In February, my husband and I attended “Love Me Tender,” a perfectly delightful evening of Elvis Presley music, anecdotes and shenanigans offered by two brilliant performers. Actually, the show was as much a history lesson as an impersonation, which made it all the more fun for both or us. 

The Colonial Theater in Pittsfield, Massachusetts is an interesting place, with or without a performance on its stage. Once an ornate opera house, it’s been remodeled and expanded to include an old auto dealership as lobby. The theater sits maybe 100 yards off the town common in a town that's struggling to hold onto its historic roots while it finds a way to fit into the 21st century. You may have seen the Colonial in a PBS program featuring a recent  performance by singer James Taylor.  

In New England (and throughout the South, as well) most towns -- large or small – have a square, or common, containing a Civil War memorial that lists the names of those who fought and never came home. Since things don’t change very quickly around here, descendants of those dead often remain in the region. Commons are the focal points of towns, so those monuments get a certain amount of attention.

Back inside the theater, I learned more about Elvis than I ever wanted to know, and enjoyed almost every minute. While we relived the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s through song and dance, both singers/actors stressed Elvis’ strong religious faith and his commitment to his country. He was a true patriot, they said.    

At the end of the show, they returned to that thought. A drumbeat rumbled from the rear of the stage, the organ swelled and photos of fireworks flashed on the screen behind the band. Here comes the finale, I thought, assuming we were about to hear “The Star Spangled Banner“or “God Bless America.” Instead, we were all invited to stand up and sing “Dixie.” 

After the show, the cast came out to the lobby for photos and handshakes. I went up to the music director, told him how much I enjoyed the evening but mentioned that I thought “Dixie” was a poor song choice, especially in an area that supplied much of the cannon fodder for the Civil War. I suggested he take a look at the monument down the block. He didn’t seem to know what I was talking about. 

So, this week we’ve got Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) declaring April as Confederate History Month in Virginia, in hopes that designation will bring much-needed tourist dollars to the state while it helps Virginians "understand the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War."

To continue, click on Read More, on the right below the photo.
Gettysburg battlefield

And, I, for one, hope it does just that. I hope it helps them understand what happens when part of a country declares war on the rest of its citizens, sinking the mother-country’s ships and firing on its military bases, as I was taught happened on April 12, 1861, in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, when Confederate troops opened fire on the US Army at Fort Sumter. 

I hope it helps them understand that, when you fight to defend your right to buy, own and sell other human beings, you can expect to be countered with ferocity. Thank goodness! Just think for a moment what our world might be like today if the South had won!

I hope Confederate History Month helps them understand that, while this country paid dearly in human life to keep the union together, Union armies lost far more men than the Confederacy, (364,511 USA/ 260,000 CSA). In some cases, small northern towns lost all or most of their young males. 

All tolled, about 700,000 military were killed, along with many civilians. Not all died by the gun. Many perished from disease, starvation, exposure, prison and even sun stroke.

I hope it gives them even an inkling of what it must have been like to have lived as a slave. Most of all, I hope it helps them understand what five years of bloodshed, the assassination of a president and 100+ years of glorification of rebelliousness has accomplished.  

Whole counties in the South were turned into graveyards. Farm land, homes, forests and fields were destroyed. In fact, it wasn’t until after World War II (almost 100 years later) that the South was able to rebuild a decent economy, this time without the help of forced labor. 

Thanks to forward-thinking, hard-working southerners, many, many US dollars to build infrastructure, and a healthy influx of skilled immigrants, the south rebounded and became an attractive place to live and work, eventually. In the last half of the last century, thousands of young northerners flocked to Atlanta, Miami and Orlando for job opportunities. Older northerners and mid-westerners retired to Florida, Tennessee and South Carolina, bringing their pensions with them. The weather, the relaxed lifestyle, the music and other unique cultural aspects of the region have made the South a popular international tourist destination, as well. Think Savannah, New Orleans (before Katrina) and Key West.  

