infrastructure and destroyed their slave-based social system. They grimly acknowledged the superior might of the United States military forces and understood the futility of further armed resistance. Yet the majority of ex-confederates who had remained hopeful of establishing a new slaveholding republic until late in the conflict did not believe they had fought the war for an unworthy cause. During the decades following the surrender at Appomattox they nurtured a public memory of the Confederacy that placed their wartime sacrifice and shattering defeat in the best possible light. ….
Widely known then and now as the Lost Cause explanation of the Confederate experience it drew strength from the pages of participants memoires, from speeches at Veterans reunions, from ceremonies at the graves of soldiers killed while serving in Southern armies and other commemorative events, and from artwork with confederate themes.
In terms of shaping how Americans have assessed and understood the Civil War, Lost Cause warriors succeeded to a remarkable degree”

I doubt there would be few people with an interest in the Kelly story who would read those words I’ve quoted from the Foreword to the book, and not notice some interesting parallels between the Myth of the Lost Cause and the Legend of Ned Kelly. Certainly, in a similar way Kelly Warriors – the last of whom was Ian Jones ( see my post HERE ) –  have also succeeded to a remarkable degree in the way they have shaped how Australians assessed and understood the Kelly Outbreak. 
Both myths are accounts of historical defeat and failure reworked to sound like heroism and something noble, the ultimate failures of their leaders General Robert E Lee and Mr Ned Kelly ignored in the creation of an image of them as heroic and valiant. Like the Civil War myth, the Kelly Myth has also been created and sustained by the ‘memoires’ of participants, speeches, graveside ceremonies, ‘other commemorative events and ‘artwork’ : think of the Jerilderie  Letter, the Kelly symposium, November 11th  execution remembrances, the Sydney Olympics opening ceremony, the Ned Kelly Weekends, the Nolan series of paintings, the numerous Ned Kelly folk songs, plays, movies and books for adults as well as children that promote the Kelly myth.
Jubal Early, someone I had never heard of before, was one of Robert E Lees principle Lieutenants, and one of the prominent creators of the Lost Cause Myth. He was a sort of Jerome J Kenneally, in that he sought to write a record that not only glorified the memory of the defeated South, but blackened the name of Ulysses  Grant,  the Union General, and belittled his resounding successes. JJKennealy was of course the writer who in a similar way so dramatically laid out the vision  of Ned Kelly the hero and so determinedly spread about the myth of Police and Judicial corruption  being the cause of all the mayhem that was the Kelly outbreak. Much of what Kenneally wrote is now seen as unsupportable hyperbole and historical misrepresentation, but the effect of the book was perhaps to propel the Kelly myth into an orbit that has been sustained by others – such as Max Brown, Molony and Jones –  even as the Kenneally booster rocket fell away. (Read my Post about JJKenneallys book HERE)
The obvious big difference of course is that one Myth is about an Army of rebels seeking to establish a Republic, whereas the Kelly myth is really just about one rebel, Ned Kelly. In the Kelly legend, the entire notion of a Republic was invented afterwards as part of the process of converting murderous criminality into something ‘noble’, whereas in the Civil War, it was indeed the whole point of the conflict.
The last Chapter in this book is called “The Immortal Confederacy”. It records how for many people in the South, belief in the Lost Cause acquired many of the appearances of a religion, with devotees pledging their allegiance to it in dramatic ceremonial proceedings in which symbols of the Confederacy were elevated to the status of sacred relics, emblematic of the Lost Cause and the sacrifices made by Confederate Soldiers in its defence.  I thought of the Green Sash, the Kelly Armour, Joanne Griffiths praying at the OMG on November 11th, and Ian Jones saying that Ned Kelly was portrayed in a book that influenced him as a 10 year old, as ‘an unbeatified saint, the greatest hero who ever lived’. I remembered my own observations, reported in a Post when this Blog was just beginning, over two years ago and worth reading again HERE, in which I likened Kelly followers to religious fanatics. Kelly followers denounce people who disagree with them as ‘anti–kelly’ in the same way Mormons, for example, denounce writings that don’t support their religion as ‘anti-Mormon’. People often refer to me as being ‘anti-Kelly’ but I am not. What I am ‘anti’ is Kelly claims that are wrong, that are unhistorical, that are lies or exaggerated. I am not ‘anti’ anything that is true about Ned Kelly.  The other similarity between religious fanatics and Kelly followers is that they never allow reason and logic and actual facts about their story to count against it. (For example, the fact that Ned Kelly made so much money from stock theft – and he boasted about it – that he dressed well and lived well while his mother and sisters were living in documented poverty and squalid filth is never seen as evidence against the claim that the Saintly Ned Kelly was devoted to his family)

