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Southern Cultures 11.2 (2005) iv, 1-6

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Front Porch

In some circles, the Confederate dead get short shrift these days, when they get remembered at all. It was not always thus. Once upon a time, the South's fallen were the subjects of reverent annual parades, lachrymose addresses and moving poetry, towering obelisks in every town square. Ten southern states recognize four different springtime dates as Confederate Memorial Day, though the states' rights tradition seems to have prevented them from uniting on the same one.

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Figure 1
"Bill" (above) and "Nick" (left) posed long enough for Brian Jolley to snap them with an old Polaroid Land camera. Jolley traversed six southern states to photograph small-town merchants for "Keepers of the Southern Byways."

Like a lot of ceremonial language, much of the memorial rhetoric composed for these occasions has had a short shelf life, but not all of it. Delivered in 1867, Henry Timrod's "Ode" to the Confederate dead set a high standard for commemorative poetry in the immediate aftermath of war. The author wrote when the graves in [End Page 1] Charleston's Magnolia Cemetery were still fresh, and the steadfast bronzes and granite shafts were still a future hope. "Though yet no marble column craves / The pilgrim here to pause," he mourned, but "somewhere, waiting for its birth, / The shaft is in the stone!" In Timrod's day, the songs and flowers of young women were the soldiers' only memorial, but the poet imagined that these honors would be more welcome to their spirits than the "cannon moulded" monuments that would inevitably come later.

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Figure 2
Death touched nearly every American of the Civil War era, yet the unanticipated scale of the destruction meant that at least half these dead remained unidentified. Drew Gilpin Faust explores the daunting task of investigating the deceased in "'The Dread Void of Uncertainty': Naming the Dead in the American Civil War." Photograph courtesy of the Collections of the Library of Congress.

In the mid 1920s, two generations after the war's end, the Fugitive poet Allen Tate wrote another "Ode to the Confederate Dead," when the permanent monuments were all in place and growing moldy in another sense. Contemplating a Confederate cemetery windblown with dry leaves and now grown old, Tate's speaker observes "a decomposing wall" surrounding battered funerary statues with "a wing chipped here, an arm there." The songs and flowers that inspired Timrod are gone for Tate, and his solitary speaker laments the difference between the soldiers and himself. He praises the dead for their commitment, their sacrifice, their unmediated juncture of faith and action. He sees himself, by contrast, as an alienated modern intellectual, uprooted from certainty and cursed by "mute speculation," paralyzed by "the brute curiosity of an angel's stare," and more akin to dry leaves than heroic ancestors. For Tate, the romantic tragedy hymned by Timrod has crumbled into modernist angst, and he longs to reclaim the spirit of confident heroic manhood that he imagines on the fields of "Shiloh, Antietam, Malvern Hill, Bull Run." As part of this quest, Allen Tate later gathered a group of friends, who were also known as the Nashville Agrarians, to write the [End Page 2] famed manifesto, I'll Take My Stand, protesting the shallowness of industrial society and longing for the lost agrarian world he saw when he regarded the Confederate dead.

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Figure 3
In "Promoting the Gothic South," Rebecca C. McIntyre explores the embellishments of nineteenth-century travel writers like Thomas Bangs Thorpe, who once described the southern landscape's "huge unburied monsters, which, though dead, still throw their arms in agony." Photograph courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service.

The impulse to memorialize the Civil War dead does not stop with southerners. In 1964, roughly a century after Gettysburg, when the Civil Rights movement had brought new battles and more bloodshed to the southern countryside, the quintessential Yankee poet Robert Lowell celebrated the Confederacy's ancient opponents in his own elegy, "For the Union Dead." Instead of a Confederate graveyard, Lowell...


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