Who needs to celebrate death and destruction to boost tourism? What’s there to understand about slaughter? 
Dead Confederate sharpshooter in the Devil's Den, Gettysburg, Pa., July 1863
Many say we must talk about these things so history won’t repeat itself, but that means having serious discussions. I don’t see that happening, do you? Instead, our culture glorifies “Johnny Reb” and his merry band of state’s rightists, mavericks and rogues.  

I have to tell you that I have ancestors who fought on both sides of the Civil War, although most were Union soldiers. At least one died in Andersonville Prison. I’ve never spent one minute thinking about avenging their deaths. 

But, then, my family has been in this country and fought in more wars than most and, at least domestically, has stood on both sides of the line. I know for a fact they fought and some died in the French and Indian War, Revolutionary War, Mexican-American War, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Gulf War. I have friends in Iraq. So what?

I bet everyone in this country could trace ancestors back to wars SOMEWHERE. In many places in the world, people still mourn losses their clans suffered 1,000 years ago. 

I don’t know about you, but I can only have empathy for and understand those involved in wars that have touched my life personally, where my family or friends fought or died. The impact of the Holocaust extends beyond borders and directly touched the lives of many still alive today. That, I understand. Beyond the Holocaust, my personal reach doesn’t go back 145 years, nor does it skip continents.   

If we must all keep kindling the cinders of the Civil War, let us at least be fair about it. Don't forget the Union Army dead, and I'm not talking about Memorial Day, which might as well be renamed National BBQ Day. Maybe Pennsylvania and New York should market their Civil War dead, since they had the most casualties of any states. And, let’s not forget American Indians, blacks and foreign mercenaries who fought. Will they get their months?

And, while we’re at it, why limit our focus to the US Civil War? There are so many other slaughters to “understand.”

Since many Germans emigrated to Ohio in the 18th and 19th centuries, they might want to consider sponsoring November as Nazi History Month to help the world understand “the sacrifices of [its] leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of [World War II).”

Considering how much murder and mayhem this world has suffered, the list could go on and on.

As for the glory of rebels, some of that bloodshed can certainly be traced to those who fought to reclaim land lost generations ago, a cause they were encouraged to fight and kill for. Think Bosnia, think Chechnya, think the Basque, think Rwanda. Can you romanticize a Rwandan raping and murdering in Darfur?  

Do you think Russians someday will set aside Chechnya History Month, commemorating those courageous Chechen rebels who sacrificed their lives right after they slaughtered children in the Beslan school on September 1, 2004? Or the time in 2002 when Chechens held hostage a concert hall that led to the deaths of 170 and injuries to 700 so they could let the world know how unhappy they were being part of Russia?  

I’m sorry for what those people (on both sides) went through and am grateful I didn’t suffer with them. But, there isn’t time enough in mine or anyone's life to devote to righting all the wrongs of the past, especially when there’s so much work for us to do for the present and the future. 

Even without widespread conflict in the US, life is hard enough. We live under constant threat. Our domestic murder rate is obscene. Our sons, daughters, brothers and sisters fight in foreign lands that still play out the bloody consequences of ancient grudges. Isn’t that enough? 

There’s so much work to do in and on this country, and so many global problems we need consider. We're an important player on a world stage. We have a very urgent to-do list. How much better it would be if we stopped wallowing in losses we never directly suffered and worked on those that really, really count today. 

Instead of celebrating the courage and sacrifices of those who started and lost a war 150 years ago, why not work to heal the remaining wounds, and strive in a deliberate and meaningful way to prevent future blood baths?

Give it up, Virginia, and get on with tomorrow.