At present in Australia, its hard to know exactly how successful the Kelly Mythmakers have been, but certainly many Australians don’t realize that much of what they understand to be the truth about Ned Kelly is a collection of Myths. I am in no doubt however that since The Kelly Gang Unmasked was published, and with Morrisseys book, and with a little help perhaps from this Blog, the numbers of Australians who are seeing through the mythology is growing steadily. One proof of that is the demise of NKF and the IO sites, the absence last year of interest in holding the Ned Kelly Weekend and the skyrocketing interest in this Blog. One of the myths that I think would help to be dispelled sooner rather than later, is that Ned Kelly is only interesting if he is regarded as a hero and an Icon. Replacing the myth with the truth about Ned Kelly won’t destroy the Tourist trade of the North East, or the Kelly Trail, or of the Kelly Vault. Crime, criminal behavior and murder, as the many TV crime shows attest, is hugely popular. I think if the North East accepts that truth, they will be less inclined to defend the Kelly myths and instead embrace the historical truths about him that they can teach without cringing. They will eventually look back and say how on earth did we ever get conned into promoting the lie that a serial cop killer, bank robber, liar and psychopath was some sort of icon? When you stand back a bit and think about it, the kelly myth is preposterous. Another Lost Cause.
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15 Replies to “The Myth of the Lost Cause and the Kelly Legends”

  1. Kate Burford says: Reply

    B R I L L I A N T Dee!

    Sock it to the verminous cop-killing peanut gallery of applauders.

  2. Tony Clifford says: Reply

    Yet another damning expose of the Kelly myth. Well done Dee! Keep up your deluge of devastating disclosures!

    The Kelly freaks have had it their own way for decades and longer.

  3. Anonymous says: Reply

    Lovely description there Kate.

  4. Kelly Freaks? Peanut Gallery? You guys are very harsh…

  5. Kate Burford says: Reply

    Mark, its an utterly revolting story. Const Lonigan and Sgt Kennedy never returned to their large families, leaving a painful hole in their family histories. That was a forever sort of moment. Leo Kennedy, a descendant, points out today the endless impact the murder of Sgt Kennedy had on his family – and What became of murdered Const Scanlon's dog?

    You may not care.

    We do.

  6. Tony Clifford says: Reply

    Mr Perry remains unmoved by the murder of three Victoria Police by criminal thieves.

    Not a lot of dialogue possibilities, are there Mark?

  7. This is going to have to be a 2 part comment as it is nearly as long as Dee's blog post!

    Part 1

    Interesting that you have done this post, Dee, because as a tie in, on Monday I bought a t-shirt at the op shop featuring the Confederate memorial at Stone Mountain, Georgia. The memorial is the largest granite carving in the world, even bigger than Mt Rushmore, and it features Jeff Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson on horseback. It is quite beautiful. I had heard of it before but did not realise until after googling that there was a whole industry built around it. From laser light shows on the face, to interpretive museums at the base, to other touristy things to partake in, it sounds like fun. I thought to myself after reading your new blog post, what sort of total conniption fits would Kelly haters go in to if the Kelly gang on horseback were carved very large into the side of a mountain as a memorial? Then a laser light show depicting, among other things, them coming to life and riding over the mountain being projected on it? Then a museum celebrating them? Would surely cost more than the million bucks they are fussing over for the Kelly house to be restored for something like that.

