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Readers who experienced the Civil War Centennial of 1961–65 may recall a pair of cartoons that circulated widely in those days. In one, a doddering Union veteran clutches the Stars and Stripes and wearily advises, “Forget it.” In the other, an equally old but defiant Confederate brandishes his own side’s Battle Flag and snarls back, “Fergit, hell!” In a brief online search, I found no trace of the Yankee, but “Fergit, hell!” is still plentiful, as a license plate, a bumper sticker, and a slogan in debate.
If we can’t forget it, how should southerners remember the Civil War? Over the years, we’ve done so in many ways. Well into the twentieth century, African Americans honored Emancipation with repeated commemorations, variously focusing on the Proclamation itself, on other key milestones, and especially on “Juneteenth” or June 19, fully two months after Appomattox, when federal troops finally brought freedom to Galveston, Texas. Once a local holiday, Juneteenth celebrations are now more widespread than ever.
Southern white memory has been utterly different in tone but much more conspicuous. First came private sorrow, bitterness, and rage, immediately searing the survivors and ultimately preserved in family stories. My mother remembered the promising youth who was supposed to become a doctor but went to war instead. He came back so traumatized that he was never good for anything, and forced his wife to support the family. My father could tell of his great-grandparents with six sons. One died beforehand, one lost an arm, three died in combat, and one returned whole. When those personal losses prompted recognition, it usually occurred in cemeteries, over the graves of the fallen themselves. Only later, as the cult of the Lost Cause gathered strength, did monument-building move to the public square and place all those obelisks and bronze sentinels to guard our courthouse lawns. Later still, when the immediate participants had all gone and even the family stories were beginning to fade, many came to overlook the grief and pain, not to mention the issue at stake, and remembered the Civil War era as an age of lost splendor, when belles were belles and men were heroes. The reenactment craze began among women, as society ladies donned hoop skirts to give house tours, assert their social standing, and show off their azaleas. Aside from squiring their partners to antebellum balls, men only joined in later, reenacting actual battles and reliving the glorious days when white male command needed no defense or explanation.
Acts of Civil War remembrance once reinforced the public order of segregation and Jim Crow. They also confirmed the private memories of most whites, or even replaced them, as when anti-Confederate families and regions forgot there was any such thing as southern Unionism. With Jim Crow legally dead and publicly unregretted, however, the picture has become more complicated. Diversity has entered Civil War memory, with secessionist celebrations vying with Juneteenth ceremonies and widely attended municipal events that applaud Emancipation. Will one set of rituals finally inspire universal veneration for the “new birth of [End Page 2] freedom”? Or will the others sustain a memory of victimization that is just as sad and bitter as the old official version? It’s hard to be sure, but this issue of Southern Cultures explores the range of possibilities.
Blain Roberts starts us off with a trip to Charleston’s Secession Ball, held on December 20, 2010, the 150th anniversary of South Carolina’s Ordinance of Secession. Her visit grew out of a book she is writing with her husband about the current Sesquicentennial, and it took her to rival commemorations, in which belles and beaux faced black protestors originating from the church of Denmark Vesey, South Carolina’s most famous slave rebel. Charleston being Charleston, Roberts found the cult of the Lost Cause putting up a brave front, but can...