04/09/2010 11:58

Elvis Loved His Mama, too:

I've been reading up on Reconstruction. It's safe to say that while the white South lost the Civil War, it won the aftermath with terrorist tactics. The freed blacks were reduced to a level of serfdom that one Reconstruction governor thought worse than slavery. More here:

Joan Palmino
04/09/2010 12:14

As a lifelong Elvis fan, I enjoyed the article. Elvis was to say the least a very complicated character. He was a reader and had an extensive library. Yes, he was a patriot, but his patrotism came from the Southern roots, and his gratefuness for the opportunities he had. The reason they may have sung Dixie is that Elvis did a song called the "AMerican Trilogy", which is a medley of All My Sorrows, Battle Hymn, and Dixieland.

I do agree however that pushing the Southern values are not exactly my favorite things these days. Thanks to some Southern politicians this country is almost as divided now as it was then.

Regardless I loved Elvis' voice then and still do now.

Joanie Palmino Wayne NJ

04/09/2010 14:04

Joanie---Just to explain, I certainly didn't hold anything against Elvis, since he didn't choose the songs for the show. I love Elvis, even more now that I know more about him.

K---Thanks for the link to your fantastic post on the post-war Reconstruction Period. It's interesting that so much new information is coming out of university research on this topic, at this particular time. Also, I believe you have some background on the song "Dixie," so I urge readers to go to your site for a quick history lesson on that and other well-known songs.

04/09/2010 14:15

It seems ludicrous that the side that started the war and lost feels like celebrating that terrible war when brother shot at brother.

I had two great grandfather's who fought in the Ohio regiment in the Civil War. Both were severely wounded. I don't have any desire to relive that period of history when young men were slaughtered by their fellow countrymen.

It is outrageous that the Confederate flag is still flown in many Southern cities and towns. One would think they would be ashamed of being part of the Confederacy just as the Germans are ashamed of the Holocaust.

How many generations must pass before Southern pride of the Confederacy is put to rest?

I guess the old joke, "Save your Confederate dollars, boy, the South's gonna' rise again." is not really that funny.

Antoinette in Virginia
04/09/2010 14:23

And living in Virginia these days really sucks. Talked to my nephew in California and he asks, What's wrong with your state? Totally. Who in the hell celebrates Rebels? And doesn't even have the brains to mention SLAVERY! Liberty College? Come on! What you learn there counts for zilch.

04/12/2010 21:53

I think I just lived Memorial Day. This post sent me back to look at photos I took several years ago of family graves going back through the Revolution.

Too many wars.

04/13/2010 15:29

Paula: I'm so happy you dropped by my blog. This is a fascinating article and an impressive blog, so I very much would like to include you on my roll. Can't wait to check out the 60s sit ins.

I remember Elvis's rendition of Dixie with absolute clarity - only about a half step faster than Dylan's.

So many southerners have a glorified romantic notion of the war that I don't think they are capable of forgetting the past and looking to the future. As in most things these days they really don't know their history.

I'm writing "they" when "we" might be more apropo except that this southerner was fortunate enough to come from a family who cherished history. My mom was a reference librarian who drummed it into my head every single day of my life.

I just wonder how many tax dollars will be spent on all of the lawsuits which will come out of these "dictates."

04/13/2010 16:03

Our town has one memorial statue honoring the dead on both sides.

I'm sure his motivation is money but the Confederate angle is not only offensive because of what it stands for, it's dumb--they'll drive away as many people as they attract. What Virginia really needs is to spruce up the sites and hire a better PR firm. You can sell anything with the right pitch.

Larry Burch
04/15/2010 20:59

Heavy stuff, Paula, but excellent! I too, was dismayed by the confederacy day thing. I guess the lesson is that we Americans aren't any better than those in other nations where factions have been at each other's throats for centuries: the civil war may have ended here, but the fighting for souls continues to this day.

In the 1980s I spent a short time in the area of Salisbury, Md. While I did not witness any overt racism, my impression was that it didn't lie much below the surface. The folks I met there were quite nice and polite, but it seemed to me that they just did not consider the causes of the civil war to have been lost.


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