By James Mack Adams
The date is June 30, 1999. I am standing alone on a knoll overlooking a portion of the Chancellorsville Battlefield. It is the final historic Civil War battle site I will visit during my short stay in Virginia. The guns are silent now, but the serenity is broken by traffic sounds from a nearby highway. My sometimes-overactive imagination kicks in.
In my mind, it is December 1862. The imaginary sounds of bugles and shouted commands come from the distant tree line. The ground shakes from the pounding of brogan-shod feet of ghostly Union and Confederate skirmishers. The booming of cannon and the popping of muskets become deafening. The acrid smell of burnt black powder permeates the air.
You might say I am in a Civil War re-enactors heaven.
Voices from the present then take over my thoughts. “What is it with you Southerners?” “Why do you insist on perpetuating the Civil War?” “You lost!” “Get over it!” I often got those questions and others like them during my many years as a re-enactor, living history interpreter, writer and tour guide in the deep South.
I could not realize it on that warm spring day at Chancellorsville in 1999, but I began to write this column at that moment.
To me, the first response to the question why the South will not let go of the Civil War is the fact that much of the war was fought on Southern soil.
A lot of the carnage took place within the approximately 100 miles between Washington and Richmond, as well as other places in the South. The blood of thousands of Americans, both Union and Confederate, soaked into that soil.
It was primarily Southern homes and towns that were destroyed by bombardment and the torch. It was Southern crops and farm animals that were confiscated or destroyed. It was Southerners who had to endure the bitter taste of defeat and surrender, followed by the embarrassment and hardships of Reconstruction.
Several years ago, I became friends with nationally-known author and Civil War lecturer, James “Bud” Robertson. Until his retirement, he lectured on the Civil War to packed classrooms at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. He also wrote several books and served as technical adviser for the Civil War movie “Gods and Generals.”
I recall Bud remarking that the average Southerner living in the middle 1800s rarely traveled out of his county or state and depended on his state and local governments for most of his needs. “About the only thing the average Southerner saw the federal government doing for him was delivering his mail,” Bud used to say. Therefore, the average Southerner felt more allegiance to his state than to the federal government.
The war had barely ended when Southerners began to take actions to ensure the sacrifices of their soldiers would never be forgotten. They began to form memorial associations and hold veterans’ reunions. Some of the reunions were attended by both Confederate and Union veterans. They erected monuments and other memorials in parks, cemeteries and on courthouse lawns.
Early 20th century Southern writers contributed to keeping “The Cause” alive in readers’ minds by filling national publications with articles and publishing novels romanticizing Southern culture. Margaret Mitchell’s epic novel, “Gone with the Wind,” was published in 1936 and was made into a major movie in 1939. The novel and movie vividly depicted the fiery death of a society and a way of life.
Writers also produced works extolling the military prowess of Lee, Jackson, Stuart and other Confederate leaders. Writers portrayed these men as gentleman cavaliers who in an earlier century might have qualified for knighthood.
During my years of re-enacting, writing and giving talks about America’s Civil War, I encountered many visitors from northern states who were fascinated with Southern culture and truly wanted to learn more about the war from the Southern perspective. I was glad to oblige. As television psychologist Dr. Phil likes to say, “No matter how flat you make a pancake, it still has two sides.”
Many northern visitors I encountered were inflicted with what I called the ‘Gone with the Wind’ syndrome. They wanted to see a real Southern plantation.
Some, as expected, were hoping to see Tara. They seemed a little disappointed when I told them the typical plantation home was more like a large farm house than a columned mansion. Also, most plantation homes in Georgia were torched by Sherman’s army.
I first got into Civil War re-enacting while living in Ohio. I was amazed to learn that, at that time, there were more Confederate than Union re-enactors in central and southern Ohio. I suppose, to some, portraying a soldier fighting for a “lost cause” promised more romance and glamour.
With the reader’s permission, I will put in a plug here for re-enactors of all historical eras. Most of the ones I have met and worked with over the years are very dedicated to keeping an era of America’s history alive. They are living historians who are knowledgeable about the era they are portraying and dedicated to sharing that knowledge.
They often do so at their own expense. The cost of clothing and equipment can be several hundred to a couple of thousand dollars, or more. Re-enactors normally also pay for their own travel and lodging.
Yes, I suppose many Southerners do seem to be hung up on hanging onto their history and heritage. This is good in that it can lead to local preservation efforts to restore historic structures and protect historic sites. Without such efforts, there would be no reason to visit such historic places as Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina. By now, they would both probably look like any other city.
When someone asks me why Southerners hold onto the past, I sometimes give them my short answer by quoting the Pulitzer-Prize winning Southern writer, William Faulkner.
“In the south, the past is not dead. It’s not even the past.”