Why Does the South Still Commemorate the Civil War, But Not the North? Bring Your Questions for Historian Peter Coclanis

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War. Celebrations, commemorations, remembrances of all kinds are planned over the next four years. Twenty-two states are getting in on the action. But the majority of events, and the people displaying the most zeal for the occasion, are in the South.

In December, a mostly white crowd turned out in their antebellum best for the Secession Ball in Charleston, S.C. In February, the Sons of Confederate Veterans descended on the state capitol in Montgomery, Ala., to cheer the reenactment of Jefferson Davis being sworn in as president of the Confederacy. My home state of Virginia, where a third of all Civil War battles were fought, is spending millions in hopes of cashing in on the four-year event. In the South, the Civil War is still big business, which got me thinking: why are the ones who lost the war trying the hardest to remember it? The Civil War devastated the South, and plunged much of the region into a century of poverty and economic stagnation, the effects of which are still apparent in many areas. The South’s relationship with the “Lost Cause” is obviously complicated, but where else in history do we see the losers commemorating a war while the winners, by comparison, largely ignore its anniversary?

For some insight, I turned to Peter Coclanis, a professor of economic and business history at the University of North Carolina whose research focuses on the American South in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Coclanis offered some interesting thoughts on the economic legacy of the Civil War in the South, and why many southerners are still so keen to remember it. Below, I’ve paraphrased his remarks, which should give you more than enough fodder to ask him some good questions. He has agreed to field reader questions so please post them in the comments section and, as always, we’ll post his answers in short course. As we have, right here.

In 1860, the American South was one of the wealthiest areas in the world, an agrarian, capitalist economy that enjoyed a handful of comparative advantages: namely its ability to grow and get to market a small number of crops for which there was strong international demand: cotton, tobacco, and rice in particular. There was also the obvious labor advantage of slavery. But that advantage wasn’t so much economic as it was coercive. Getting people to work in extremely difficult conditions, i.e. cultivating sugar and rice out of the sweltering, bug-infested swamps of Georgia and Mississippi was slavery’s biggest advantage. Without the coercion of forced labor, it’s doubtful people would have ever tilled much of that land, certainly not in the numbers that actually did.

But as impressive as it was, the economic growth of the South lacked qualitative development. It wasn’t moving up the value-added chain. While innovation flourished in the industrial North, it wasn’t exactly stagnant in the South, but channeled into narrow agricultural lines. The voracious global demand for cotton and tobacco masked economic weaknesses that would have huge long-term consequences.

Those consequences are most apparent in the economic inversion that took place following the war. The parts of the South that were generally the richest in 1860 are today its poorest. These were the areas with the highest concentration of plantations: a swath of land stretching from coastal South Carolina down through Georgia, and west into Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Today, this region is home to some of the poorest counties in America, with high rates of unemployment, low-skilled labor, and other social ills like obesity and a lack of education. It’s this inversion that’s at the heart of why many southerners—particularly in these areas—remember the war so fondly, or at least the time that preceded it. Faced with their current circumstances, it’s easy to see why so many are so eager to celebrate a time when they were near the top of the world’s economic heap. In 1860, half of the South’s wealth was held in the form of slaves. By the end of the war, it was gone, legally defined into oblivion by emancipation.

What followed was roughly a century of economic stagnation. As late as 1930, per capita income in the South was roughly half the national average. World War II jump-started things, particularly along the Southern coast. Beginning in the postwar decades, much of the South pursued a development strategy to transition away from agriculture toward low-level manufacturing. This worked quite well for a generation or so, and drew millions of southern Americans out of poverty. By the early 1980s, the per-capita income of the South was about 90 percent of the national average. But that was the peak. Globalization, automation and other forces have undercut those gains, and the South has not converged at all upon national norms over the past 30 years.



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  1. jonathan says:

    Two missing pieces in the story.

    1. The South didn’t give up its agrarian economy out of racism and classism. They replaced slave labor with sharecropping. This kept black people in poverty and had the added “benefit” of keeping many whites in poverty as well.
    2. The racial animosity was kept alive by poverty, by the economic and class lines that kept the appearance of competition in place between poor black and poor white. This was a choice imposed by the land owners, partly out of lack of economic sense, partly because they couldn’t imagine something different, something which gave more opportunity to blacks and whites trapped at the bottom. Note that migration north, particularly around WWII, was both black and white fleeing the South for more opportunity (and often bringing their hatreds with them).

    The South commemorates the Civil War in part because it’s still with them. It survived in the class system, in the race system, in share cropping until well within living memory. The War became a justification and remembering it kept the system alive.

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    • Brook Davis says:

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      • Mike B says:

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      • Brook Davis says:

        Once again, we actually have JOBS! No one is made to take a job. They can take it or leave it.

