Out on a Limb: Whistlin’ “Dixie”

Out on a Limb: Whistlin’ “Dixie”

Why does the Civil War refuse to fade into the history books?

When I was growing up, the Civil War wasn’t ancient history in our house. My father came from Illinois, my mother from Alabama, and I was 9 at the centennial of the Civil War’s end. For a conflict so wrenching, a mere hundred years isn’t enough to heal. (Judging by this spring’s battle over the Confederate flag in South Carolina, 135 years won’t do it, either.)

My mom jokingly referred to the Civil War as “the war of Northern aggression” and I, a diehard Yankee, teased her about Gone with the Wind and General Sherman. Not until recently did she tell me that her grandfather fought for the Confederacy; until after his death, his grandchildren thought he’d been a drummer boy, not a soldier.

In fact, as I’ve poked into my genealogy, I’ve realized that all my relatives who fought in that “recent unpleasantness” were on the side I rooted against in movies. A several-greats-uncle was even purportedly at Appomattox (with the troops who were surrendering). My “Yankee” relations were not even Americans yet.

Learning about your Civil War heritage can reveal the complexities that may partly explain why this subject still so fascinates us. At once awful and glorious, the Civil War’s ironies and contradictions compel us: on historic battlefields battling today for preservation against encroaching shopping malls… at the movies and on television, from “Glory” to Ken Burns’ PBS-TV series… wherever Civil War reenactors gather. As Tony Horwitz, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Confederates in the Attic (Vintage), put it in our first issue, “One reason it lingers is that many of the issues at stake in the war are still unresolved. Race is still at the center of our national debate, states’ rights is still a very vibrant political philosophy, and even the largest question posed by the war, ‘Are we one nation?’ is still relevant.”

As you explore your own Civil War heritage, you’ll discover the “mystic chords of memory,” in Lincoln’s phrase, that still resonate from that era to today. Our cover story will help you begin.

If all your ancestors, like those on my father’s side, came over after the Civil War was history, there’s still plenty in this issue to help you with your family history. You’ll find a 10-step guide to tracing your Italian roots, all you need to know to find ancestor answers in cemeteries and the latest on genealogy, genetics and your family health history. Plus we give you a jump start on building your own genealogy site on the Web.

Enjoy this issue! (And, please, don’t remind my mom that I ever thought favorably of General Sherman. )

From the October 2000 issue of Family Tree Magazine

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