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.



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.


Brook Davis

And notice that everyone is fleeing South now because of more economic opportunity and jobs because we don't restrict free enterprise even now like the North does.

Mike B

You've just, once again, gained a competitive advantage by restricting the rights and opportunities of workers. How is allowing people freedom of contract somehow a restriction on free enterprise?

Brook Davis

As a Southerner, this is completely wrong! We celebrate our independence and that was the last time our states really had it! We are showing that our states are still independent entities that think the federal government has over run it's constitutional boundaries.


If I am reading this correctly, the South wants to be independent in order to do what? Continue with the slavery perhaps?

Mike B

Segregation too.


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.

Mike B

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.

Brook Davis

It has nothing to do with economics. It has to do with state pride and independence. It has to do with the federal government over stepping it's constitutional boundaries and interfering with states rights. The Southern states have an independent spirit that is lacking in the North.


" interfering with states rights" - state rights to own slaves?


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.

caleb b

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.

Mike B

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.

Mike B

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.

Brook Davis

I guess that's why our economy in the South is doing so much better than your Yankee states!!!


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.


Daniel H.

When I was a senior at Virginia Tech, I took a Civil War History class taught by J.I. Robertson, a brilliant Civil War scholar. His lectures were phenomenal and gripping, and that class had by far the lowest attrition rate I witnessed for an 8am class. However, there was one thing that was striking about the student demographics in that lecture- it was overwhelmingly white. Even though African-Americans would seem to have had the greatest stake in the outcome of the war, both economically and personally, I rarely saw more than 1 black person in a lecture that typically had around 300 students. I tend to see the same thing when I visit battlefields, whether in Virginia, South Carolina, or Pennsylvania. Why is it, then, that the greatest beneficiaries of the Civil War appear to be less interested in its history than those who, at least economically, lost the most from it?


"Why Does the South Still Commemorate the Civil War, But Not the North?"
My 2 cents for the answer: locational awareness. It had a major impact on the lives of the people in the South. In the North much less so. Partially due to the social and economic changes but also due to the war being fought mainly there. When I was last in Mass. I don't remember seeing any Civil War battlefields, but now that I am in Virginia, they are everywhere. Win or lose, people will remember the wars and battles that were localy involved much better than those that weren't.
Who is more likely to remember when Perl Harbor was bombed? Someone who lives in Hawaii , someone who lives in Kansas, or someone in Japan.
Who is more likely to remember the 49 gold rush, people in California or those in NY?
Who is more likely to remember the date of the SanFrancisco earthquake, someone who is 4th generation SF or one whose family never left the East coast?



I agree 100% with PaulD. I grew up in Alabama, and I can tell you honestly that no one flies the Confederate flag because of our past economic strength. The points about the South's economic standing pre- and post-war may be true, but have little to do with our reasons for commemorating it. Far more important are the South's values of state's rights/freedom from an oppressive gov't., and the nostalgia of a bygone era of Southern charm/gentility. Racism is surely involved as well, to some extent - although most people in the South do not feel this way, beliefs about race take many generations to change, and there are still a surprising number of people who sympathize with slave owners.