    Thinking about the Civil War, there is a good chance that I would have been caught up in it and very adversely affected by it if I were alive back in those days. The town I was born and raised in was under siege for 2 years, there was Federal occupation, skirmishes, battles, sacking and pillaging, and intentional and unintentional burning of at least 1/3 of it. Three houses down from where I grew up there was a cannonball hole in one of the old tobacco pack houses. As kids we used to go marvel at it, though it has been torn down now. I was probably the only kid (or adult) who would stand at the corners of Market and Main streets and try to imagine the clash of cavalry that took place there in 1862. I feel very moved when I see the Confederate monument at the local cemetery. I have read a lot of the local history and civilian eyewitness accounts, and one of those eyewitnesses said "No town gave more freely of its men and means, and no town suffered more for the cause of the Confederacy." So, you could say that I have been long and well steeped in the Lost Cause mythology. Jubal Early would be proud!

  8. Part 2

    Sure, some of the Lost Cause is a myth but there was much truth at the base of it. Lee and Jackson were both very great men, and that is not myth. I thrill just to hear their names! And to this day I feel much sadness and grief at Jackson's accidental death at the hands of his own troops. Friendly fire ain't very friendly). When I last visited Fort Macon on the NC coast, I was very cognizant to the fact that I was literally walking where Lee himself had trod as he had visited there in 1840 on assignment as a young Army engineer.(sorta like how folks like to walk where Ned walked?) Yet, I know that none of these men approached sainthood. And none of the relics are worship worthy. Yet, we should not tear down the monuments, either as many wish.
    Also, concerning the Lost Cause myth the South did not have the manufacturing base like the North did and our ports were blockaded, save for a few blockade runners (a la the fictional Rhett Butler). Also, I still believe that the vast majority of the poor dirt farmers, tradesmen and laborers were fighting to protect their homeland against aggressors (wouldn't you do the same?) with North Carolina being the state with the largest loss of soldiers in the entire war.

    Jubal Early was able to do what he did as he basically got control of a printing press/historical journal at a time few had options to get their voices heard. Even Ned Kelly had to beg to try and get his manifesto published and even then he got chumped by Mr. Living! Today we are all citizen journalists thanks to the internet. If you think about it, if there was the internet back then, Lt. General Jubal Early would have been an "early troll" (pun intended) considering his relentless post-war picking on/at General James Longstreet (Longstreet being a man whom I consider to be one of the most fascinating characters of the war behind Lee and Jackson).

    It is a long bow to draw to compare the Kellys and the Confederates as the latter were part of a much larger event affecting many more people that still resonates today than the other, but I guess the point is that both had lots of mythology/hyperbole spun around them. While I am the first one to want the truth to be told, I don't think I really would want a world without myth and legend, either.

    Remember what Joseph Campbell said about Mythology?

    “Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth–penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words. Beyond images, beyond that bounding rim of the Buddhist Wheel of Becoming. Mythology pitches the mind beyond that rim, to what can be known but not told."

  9. Sharon you're brilliant! Thanks for writing such an interesting thoughtful and informative reply. I think that one thing that makes these subjects of history so interesting, fascinating even is to hold the myth up against the truth and try to understand how one became the other, and to try to find out what is it about the human condition that makes us want to do that. Perhaps, to appreciate that mysterious transformation we have to know not just the myth but the truth as well, and so that must mean it's vital we have people who stand up not only for historical truth and accuracy but also others who will stand up for the myth and express it in the form that it's become, as you do so well. Myths have a meaning and a function in society, though it's not to teach history but ideals and vision. Thanks again.

  10. George Lucas was/is an ardent student of Joseph Campbell. And look at the mythology Lucas has created. The iconography of Vaders helmet, X wing fighters, light sabres are ingrained. They ain't going anywhere. I think the iconography of the Kelly helmet is the catalyst for Kelly being the figure he is in our history. And he aint' going anywhere either.

  11. Kate. You are obviously new here. Do your homework. Go back and read my previous replies on this site. Dee herself will tell you I see and understand both sides. I am not a Ned Kelly apologist. What happened to Kennedy, Scanlon, Lonigan AND McINTYRE was horrific. It ruined McIntyres life. And his health. McFarlanes book and Morrisseys work have a well deserved place on the Kellyana shelf. Don't assume. Just don't call those who don't agree with you names. . Thank you.