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      • Mike B says:

        Dying out in the swamp after being evicted from one’s home is a pretty good incentive to work if you ask me. Low skill workers have no market power except through government action or union organization. One of these days those workers will get the tools to stand up to the modern day plantation owners who enjoy a monopsony in the labour market.

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      • Clancy says:

        Here’s unemployment by state: http://data.bls.gov/map/MapToolServlet?survey=la I don’t see the southern economic powerhouse you seem to see.
        You may be right that the South may be attractive to some kinds of low-skill businesses because of lower standards of living, lower wages and strong anti-union laws, but that’s just a race to the bottom.

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    • russell1200 says:

      It is more complicated then that.

      You have the progressive movement, a white-black alliance, that was broken up by the Democratic Party in the 1890s.

      Somewhere between then and now I suspect there was a memory shift – similar to what happened in Germany after their loss in World War 1 – that shifted attribution of cause to different areas. As with Germany, the people in power would have promoted (and likely believed) this changed ideology.

      You have a lot of evidence, even going back to the times prior to the the Revolutionary War (The revolt in Alamance County, NC for one) that shows a cetain class-cultural (not in the Marxist Sense) in the South. There was a lot more protest and disagreement with the war (over leaving the Union – not slavery per se) then was later recalled.

      This discussed the politics in more detail than most. Be aware it is siting period pieces and a very odd tone to it. http://1898wilmington.com/fusionists.shtml

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  2. Brook Davis says:

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      • Tom says:

        Right, we’re just a bunch of racists. I guess that’s why black folks are moving to the South in droves. They just love to be around us racists.

        What a bunch of clueless morons.

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      • Jon says:

        This always pisses me off Tom, the criticism that Southerners are racist. I think many times this is a viewpoint held by liberals that have really no idea of the current social dynamic of the South. It certainly may have held true in the ’60s, but I believe that claim has lost much of it’s bite.

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      • JB says:

        Having lived in the west, midwest, north, and south, I have noticed very little difference in the quantity of racism people have, but immense differences in 1) opportunity (I lived in far less diverse populations outside of the south) and 2) openness (southerners are more open and willing to address it, while north & (mid)westerners most just deny it).

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    • Miley Cyrax says:

      As a northerner, I imagine modern-day southerners are resentful of the north because the north tries to push its political and cultural norms onto the south in a Borg-like manner. “We are the North. Lower your shields and surrender to us. We will add your cultural and political distinctiveness to our own. Your conservatism will adapt to serve our politically correct liberalism. Resistance is futile.”

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      • Claire Bazinet says:

        As a northerner (and another Star Trek fan), I imagine that the South celebrates the Civil War not as winners but to honor those who fought and died honorably and bravely (as would Klingons) for a cause they believed in.

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      • pawnman says:

        If this is the case, why don’t states who were on the Union side of the civil war celebrate the brave soldiers who died as well?

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      • HJGrimesIII says:

        They do. It’s called Memorial Day and was originally known as Decoration Day. General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in his General Order No. 11 established Memorial Day on 5 May 1868. His order included specific language that excluded the Southern War dead. http://www.usmemorialday.org/order11.html

        Confederate Memorial Day is still a State Holiday in 7 southern states.

        As a Southerner and a liberal (you read that right) I struggle to understand why my Great Grandfather went off to fight the Yankees for a cause so obviously reprehensible. I also struggle to understand how to honor his decision.

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  3. Ben says:

    I wonder if some of this has to do with the fact that the Civil War largely played out in Southern territory. With a couple of notable exceptions (Antietem, Gettysburg), the major battles – the events that are usually thought of as being worthy of some form of “commemoration” – took place in the South. I have Southern relatives, and things like the destruction of Atlanta and Sherman’s march still sting. They may have lost the war, but many Southerners feel strongly that preserving the memory of the blood that was shed on their soil is important.

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    • Mike B says:

      I would agree with this. The “northern” battles of Gettysburg and Antietam see quite a large turnout from Union supporters. Also Gettysburg hosts a huge event every year at their Remembrance Weekend which commemorates the Gettysburg address in November. From personal experience Confederate reenactors are most definitely in the minority at that event, although they do get points for enthusiasm.

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    • dislocatedman says:

      I grew up in the north and now live in the south, Richmond. I have noticed that southerners erect Civil War monuments in the middle of their cities, Northerners erect Civil War memorials in graveyards. Northerners consider the war an unnecessary evil, a disaster. The war was a brutal, unfortunate necessity in the face of the intractable evil of slavery. My experience is that it is really only a small group of die-hard southerners that think the Civil War was anything but a waste of lives. Most of my southern friends see it as a futile absurd attempt by elites to perpetuate an evil system and are chagrined by the die-hard posturing.

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  4. Brook Davis says:

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    • Consumer says:

      ” interfering with states rights” – state rights to own slaves?

