Young Southern Historians

Bag of Plastic Toy Soldiers

Warner Thompson is a senior at the University of Alabama, who wrote the following for REL 490. He is a History major and a Religious Studies minor with future plans of Law School at the University. He was born and raised in Homewood, Alabama, and he is the oldest of three children.

When I was young, playing with sets of toy soldiers was a favorite pastime of mine. I had entire tiny armies, from different time periods and different wars, and I would spend hours lining my floor with intricate battle formations. After recently seeing a video of myself meticulously setting up one of these scenes, I began to reflect on the elementary historical narratives that were manifesting themselves in the positioning of my soldiers. The good guys, bad guys, and end results were not always consistent with historical fact, but they represented my young mind’s idea of what should have happened, and which side deserved to win. The American patriots would always whip the British redcoats; the Texans would always old the Alamo against Santa Anna; the Sioux would always win the Battle of Little Big Horn; and the gray-clad Confederate rebels would always defeat the blue-clad Yankees. All of these seem to reflect a pretty good moral foundation for a young historian except for the last example.

Even the terminology is disturbing. I do not remember growing up identifying the blue-clad soldiers as anything but the “Yankees” or the “Union Army,” never what they actually were: the Army of the United States of America. I believed the underdog South was in the moral right, and with its legendary generals and fearsome rebel yells, it was also the more appealing side. The Confederates were simply fighting to preserve their way of life. The practice of slavery, or the desire to create a separate country, never crossed my mind as their very real, but not-so-noble motivation. I was aware of secession at a very young age, but the story I was told separated all negative elements from the glorious martyrdom of the Confederacy itself. It focused on the war and not the rationale. It connected the positives of the past to the positives of being a modern Southerner. The origin story I hungrily ingested had no dark corners. I have come to realize that many Southern boys are taught this severely edited version of their own origins tale, and it is a version that inhibits their future ability to self-reflect, study, and progress within their culture.

My grandfather was the story-teller of the family. He was the professor of Southern history at our Sunday lunches, and I was his ever-attentive pupil. he talked with pride about both the Confederacy and the modern-day South, as if there were a seamless, uneventful line that linked the two together. His heritage seemed to have grown out of the ashes of the Confederacy, as I would come to believe mine did as well. He talked about the gallantry of Lee, the brilliance of Stonewall, and the cunning of Nathaniel Bedford Forrest. He had a painting of the iconic “Last Meeting” before Chancellorsville hanging on his wall. I remember looking at old photographs of ancestors that had participated in the conflict, playing a Civil War flute that was kept as a family heirloom, and reading letters written home from Confederate soldiers abroad that seemed to still drip with bravery and confidence, even from faded ink. My grandfather never acknowledged the human sacrifice of the other side, and we never talked about the thousands of dead Americans that fought in blue. He nearly spit when he talked of Sherman’s March to the Sea, and I am almost positive he once mentioned urinating on Grant’s grave in New York City. All of these are clear examples to a critical thinking scholar that I was given a very biased perspective on a very complex and very controversial historical event. However, I was so young at the time that this education began that I took my grandfather as an unquestionable source of truth. In my limited reasoning ability, I figured he must be a historical authority because he was the oldest male in the family. This is a common form of indoctrination into the southern identity. He was never questioned by either of my parents, who I am sure thought some of his rants to be revisionist and possibly even morally wrong, most likely because they didn’t want to “ruin the surprise” for me at such a young age. They allowed me to get lost in the myth of the Confederacy because it was easier than forcing me to confront such a conflicted past.

The myth of the Confederacy that is the bedrock of the modern Southern identity both sensationalizes and expurgates history. It is a legacy that ignores the racism, the bigotry, the sexism, and the violence that are embedded so deeply in its narrative. It makes demigods out of traitors, and it repackages the devastating, humiliating defeat of the Confederacy to be a glorious, heroic sacrifice made by our ancestors for the sake of our culture. We treat is as our Thermopylae. However, it is an origin tale that hardly qualifies as a story at all since it skips the 150 years of history that came between secession and now. We only get the opening credits and the “where are they now” episodes of our reality TV series. This fragmented story is told to young Southern boys because it was Southern white men, who looked ans sounded very similar, that were responsible for the atrocities that occurred here before and after the Civil War. Modern Southern men attempt to block the heavy guilt of their ancestors from ever reaching the shoulders of their progeny by simply pretending there is no weight to bear. However, this means telling children yet another fairy tale, and no culture should be allowed to exist in that type of historical fiction. The Sough is not guilt free, and an ending, happy or otherwise, has yet to be determined. It is not protecting a child to shield it from truth or shame. They are integral parts of realizing how to examine the past and identify the present.

Many Southerners complain that they feel they are left with only two options for addressing their inner conflict. Either proudly claiming the “Southern-ness,” embracing all the implications it carries about everything from political affiliation to culinary preference, or continually responding with a begrudging, head hanging low, “I’m from Alabama,” every time someone asks you where you are from. both are results of making a compromising subconscious decision that actually isn’t necessary to make. Shame and self-loathing on account of ones’ ancestry are not the only alternatives to blind nationalism and pride in it. History is not so black and white, and our responses to it shouldn’t be either. Awareness of the actuality and complex truth of one’s origin narrative does not force a judgement to be made on it as a whole. Being able to alienate one’s self from a past legacy allows for true unbiased examination and understanding, which leads to progress and a more accurate and original present identification. Unlike the simplicity of my battle replicas with toy soldiers, there are no universal good guys or bad guys Every past is tainted, and recognizing that fact as a culture will allow the South to not only deem its origin worthy of study, it will allow it to objectively view the past as simply that. Southern history does not define the Southern present, even though it remains an important part of its prologue. Nothing human is worth denying, the past least of all.