I recently spoke to a Civil War Round Table in the northeast. Question-and-answer periods at such events often devolve into more general discussions about the military side of the war, and this evening was no different. Having discussed the Reluctant Rebels who are featured in my recent UNC Press publication, I soon found myself facing familiar queries about favorite generals and key moments in battles and campaigns. One question, however, concerned a more recent past. Laughing, one man asked, “Why is the South still fighting the Civil War?”
“I don’t think it is,” I replied.
Over the next couple of minutes, I tried to explain my answer to a dubious audience who in the end never quite seemed to believe me. Yes, at the dawning of the Sesquicentennial, the national and international media made much of very real groups in the South who seemingly fit every reporter’s preconceived stereotype of the unreconstructed, “Fergit Hell!” Southerners of popular lore. Comedians such as Jon Stewart of Comedy Central’s “Daily Show” had a field day with Charleston’s Secession Ball, while one of my former students ended up opining on the BBC during live coverage of the reenactment of Jefferson Davis’s inauguration in Montgomery, Alabama. Certainly the internet has been the scene of intense, polarized debate for months, with Facebook in particular now serving as a venue for those who defiantly celebrate the Confederacy.
But looks, I warned my audience, can be deceiving, especially when a media devoted to confrontation and the latest car chase or house fire consistently focuses on what plays best on film. Spend a little more time on the net, I suggested, and one will find the same small group of people—many of them not Southerners—making the same points over and over on multiple websites, inflating their presence with dogged repetition and more than one user name. Numbers count too when it comes to the public pageants. Fifty years ago, tens of thousands gathered in Montgomery to mark the opening of the Centennial. In contrast, the recent parade in Montgomery attracted at best a few hundred uniformed marchers and many fewer observers still on otherwise empty sidewalks. Something clearly has changed in the South over the last five decades, I concluded, the rest of the nation’s continuing stereotyping of the region to the contrary.
Indeed, the lack of national media coverage since the quiet Fort Sumter observances reinforces the notion that a majority of Southerners, white and black, are no longer fighting the war at all. There is growing evidence of other sorts (albeit anecdotal and completely unscientific) that convinces me that I was right when I responded to that question.
Take the classroom. For over two decades, I have taught Civil War history in the Deep South. With every passing year, I have fewer and fewer students who defiantly defend the Confederate past, although in truth I never encountered that many unreconstructed Rebels in the classroom in the first place. Quite the opposite; the angriest student I ever have faced objected vociferously to the fact that a required book had a Confederate battle flag on the cover. More commonly, my students routinely tell me that the secession was chiefly about slavery, a casual admission that would have been anathema to previous generations, and then shake their heads at those back home who believe otherwise.
Teaching a course in Civil War memory for the first time last spring, I still expected spirited defenses of hoary truths about the so-called Lost Cause. Instead I discovered innocence of those formulations’ very existence. Sometimes the entire sum of a student’s knowledge of the war and its memory consisted of Gone with the Wind—although many had never seen even it—and a childhood novel or two, more often than not Irene Hunt’s apparently venerable Across Five Aprils. With some exceptions, the majority reactions to Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic were grumpy assertions that the author had distorted their South and made them look foolish by focusing on unrepresentative eccentrics.
Then again, I can point to my local newspaper. The online version includes a “Comments” function that for some time now has been a venue for daily, anonymous, angry partisan debate about everything from Barack Obama’s birthplace to hair regulations for high school athletes, to the alleged liberal leanings of a controversial local pastor.
So when an editorial on the anniversary of Fort Sumter attributed secession to slavery, pronounced the Confederacy wrong for firing the first shot, and proclaimed that the world was a better place because of Union victory, I began lurking online, assuming that surely here at least the response would be fast and furious. But to my surprise, the editorial stirred up more agreement than anger. Four subsequent letters to the editor from members of the same local heritage group likewise brought some support, but as much disagreement and in a few cases even derision. Perhaps the most surprising finding was that setting aside a personal and quickly unrelated brushfire dispute between two frequent antagonists, relatively speaking there was not much of a response at all.
In the world of local Southern newspaper commentary, the causes of the Civil War still can ignite passion among a few readers, but they nonetheless do not rank up there comparably on the hot-button scale with Tea Party politics, gay marriage, or President Obama’s current policies. My Southern neighbors are still fighting about lots of things, in other words, but by-and-large, here at the beginning of the Sesquicentennial at least, the Civil War is no longer one of them.
Kenneth W. Noe is Draughon Professor of History at Auburn University. He is author or editor of six books, including Reluctant Rebels: The Confederates Who Joined the Army after 1861 (UNC Press) and Perryville: This Grand Havoc of Battle (University Press of Kentucky).