I went in search of Dixie, and discovered that I could find only traces of it. On a ten-day driving trip in late May with my wife through the lower South—Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, the Florida panhandle, Georgia—I encountered little of the Deep South of my cultural imagination.
Much of that, of course, is the inevitable homogenizing result of the interstate highway system. If you drive distances of any length in the U.S. today you are driving in Interstate America, and Interstate America, variations in landscape apart, is pretty much the same wherever you are. A cartoon in the New Yorker decades ago captured the point: the sign across an anonymous superhighway announces, “You are now entering Kansas, or a state very much like it.”
Interstate America also moves from one urban center to another, skirting the rural. Except for one overnight stay in Evergreen, Ala., and a few minor excursions, we spent our non-driving time in cities: Nashville, Memphis, Jackson, New Orleans, Mobile, Atlanta. (My wife, raised as a country girl, has had her fill of what she wryly calls “rural enchantment.”) As a friend who knows the region reminded me, the Deep South I was looking for is not to be found in metropolitan centers. That’s the New South, not the Deep South.
I should not exaggerate. Even the limited South we saw is not like everywhere else. As all visitors report, people there are friendlier, more relaxed, and the cuisine retains its distinctive touches (the seafood is remarkable, though I had no difficulty skipping the grits and okra).
And, more substantially, there is religion. Drive through Mississippi on a Sunday, and on the radio you can’t escape Jesus. There’s black Jesus and white Jesus, but, AM or FM, he’s unavoidable. The radio preachers are sometimes more enthusiastic than precise in their piety. One carried on at some length about the curse of “revealing”: it finally dawned on us that it was “reveling” he had in mind. At a different level, a friend recently relocated from Connecticut to Alabama finds it striking that at dinner parties, including quite fashionable ones, the host typically begins the meal with prayer. The South may or may not be more religious in measurable terms than the rest of the country, but there can be little doubt that it is more up-front about it.
Yet it is not so much the God-obsessed South I was looking for as the South of the Lost Cause. And that South, for better and worse, seems truly lost. The Confederate flag, to begin with the obvious, is not nearly so ubiquitous as I expected it to be. We saw not a single defiant bumper sticker. There seemed also to be little tourist emphasis on reminders or relics of the Confederacy.
New Orleans was a particular revelation. Our motel in the Garden district, close to downtown, was within walking distance of two featured museums: one devoted to D-Day in World War II, the other to the Confederacy. The D-Day museum, only a few years old, is state of the art. Its name is misleading; it in fact offers a panoramic survey of the entire war experience, taking in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of combat as well as life on the home front. It is commanding and compelling, at once historically sophisticated and as up-to-date in entertainment value as could be imagined. We hadn’t the time, but I could easily have spent a full day there.
Then, just down the street, there is the Confederate museum. It is neglected and forlorn, a museum of a museum. It opened in the late nineteenth century, and, from the looks of it, has not been updated since. Faded pictures on the wall, cluttered memorabilia in glass cases. It can be got through in an hour, and you bring little of note away from it afterward.
What little it does have of interest it tends to bury. I almost missed, tucked away at floor level in the corner of one of the cases, a framed photograph of Pope Pius IX. Pius, a devoted champion of the Southern cause, sent the photo to Jefferson Davis while the former Confederate President, a Protestant, was languishing in a federal prison just after the war. The picture frame has a peaked top, and wound about it is a crown of thorns that, according to the description I had to stoop to read, was woven by the Pope himself. It’s a fascinating item in a museum that seems otherwise almost determinedly drab.
Nor does the museum champion the cause it so languidly records. Its statement of purpose says that it is dedicated to a “non-ideological” approach to the Civil War. It in fact displays a number of items relating to the Union side of the struggle. Even the gift shop, also down at the heels, divides its small collection of cheap bric-a-brac equally between the Union and the Confederacy.
Things are both different and the same at the exhibit on the Civil War we strolled through several days later at the Atlanta History Center. It is technologically superb, conceived with verve and intelligence and executed with grace and impressive production values. You leave it educated but not pedantically so. If the New Orleans museum embalms the Civil War experience, the Atlanta exhibit brings it to vibrant life. You feel what it all was like, its grandeurs and horrors, and you come away sobered and subdued.
But you don’t come away lost in nostalgia for the side that lost. The exhibit notes the disproportionate and quite terrible suffering of the South, both on the battlefield and in civilian life. It records the savagery of General Sherman’s march to the sea in late 1864 following the fall of Atlanta, an early exercise in the brutalities of modern total war. But it offsets that with the recognition that for Southern blacks the Civil War was a war of liberation. I taught American history for many years, an I found the exhibit both remarkably true to the historical record and scrupulously evenhanded. (And the gift shop, considerably upscale from its New Orleans counterpart, is itself equally balanced between North and South in the wares it displays.) One departs the museum sad for the Confederacy, but not sad that it did not prevail.
I came away from my (probably misguided) search for Dixie more aware than before of the necessity of not allowing nostalgia to lapse into historical sentimentality. It is not wrong to regret much that was lost in the defeat of the Confederacy. One thinks, for example, of the undoubted nobility of a Robert E. Lee, who, though he opposed both slavery and secession, could not bring himself to turn his hand against—and indeed defended with everything he had—the people and culture he loved. The ideal of the Southern gentleman is not simply a fiction born of too many readings of Gone With the Wind.
But regret for what was lost must not for a minute forget that the society for which Lee fought was built on human slavery, and that it brought its own destruction in its insistence that the peculiar institution must be preserved whatever the cost. The South had its elements of nobility, but its cause was morally indefensible at the core. And the North, whatever its own flaws, had in its vision of a Union dedicated to freedom and equality a cause very much worth defending.
James Nuechterlein is editor at large of First Things and a senior fellow of the Institute on Religion and Public Life.