There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South . . .
With these haunting words David O. Selznick opens his epic film version of Margaret Mitchell's masterpiece Gone with the Wind, very nearly the most loved book in the South next to the Holy Bible. Certainly the film version has stamped the view that most Southerners hold of that world that exists in hallowed memory -- that world before The War.
There have been, of course, quite a few conflicts since The War, but all of them carry other appellations, such as World War Something or the name of an Asian country to distinguish them from The War. I spent much of my life avoiding anything to do with The War, largely stemming from an unpleasant incident in childhood.
Though my parents are Southern born, my birthplace is Philadelphia -- only because that is where my father happened to be in medical school. Two years later we returned to the South, first to New Orleans and two years after that to Aiken, South Carolina.
When I was about six some children asked me where I was born and I answered them, "Philadelphia."
Mother explained about The War and how the South fought for States' Rights and the Yankees invaded and a lot of fine men on both sides died. "But who won?" I asked.
The next day when the little boy and his friends started their infernal chant, "Yankee, Yankee, Yankee, Ellen is a Yankee," I turned on them and said, "Well, so what! The Yankees won!"
Confident in the victory of the Yankees and the fact that The War took place over a century before, I put the entire matter out of mind. 'Once these children grow up they'll forget all this Johnny Reb -- Billy Yank nonsense and be like normal people,' I thought. As if !
And that is the problem with Southerners. They just can't let The War go -- nor their idealized picture postcard view of the world that preceded it. They are permanently stuck in Gone With The Wind.
The very way in which they discuss The War reveals so much of their character and their views. It is really no wonder that the children did not know the Yankees won. After all, when Southerners speak of those days they talk only of "stunning victories" and "glorious battles." Fredericksburg is an example of a stunning victory. Shiloh was well on the way to being a stunning victory when it became a glorious battle because of the arrival of Yankee reinforcements. Gettysburg by contrast was far more glorious than Shiloh -- now the voices become hushed with reverence -- because of that most glorious moment of Picket's Charge.
Realize here, gentle reader, that I was an adult, visiting Gettysburg for the first time before I found out that Picket's Charge was not a stunning victory. It wasn't even a good idea. It was one of the worst tactical miscalculations of the war that cost Picket nearly his entire 13,000 man division. The Confederate defeat (and here I dare to use the "d" word) at Gettysburg was the turning point of the war.
But all that carnage aside -- to the Southern heart, it will always be 1pm on a muggy day in early July 1863, waiting for the glorious moment to begin anew.
The Southern view of antebellum society is similarly sanitized. The conflict was over States' Rights rather than the abolition of slavery. Correctly, of course, the war was fought over states' rights to promote slavery. The Southern states were adamant about, not only maintaining slavery, but expanding their "peculiar institution" throughout the west -- even making attempts at establishing slave states in Mexico, Central America, and Cuba. Gone With the Wind shows all those happy field hands, tidy and personable house servants, and none of the evil side of slavery as recounted by Frederick Douglas, Harriet Jacobs, and other ex-slaves in their autobiographies. Southerners engage in a lot of hand-wringing about Sherman's march to the sea, but never have much to say about the mistreatment of slaves.
So is The War over? I can't recall hearing the word "surrender" come easily through Southern lips. More often one hears of a "cessation of hostilities" -- something like The War is on an indefinite hold. During Confederate Heritage programs there is never as much emphasis on Appomatox as there is on Manassas, not much to say about those less glorious battles as those stunning victories. The bumper stickers still preach The South Shall Rise Again and If Your Heart Ain't In Dixie Get Your Ass Out. As the recent flag flap in South Carolina has proved, the secessionist cause still has strong adherents even 135 years later.
I still wish they'd get over it.