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      • Dan says:

        Alexander Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederacy, would disagree with you on that. He said the following in March 1861

        “The new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions—African slavery as it exists among us—the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.”

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      • ThatMattGuy says:

        What “State’s Rights” were violated, exactly? When Lincoln was elected, the Southern states decided that he would emancipate, even though he said as President he couldn’t make laws, only enforce them. [Someone please tell that to our last few Chiefs.] There were quite a few that seceded before his inauguration, even, so it wasn’t something he did.

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    • Mike B says:

      And look what’s that’s gotten them…poverty and poor human capitol. I guess they can take pride in their dominance in the field of Kudzu production. 😛

      Also remind people in the South that the whole 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments actually count as part of the Constitution even if they don’t generally agree with then. So when the government says you can’t own people any more or make them use separate facilities it’s not “unconstitutional”.

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      • Tom says:

        I guess it’s OK for the government to own people though, right?

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      • Monica says:

        I think you have to be careful to keep a continuous definition of the term “own.” I’m not sure what sense of ownership you imply between the U.S. government and its citizens, but as it allows its citizens to move to another country, change jobs, follow their children from state to state and other various liberties, it is pretty clearly not the same definition of “ownership” as slavery.

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  5. PaulD says:

    Are you serious? If you polled 100 Southerners on this matter I doubt ten would say that they keep the Civil War at the forefront of their minds because they were near the top of the heap economically prior to the War.

    I am not a Southerner (though my great-grandfather did fight for the South), but I would guess it has more to do with a longing for the genteel antebellum traditions of the South as personified by a man like Robert E. Lee than with any economic considerations. And, to be honest, a touch of residual racism.

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    • Clancy says:

      True, but that genteel culture existed because those idealized Southern Gentlemen were members of a wealthy aristocracy. Good posture and good manners didn’t count for much in the hard-scrabble North.

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  6. caleb b says:

    The Trojans lost the war, but are remembered far more than the Greeks. Schools use the Trojans as mascots. Ever heard of the Greeks as a mascot?

    I agree with the reasons above: a romanticized view of a civilization before the war. The Iliad/Odyssey and Gone with the Wind are probably pretty good proxies for one another.

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    • Mike B says:

      I’ve heard of the Spartans as a mascot and they and other Greeks form the model for Western military discipline that continues to this day.

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      • Jon says:

        That could be because the Spartans had their own notable defeat at Thermopylae, of course.

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  7. Mike B says:

    Perhaps because the South’s entire war strategy was to “Want it More”. That may have worked back in the middle ages, but in an industrial world the way to win is through the cold application of resources through science and technology. Fortunately or not, the South has maintained this strategy, continuing to promote the value of the Lost Cause while completely neglecting its education system.

    As the South, bringing the United States down in international rankings and reputation since 1862.

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    • Brook Davis says:

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      • Mike B says:

        Last I checked the mid-Atlantic and New England regions were doing quite well thank you very much. Besides, at least we aren’t getting by with a Wal*Mart based economy.

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      • Brook Davis says:

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      • Drizzl says:

        Or just math.

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  8. AaronS says:

    I think it is like a faded southern belle remembering her glory days, back when she dazzled with her entrance, charmed with her wit, and caught the imaginations of the boys.

    Very simply, we southerners are not REALLY remembering the war. We have cherry-picked our memories–photoshopped them, if you will. Our horrific defeats are turned into something noble and bittersweet…instead of the decimation that it was. And our victories, well, they have been made equivalent to the bringing down of Troy.

    It’s very much like an old-timer remembering The Great Depression. Instead of the bone-rattling poverty and hurt, you hear things like, “Well, times were hard, but…” and they often fill in the blank with some precious memory of a schoolgirl in calico.

    In truth, however, the South does have some things to be rightly proud of. We did, vastly outmanned, outgunned, and outspent, manage to rattle the cage of the Union’s highest leadership. While our CENTRAL fight was about slavery, there was just enough of fighting for states rights and the such to allow southern apologists to seek to revise the truth to more palpable terms.

    In a thought experiment, I put myself in the place of the majority of southern fighters who neither owning, nor having hope to own, slaves, still fought. It was about COUNTRY (or, more precisely, STATE) to them. They didn’t have much a dog in the fight about slavery, but the powers that be knew how to frame the matter such that it was about the big, ugly, impolite, rude north trying to force its ways on the polite, refined, cultivated south. Framed thusly, I imagine that many a poor boy who had no dealings at all with slaves could find it in his heart to take up arms to protect his state.

    Indeed, the wealthy have for generations found ways to convinced poor boys to die for them. But when it comes to our beloved South, we remember because we remember only the parts that make us feel better about ourselves. We conveniently leave off those places that besmirch our noble history…though no nation (or state) can claim perfection on such things. We remember the magnolia-scented nights…while forgetting the slave quarters just beyond those trees.

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