The Associated Press – GAINESVILLE, Ga.
The solemn silence blanketing the crowd of elderly women in antebellum outfits and the grizzled Confederate re-enactors was snapped by a sound once unfamiliar during the annual Civil War memorial.
In the back pews of the modest chapel, 15-month-old Ellie Wingate began to babble, causing more than a few folks gathered to commemorate Confederate Memorial Day to glance back at the spectacle.
Only, they seemed more ecstatic than upset.
"My God, we’ve got babies," crowed Meta Cronia, the 75-year-old past president of the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s Gainesville chapter. "We’re tickled!"
Indeed, the chapter, which had long been as gray as the Confederate uniforms, is steadily getting younger.
Last year, president Jeanne Parker gushes, the chapter celebrated two baby showers _ the first in modern history. And so far this year, the group has landed a high school student and has a few more 30-somethings in its membership.
"We have a nice presence around the community," Parker said. "People see us and they want to take part."
Esther Cope, the group’s national president, said the 20,000-member organization has seen a similar bump in younger members.
Part of it she can link to a subsidiary group called the Children of the Confederacy that serves as a pipeline of sorts. Teens from across the South serve on the children group’s council and are encouraged to join the national group when they turn 18.
Chapters are trying to become more accomodating to younger members as well, scheduling meetings at night and on weekends instead of during the work day. However, Cope said the youth movement can also be traced to a broader cultural shift.
"People across America are learning of their heritage and treasuring it. They want to be a part of the history that has been handed down to them," she said. "It’s like a cycle. In the ’60s it wasn’t as popular to learn about your genealogy. And now it’s growing. And they’re honoring their ancestors by joining these organizations. And we’re seeing an upswing as a result."
Sons of Confederate Veterans, which also requires that potential members prove an ancestor fought for the Confederate cause in the Civil War, have recharged their efforts to reach out to young members as well.
Denne Sweeney, the national group’s commander in chief, said it has assembled a team to develop a "youth enhancement program" aimed at attracting younger members and is sending recruiters to a new set of events.
"We’re trying to go to more things like music festivals as opposed to nothing but gun shows and re-enactments," he said. "We’re trying to go to venues that have a younger crowd."
He said they’re just starting to go out, but that the reaction was positive.
Speakers also have been deployed to chapter meetings to urge members to sign up their children and grandchildren.
"There were some things that were not surrendered at Appomattox. We did not surrender our rights to teach history," said Calvin Johnson, a historian for the Georgia chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. "And hopefully, we won’t forget to teach our young ones the truth of what happened between 1861 and 1865."
That truth, the group’s members contend, is that they fought for the rights of Southern principles, of heritage and culture, not for racist movements or slavery.
The Columbia, Tenn.-based organization SCV doesn’t keep detailed information on ages, but Sweeney estimates that the average age of members has plunged by from the mid-50s to early 40s over the last decade.
The United Daughters of the Confederacy also does not collect data detailing members’ ages, but points to anecdotal evidence.
Jessi Williams, a cheery 17-year-old, joined Parker’s Gainesville chapter after years of listening to her grandfather tell Civil War stories. She spent her high school spring break in Gettysburg, Penn., with her mother, Jan, to pay respects to ancestors who battled there.
"I feel very awkward because I’m the youngest one here, but I’m very proud of my heritage," she said after a meeting.
Ditto for Julie Wingate, little Ellie’s 34-year-old mother, who joined the chapter two years ago after proving that an ancestor battled for the South. All four of her grandparents had relatives that fought.
"I’m very proud of my family and heritage and I’m very proud to continue it," Wingate said. "I want Ellie to know how important our heritage is."
Her infant is already getting a crash course in the group’s traditions, holding off her tears through two earthshaking volleys of musket fires at the recent somber memorial ceremony.
"See her little pantaloons?" Cronia asked, pointing at Ellie’s kicking legs. "She’s going to be a good little Southern Belle."