The Civil War Still Stirs The Southern Soul

On Jan. 10, 1861, Florida became the third state to secede from the Union, after South Carolina and Mississippi. Eight other states would soon follow, igniting the bloodiest war in American history. Weekend Edition commentator and Florida native Diane Roberts explores why the Civil War still has such a hold on the Southern imagination.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

On January 10, 1861, Florida became the third state to secede from the Union, after South Carolina and Mississippi. Eight other states would soon follow, igniting the bloodiest war in American history.

WEEKEND EDITION commentator and Florida native Diane Roberts explores why the Civil War still has such a hold on the Southern imagination.

DIANE ROBERTS: I used to drive my grandfather, Edgar Lafayette Roberts, to Natural Bridge Park, a few miles south of Tallahassee on the St. Marks River. His grandfather, Luther Tucker, fought there in 1865. Luther was 16 years old, part of the cadet corps which chased Union forces back down the river to the Gulf of Mexico.

My grandfather liked to go there to remember Luther and also Luther's brother, Charles Broward Tucker, who died just after the Battle of Fredericksburg; and Luther's cousin, Washington Broward, who died in a Union prison; and his other grandfather, Richard Roberts, who somehow survived the nine-month siege of Petersburg and made it home to the north Florida swamps.

Americans tend to look to the future, not the past. But old times are not forgotten, can't be forgotten, even here in Florida. We had plantations, lynchings, Klan cross burnings, white citizens' councils, segregated water fountains. Florida bears as much shame as Mississippi or Alabama.

Secession, the first shots at Fort Sumter - that was 150 years ago, yet the reverberations haven't died away. The governor of Virginia declares Confederate History Month without mentioning slavery, and an uproar ensues. The governor of Mississippi insists segregation wasn't that bad, then is forced to back down. Some white Southerners claim they just want to honor their ancestors. Many descendants of slaves beg to differ.

It doesn't matter if your people arrived on the Mayflower, were kidnapped from the Gold Coast of Africa, docked at Ellis Island, or took a plane from Mumbai. The issues of 1861 haunt us still - race, states' rights, the interpretation of the Constitution, the definition of who is American.

We're even still talking about secession. There are groups from Texas to Alaska that want independence from the United States. The war didn't finish the debate. It was merely a violent interruption.

There's not much to see now at Natural Bridge - a few earthworks dug by the soldiers and one of those big, wedding cake monuments put up by the Daughters of the Confederacy. It lists the names of the dead and says in big letters: Lest we forget. We won't. We can't.

HANSEN: Diane Roberts is the author of "Dream State: A History of Florida."

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