As Christmas approached, all talk appeared to be about the weather. How warm it was. How sunny. How lovely. (Though to those of us who love winter: How bleeeaaahhh.)
Unfortunately, for parts of the country, the weather was a nightmare, of floods and storms and tornadoes. My heart ached when I heard about one of the communities that suffered tornado devastation. Although I had spent only a brief time there, it remains in my memory. Because of its beauty. And because of a history lesson I learned there.
The town is Holly Springs, Miss., about an hour’s drive south of Memphis, Tenn.
Many years ago, my very first assignment as a travel writer for the N.Y. Daily News took me on a foray into the Deep South, where I had never been. (Sure, I’d been to Florida, but that doesn’t count as Deep South to my mind, unless you venture out into the non-tourist, non-snowbird hinterlands.)
Our little group of journalists began our adventure in Memphis, which was a lot of fun. Blues on Beale St. A tour of Graceland. Etc. The next day, we boarded a mini-bus and headed across the state line into Mississippi. On the outskirts of Holly Springs, a member of the local garden club boarded the bus to give us an intro to the town, much, if not all, of which was on the National Register of Historic Places.
During her talk, she often referred to Holly Springs “before the war” or “after the war.” All my life, yours truly had heard family members refer to just “the war” in terms of World War II. But something wasn’t fitting in this context. It took awhile for my Yankee brain to comprehend that the woman was referring to a far earlier conflict.
Afterward, I mentioned my confusion to a fellow writer, who lived in Mississippi. “Down here,” she said, “when someone refers to simply ‘the war,’ they mean only one thing.” “Of course,” I chirped. “The Civil War!”
“No,” she said. “It’s not called the Civil War. It’s the War Between the States, or the War of Northern Aggression.”
This was the first hint I had as to how alive that war still was down there. During my trip, I became aware of other evidence. Bullet holes still scarring the walls of homes. Conversations about family members who fought and died. And, on a visit to the Shiloh battlefield, I found myself disturbed by the sight of multiple crosses marking the individual graves of Union soldiers, when the Confederates had been buried in a common pit. (Shiloh had been a Northern victory.)
Now, lest you think this is going to devolve into a sentimental defense of the Confederacy, much less the obscene sin of slavery it sought to preserve, think again. Neither did the people I met offer any semblance of such defense. My point is simply that, although we are all Americans, our history — or at least the way we relate to our history — is not necessarily the same. I remember the lesson I learned in Holly Springs. As I remember the town with its antebellum homes. The reason so much had been preserved, the garden club lady explained, was that Holly Springs had been a railroad center, and although it changed hands during “the war,” each side needed the buildings – for supplies, to house troops, etc. And so, the structures still stood.
I don’t know how much of the historic area was destroyed by the recent tornadoes, but destruction there was across the town. Lives were lost. And now volunteers, from near and far, are heading south to help in the recovery.
Because, in the end, we are indeed one nation. Under God.