I’m 54 as I write this. The Civil War has been over for quite some time. Yet when I grew up in the Deep South, the Civil War was very real to me and was something educated people discussed all the time. My hometown, Orangeburg, South Carolina, had been seized and burned by Union troops and everyone talked about the fire as if it had happened the week before. In his book, A Turn In The South, V.S. Naipul observes in his visit to Columbia, South Carolina that the pain of the Confederate defeat continued to be very strong and that in his first day in Columbia, three or four people mentioned to him that Sherman burned the city down. (For you Yankees who would deny this, Sherman admitted to this in his memoirs and admitted that he had lied about it early on.)
My hometown was seized by Union troops because the rail line and telegraph line from Columbia to Charleston ran through Orangeburg. General Sherman had even quartered his horses in the Presbyterian Church. My dear departed mother was a devout Presbyterian. (Alas, her youngest son long ago slid off the path of the straight and narrow.) That General Sherman had quartered his horses in the Presbyterian Church bothered her to no end and sometimes when we were driving around town she would say to me, “he put his horses in the Church. Can you imagine?” No, I couldn’t imagine because the specific church buildings where we worshiped at the First (and only) Presbyterian Church in town, had been built in the 1920s and the building where Sherman had boarded his horses had been torn down long before that.
The strong religious tradition in the South was never more evident than during the Civil War. There was an intense burst of religious feeling and revivals throughout the South and the Confederate Army in the summer of 1864. It originated in this conundrum: the only reason the South could be losing the war was that we Southerners were sinning against God. This could be the only explanation since He certainly sided with the Confederacy and hence we had to humble themselves and ask His forgiveness for all our sins so He would stop being so angry with us and allow the Confederacy to win the war.
God was testing the South and we Southerners had to keep our religious faith at a white hot pitch. Yet, as the war went on and the numbers of men killed climbed above two hundred thousand, many Southerners slowly began to feel they were in a terrible vise. And that vise was the creeping thought that the deaths of so many brave Southern men in the war was the price God was extracting for the iniquity of holding other humans in slavery.
And after the war that became a way, the only way, for Southerners to understand why they had lost. They had angered God so everyone had to be as true to the Bible as possible or we would anger Him again so the social pressure to conform was intense. Yet, inevitably people did anger God so He continued to send yellow fever and malaria and cholera. That’s why religious revivals were and are so much a part of Southern life. The spirit is waning, people are veering away from the straight and narrow and so religious sentiment and obedience to God must be revived or else something terrible will happen.
I will end by saying life and death, disease and violence, sexual passion and tropical heat, create one hell of an explosive mixture. No wonder Southerners live with a constant sense of elegy. How could we not? In the middle of Faulkner’s masterpiece, Absalom, Absalom!, one of the main Southern characters, Quentin, is studying at Harvard. One night his roommate, a student from the North, asks Quentin, who is, of course, from Mississippi, the most famous series of questions in Southern literature: “Tell about the South. What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all…” The answer takes the rest of the novel. I have quoted these lines as written. The absence of question marks is in the original and meant to tell the reader how often Quentin, as a Southerner, has heard these questions from Yankees.
To understand this is to understand the South. To explain it is to be a Southern writer.