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I got a childhood lesson in southern memory when my father asked if I knew what had happened in Reconstruction. I didn’t, of course, but Dad left an indelible (though inaccurate) impression when he spat out the answer: “That’s when white men couldn’t vote!” It would be many years before my formal education caught up with and eventually overcame this piece of family lore, surely passed on from my father’s own father, born when South Carolina was still under federal occupation. And I surely belong to the last generation of southern children to be warned against tardiness by the awful consequences of Longstreet’s delay at Gettysburg.
For nearly a century, it is likely that stories like my father’s taught white southerners the most powerful lessons they learned about the Civil War and Reconstruction. [End Page 1] Memories of victimization and outrage were the bedrock of white southern identity, so much so that the cartoon image of a superannuated Rebel shouting “Fergit, hell!” became a serio-comic icon of the War’s Centennial. Black southerners had their own set of family stories and memories, radically different but much more painful. Memories have been so powerful and important in regional culture, it was no wonder that “Dixie” proclaimed that “old times there are not forgotten.” So here at the War’s Sesquicentennial, it is high time we dedicated an issue of Southern Cultures to southern memory, both personal and historical.
Our four years of remembrance are now underway. Of all the old times that Dixie was not supposed to forget, the War is the greatest, but forgetfulness now seems to be winning. The crowds at reenactments and commemorations are reportedly respectable but not huge, and there is nothing planned today that rivals the scale and intensity of the Centennial celebration of 1961–65. Among those who do remember, two dueling narratives seem to be in play, and the one I learned at home is retreating, though still putting up a fight. At the 100th anniversary of the bombardment of Fort Sumter, for example, thousands gathered on Charleston’s Battery and bellowed approval with every faux shellburst. This time, the Secession Gala captured most of the headlines, but a solemn ceremony emphasizing the role of slavery in sparking the conflict won official recognition and far more participants. Today, so-called neo-Confederates proclaim loudly that the war was fought for states’ rights, not slavery. Fifty years ago, the like-minded had no need for loud proclamations because most white Americans apparently agreed with them. Those five decades have made a big difference. As the Soviets used to joke about their own politically driven histories, “The present we know; the future is certain. Only the past is unpredictable.”
Memory is now a favorite theme among American and European historians. As changing perspectives and conceptions have made our recovered past seem more and more unpredictable and even unknowable, some scholars have become less interested in what “really” happened and more intrigued by what people think happened, as well as how their memories came to be, and what they mean. An especially attractive topic is how the past is officially or publicly remembered, in monuments, holidays, reenactments, museums, and conventional wisdom. There are at least two other kinds of historical memory at work in human life, however. One kind are the biographical tales that an older generation spin about itself to the young—stories about childhood, youth, education, career choice, marriage, and maturity. These stories teach children their first lessons in how to grow up—though whether they follow them is another matter entirely. Another are the tales that elders tell children about a remoter past, the past they learned from their elders, that teach lessons in group identity and allegiance. What did granddaddy do in the war? What happened to...