If you don’t understand the significance, you’re probably wasting your time reading the rest of this post.
I was born in the Deep South in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. My ancestors on both sides of the family have lived in Southern Louisiana since around 1764 after they were kicked out of Acadia by the British in present-day Nova Scotia.
After my faith and family, I’d mark my Southern heritage as one of the most important things about my life. If you aren’t from the South, you just can’t understand it. If you are, you’re probably nodding your head in agreement.
The Civil War (or The War of Northern Aggression pronounced with drawn-out Rs), fundamentally changed Southern culture. Even 150 years later, our food, politics, language, and culture are still influenced by those four years.
To this day, the terms “yankee,” “cracker,” “white trash,” and “carpetbagger” are derogatory terms. All of them have roots in the Civil War, and yankee refers to anyone born above the Mason-Dixon line. I think my father was only half-way joking when he said I would be disowned if I went to college outside of the Southeastern Conference and to a “damn yankee school.”
In Tennessee, the War deeply affected politics. It was only this past election — 149 years later — that political divisions from the Civil War ended. (Watch Senator Lamar Alexander explain it here.) Generations after the War, East Tennessee remains a Republican stronghold. Why? Because the terrain wasn’t suitable for growing cotton, so East Tennesseans sided with the Union.
Growing up in Chattanooga, the site of three major battles that arguably changed the course of the War,* this fact was only emphasized. In Downtown Chattanooga, you can’t spit without practically hitting marker, plaque or commemorative statue.
I never questioned this way of life until I was 17. That summer, I worked for Rock City, where several days a week, I worked the ice cream bar at Battles for Chattanooga. While scooping ice cream, I was frequently challenged to answer Civil War trivia and facts by tourists in Dixie Outfitter’s tshirts. As a history buff, and aficionado of Civil War-era clothing (seriously, my knowledge of hoop-skirt era clothing is astounding), I did pretty well. That summer made me realize how profoundly, the War affected people generations after it ended.
If you’ve seen the movie Sweet Home Alabama, they do a decent job of capturing the culture and attitude around re-enactors. We may laugh at their quirkiness, but their knowledge and enjoyment of history is amazing. Because of their enthusiasm, kids across the South have an understanding of how terrible hardtack is and what it was like to march hundreds of miles in wool uniforms in 100% humidity. I still have nightmares about some of the stories I’ve heard from tours at the Chickamauga Battlefield. Most of them revolve around the primitive medical care on the battlefield. Also, what teenager growing up in the area hasn’t ventured out to see if Old Green Eyes really haunts the Battlefield?
The War even changed the way that we eat. On New Year’s Day, old Southern families eat a meal of black-eyed peas, cabbage or collard greens (my preference), cornbread and ham. Why? The typical answer is because our grandparents and great-grandparents did this. When you grow up in the South, this is not an unusual answer, and most people accept it.
Last year, I asked why. Since I despise cabbage, my mother has spent many New Years lamenting that I’ll never have money. The tradition holds that eating greens will bring you money and eating black-eyed peas will bring you coins. To some degree, this has been accurate in my finances.
When I questioned where the tradition came from, my mother replied, “Your Mamaw Pace made it.” If Mamaw Pace did it, it’s important. Her branch of the family had roots in the Old South from Mississippi. Mamaw Pace’s mother, Grandmother Carter, was a true Southern Belle, with a phenomenal life story that rivals Laura Ingalls Wilder. That branch of the family has more influence than any other.
My father nodded in agreement and replied that his family always did it. There’s no trace of Yankee blood in my family.
Google provided me a better answer. After Yankees raided farms and gardens for food, they left things they didn’t recognize like sweet potatoes, black eyed peas and collard greens. The tradition emerged to eat a meal on New Year’s Day of those survival foods to acknowledge what our ancestors went through. You can tell how Southern a person by the value they place on the New Year’s Day meal.
Culturally, the South is still changing, and in many ways for the better. Civil rights battles and racism still have footholds in dark corners of the South, and it’s important to remember how far things have come in a few decades. As someone born in the 1980s, it’s easy for me to lump racism and segregation in with the era immediately following the War. It’s something that ended long ago and can be forgotten.
However, it lasted much longer. Occasionally, my parents will shock me with random memories of seeing the Civil Rights struggles fought in Southern Louisiana. Despite being very young in the 50s and 60s, they still recall segregated bathrooms and water fountains. My mother remembers being bussed to elementary school in the 60s. My dad recalls spending summers on his grandparents’ farm, which was the remains of a rice plantation, and seeing ruins of sharecroppers’ houses. To me, those experiences seem like they were from a different era, and my parents are too young to have experienced them.
It’s easy to see today — the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War — as just another day in history. However, the Civil War forever changed the culture of the South. In our networked and technology-driven world, those differences are slowly fading, yet in order to appreciate and understand Southern culture, you need to fully grasp how the War Between the States forever changed things.
*Some historians argue that had the South won the Battles for Chattanooga, winning Gettysburg wouldn’t have been so critical. Chattanooga was the transportation hub of the railroads in the South (Think Chattanooga Choo Choo). Losing Chattanooga was the beginning of the end for Lee’s troops.