    And Tony? Suggest this same reply to Kate applies to you too. Read my responses elsewhere. Don't judge on just the one small post. No one deserves the name calling. Love Mark. Adelaide.

  12. 'No one deserves the name calling.' That's a bit rich coming from someone who has described other posters as a 'f&*$ing liar' and 'gutless'.

  13. You are right Spudee. I should not have said those things. I made the mistake of posting when I was frustrated and annoyed about the many anonymous postings. No hard feelings I hope. Apologies to all. Cheers Jim. Thanks. Now I would like to hear back from Kate Burford. And Tony Clifford.

  14. Anonymous says: Reply

    Thank you Mark.

  15. Anonymous says: Reply

    Sharon what you say about the Lost Cause and its relevance (or not) to the mythology surrounding the Kelly Outbreak is quite interesting. I am an occasional student of the American Civil War and should say at the outset that my bias is towards Old Abe's battle to keep the Union intact. The one outstanding aspect of that terrible war is the question that I keep asking myself – why did the southern Confederate States embroil themselves in such a conflict well knowing that they had no real infrastructure to fight it? However, despite that they fought on and fought well until Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in April 1865.

    Just this week I watched a documentary on the Ku Klux Klan which, as you know was the end result of an organisation formed in Pulaski, Tennessee sometime in late 1865 to early 1866 by a small group of Confederate veterans. Since then The Klan, as it is often called, has risen and fallen for many reasons including internal politics. Its many derivations still exist today.
    You mentioned the Confederate Memorial at Stone Mountain in Georgia and the industry built around it, most of which seems to relate to either tourism or veneration of the Lost Confederate Cause through the leaders depicted there. Two of those men were not only very good tactical and strategic leaders who, during their lifetimes, enjoyed almost saint-like adoration from citizens of the Southern States. Personally, I don't hold Jeff Davis in the same esteem as I do Lee and Thomas 'Stonewall' Jackson. I personally believe the former Confederate president should have been put on trial for treason.
    I do however notice that another prominent commander of Confederate forces during the Civil War is missing from the relief on Stone Mountain. That of course is Nathan Bedford Forrest.

    Before the Civil War, Forrest was not only a slave owner but also a slave trader. He was very big man, standing at 6 feet, 2 inches (1.88m) tall and weighing in at 15 stone (95 kgs) and he was about as hands-on a fighting general as you could get. It is said that he personally killed 30 enemy soldiers, with sabre, pistol and shotgun, during the war. But there was a dark side to the dashing and brilliant Confederate cavalry commander.

    Following the attack and capture of Union held Fort Pillow in Tennessee, it has been claimed that Forrest's troops massacred the largely Afro-American defenders of the position. The allegations were supported by not only some Union survivors but also by at least one Confederate attacker.

    In April 1867, following the end of the Civil War, Nathan Forrest joined The Klan. There is some evidence to suggest that Forrest was its First Grand Wizard and that he also took part and often commanded groups of Klan members in their nightly raids of terror and death against negroes. Two years later Nathan Forrest distanced himself from The KKK and its activities.

    Interestingly Stone Mountain has a connection to the Ku Klux Klan as in 1915 a handful of hooded and robed Klan members assembled there and set fire to a crude cross. This was later to become a strong and fearful symbol of The Klan.

    My reason for raising the above is that I believe the Lost Cause was and still is a potent element in what the South was and still is today. You only need to read media reports on recent controversies surrounding the display of the Rebel Flag on public buildings to confirm that The Lost Cause is alive and well in some areas of the South. And Sharon's account of her own upbringing seems to reinforce that belief.

    And while I support Sharon when she says that there is a tenuous connection at best between the Kelly Outbreak and the Confederates, it is still clear that so far as Kelly is concerned, The Kelly Cause, if I can call it that, still persists. Let's hope that the kind of questioning which forms the basis of this blog will, in time, turn Ned's Lost Cause into the myth it really is.

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