Fri, Apr 22, 2005
Southerners strive to keep history alive
The Brunswick News

The War of Northern Aggression is long over and it’s unlikely the Confederacy will ever rise again, not even on a flagpole. The state of Georgia, though, still has its one little rebellion.

Late every April, close to the date that Confederate Gen. Joseph Johnston surrendered Georgia to Gen. William T. Sherman, the state takes the day off. The mail is still delivered and the trash still gets picked up, but any service provided by an agency of the state is suspended for the day in honor of an obscure little holiday with its roots in Georgia’s break from the Union.

This year, the state will take Monday off in observance of Confederate Memorial Day. The holiday in Georgia officially falls on Tuesday, April 26, 140 years after the Confederacy in Georgia died.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans and United Daughters of the Confederacy will pay homage to the South’s gallant soldiers and their doomed cause with ceremonies in Hanover Square in Brunswick on Saturday and again April 30.

Outside that odd little circle of history buffs and state employees, however, Confederate Memorial Day captures little attention.

Society’s growing aversion to politically incorrect history, as well as the steady march of time, is pushing the Civil War farther into obscurity.

Seven generations after the Old South collapsed, there’s little interest in revisiting that lost way of life, so groups like the 35-member Lanier of Glynn Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy are struggling to keep history alive.

"It is harder because a lot of people have misread or don’t really understand what the war was about," said Carolyn Nugent, a member of the UDC for about six years.

"The war was not about slavery," she said. "It was about protection of your family and friends."

A familiar argument in defense of the glorious Confederate dead, but typically espoused by fashionably unshaven men wearing the tattered grays of Confederate reenactors.

Women have long held leading roles in ensuring proper respect is paid to Confederate veterans and those who fell in defense of the cause, not to mention engendering an accurate understanding of the cause they were defending.

In fact, Georgia’s first observance of Confederate Memorial Day may be traced to the women of Columbus who, according to the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government, organized a memorial association on April 12, 1866, and began to campaign for a special day for "paying honor to those who died defending the life, honor and happiness of the Southern women."

To this day, the Daughters of the Confederacy salute the Confederate flag "with affection, reverence and undying remembrance." Part of the organization’s stated mission is to educate children about the war and its true cause, Nugent said.

Children attending public schools in Georgia do still learn about the Civil War in their history courses, but the discussion shrinks as more time passes and more history is made.

Interest in the war appears to be regional, though.

Miriam Reyburn-Steele, a retired archaeologist who still dabbles in historical research on St. Simons Island, grew up in Pennsylvania where the Civil War "was never mentioned, not even in school," she said.

There are sociologists who say the war’s effects on the South are still being felt. The Southern economy didn’t rebound from the war and Reconstruction until the 1950s, they say, and the scars on the people and land are still close to the surface.

"The Civil War is still taught in detail by most Southern-born teachers because the history is all around us," said Robert Carithers, head of the history department at Glynn Academy high school in Brunswick.

"If you have ever been to Europe, the Europeans talk of (World War II) as if it happened two or three years ago because it is part of their everyday life."

That makes the Civil War a timely topic despite the passage of almost a century and a half.

"The lessons of the war need to be studied to understand today’s society," Carithers said.

One of the biggest legacies of the war is the push it gave to a centralized federal government, said M.G. Whittle, a former fifth-grade teacher who now owns a real estate firm on St. Simons Island and holds office in the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

"It was … the single event that turned this nation away from states’ rights toward a more centralized federal government. It ended a way of life here in the South and forced us to conform to others’ ways," Whittle said. "The South for many years after the war was fiercely Democrat because Lincoln and the North were Republican. They were fierce protectors of states’ rights. Now that the Republican and Democratic agendas have reversed, the South now overwhelmingly votes Republican. That’s what the war was about — states’ rights, not slavery."

The Civil War retains its place in American memory because of its uniqueness in American history.

"People know about the Civil War because it was such a polarizing event," Whittle said. "It was the only war in our history that split rather than united citizens, families and friends. All other wars have had proponents and opponents, but almost all, in the end, have rallied behind the troops as one against a common enemy."

Confederate troops have never enjoyed unanimous support or respect. They do seem to get more attention in areas where battles occurred, such as North Georgia, site of famous engagements between North and South at places like Chickamauga, Resaca and Pickett’s Mill.

The city of Kingston, roughly 30 miles east of Rome, is home to Georgia’s oldest Confederate Memorial Day observance. Since 1865, the Kingston Women’s History Club has observed the holiday by honoring the 250 unknown soldiers in the town’s cemetery.

Another 30 miles to the east is Cartersville, where the General P.M.B. Young Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy holds its Confederate Memorial Day Observance at the 1903 gold-dome courthouse. The keynote speaker at this year’s event, scheduled for Saturday, will deliver a talk titled, "The War Between the States — Past, Present and the Effects Today."

Attendance at the annual observance, which includes a segment honoring veterans of all wars, numbers near 100 every year, said Deborah Hendrix, a member of the General P.M.B. Young Chapter.

Ann Bridges, chapter president, said interest in the war is high in North Georgia.

Membership in the UDC is open to women 16 or older who trace their lineage to a soldier in the Confederate armed services, or to a man or woman who worked in civil service during the war or who "materially aided" the cause.

"Some of the younger people are getting interested in genealogy. It’s supposed to be the fastest growing hobby in the U.S.," Bridges said, and the discovery of Confederates on the family tree always brings new inquiries.

"Probably 75 percent of our membership are younger women," Bridges said. "We did have one that was 16 years old when she first joined. Now she’s 23."

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