Last winter, I traveled to Abbeville, South Carolina, for its Fifth Annual Olde South Christmas. To the casual observer, this event might appear to be merely an instance of savvy small-town marketing—an attempt to capitalize on the trade in nostalgic simulacra of a simpler time. It had been suggested to me that, despite the superficial resemblance to such ventures, I would find a good deal more than nostalgia in the Abbeville festivities. I was skeptical, but my curiosity was aroused by learning that the event’s promoters were affiliated with the League of the South. In fact, while the Olde South Christmas is officially sponsored by the Abbeville Chamber of Commerce, it is largely the creation of Robert Hayes, the state director of the League’s South Carolina chapter, and several of his close associates, including University of Georgia professor Jim Kibler. When the League first established a chapter in Abbeville, the town hosted an annual “Dickens Holiday” weekend in late November, a largely commercial venture promoted by local merchants. Hayes and Kibler were quick to recognize the potential for an annual event of much deeper cultural significance, yet one that would generate commercial revenue. Shortly after the first Olde South Christmas was celebrated, with great success, in 2003, the “Dickens Holiday” was discontinued. Today, the Olde South Christmas has the support of Abbeville’s leading citizens (including the mayor, Harold McNeil, and the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution) and attracts sizeable crowds from throughout South Carolina and neighboring states during the first weekend in December. While some of what these visitors experience is typical of small-town Christmases all over America—carolers, the lighting of the Christmas tree on the town square—most of the festivities are clearly designed to recreate as authentically as possible a mid-19th-century Christmas and, more generally, to celebrate the customs and folkways of the South. In Abbeville, Santa Claus is dead. Father Christmas has reclaimed his ancient place of privilege.
Those who are familiar with South Carolina history will understand Abbeville’s symbolic significance. Situated in the foothills of western South Carolina, not far from the Georgia border, this town proudly advertises itself as the birthplace and “deathplace” of the Confederacy, and (though Charlestonians might politely object) not without some right. For Abbeville County was the first in South Carolina to vote in favor of secession when, on November 22, 1860, its citizens gathered on a piece of high ground—long since known as Secession Hill—not far from the Abbeville town square to elect delegates to the statewide Secession Convention in Columbia. Then, in May 1865, after President Jefferson Davis fled Richmond, he took refuge in the Abbeville home of his friend, Armistead Burt. There, he held the last CSA Cabinet meeting on May 2. (The home is known as the Burt-Stark Mansion and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.) But even before those fateful events, Abbeville was already a town of some commercial and cultural significance. Among its most notable citizens during the antebellum period was John C. Calhoun, who grew up in Abbeville County and began his practice of law in a building adjacent to the courthouse. Clearly then, in choosing to establish a presence in Abbeville, the League of the South could hardly have picked a more symbolically potent locale or one more in keeping with its ultimate goal of Southern secession.
Nonetheless, Hayes and his associates wisely recognize that the Christmas season is not a time for preaching secession on street corners, so visitors to the Olde South Christmas will hear none of that. As Jim Kibler said to me, “Christmas isn’t a good time to be political. We want to celebrate the South, and that eventually redounds to politics. If you are able to celebrate your heritage, you are on your way to cultural independence, which usually leads to political independence.” On the other hand, it is impossible to participate in these festivities without being aware of their political implications. The Battle Flag flies everywhere, especially during the Christmas parade, when dozens of Confederate reenactors march in formation around the town square, joined by numerous others in period costume who pass out miniature flags to the crowd. Nor could many of the visitors standing on the courthouse lawn on the first evening of this year’s festival have been unaware of the significance of the prayer intoned by the Rev. Fr. Alister Anderson before the lighting of the Christmas tree. Praying on federal or state property is not common these days, especially when the prayers in question very pointedly call upon the Almighty to rebuke those who would seek the abolition of Christmas piety in public places.
For three days each year in Abbeville, it is almost possible to believe that time has been turned back, say, to 1862. The town square itself has been meticulously restored in recent decades, and many of the buildings that surround it date back at least a century or more, including the courthouse and the Abbeville Opera House. Ladies stroll the sidewalks in full-length taffeta gowns, accompanied by men in gray; period dancers perform quadrilles and schottisches; period musicians, such as old-time fiddler Carl Rapp and Celtic harpist Deborah Brinson, enthrall the crowds with splendid evocations of early Southern ballads; skilled stone carvers, spinners, broom makers, and blacksmiths demonstrate their crafts and generously share their knowledge; and reenactors, cavalry and infantry, drill on the square. One can watch “traditional southron wedding” vows exchanged, or dance the night away at the Olde South Christmas Ball (the crowning social event of the weekend), or worship on Sunday morning at a “traditional southron” service. If, during the course of the weekend, one feels the need (as I frequently did) for a little refreshment of the stronger sort, the proprietors of the Rough House, a fine old tavern on the square, will be more than willing to accommodate you as long as you accommodate them. (Over the bar hangs a sign bearing the following request: “If we can hear you cursing, so can other customers, and you will be asked to leave.”)
For those of a literary bent, the Olde South Christmas events also include the Annual Abbeville Writers’ Festival, featuring an impressive array of Southern writers reading from and discussing their works. This year’s roster included, among many others, Clyde Wilson (Defending Dixie: From Union to Empire); Donnie Kennedy (Red Republicans and Lincoln’s Marxists); Gray Banks (reading from his recent short-story collection, Hunter’s Chapel); and Jim Kibler (Poems From Scorched Earth). But the most notable literary event was surely the young Dow Harris’s unforgettable performance—in one of the back rooms at the Rough House—of the poetry of Donald Davidson, one of the famed Nashville Fugitives and Twelve Southerners. I say “performance,” for this was not a reading but a recital of several of Davidson’s most powerful poems, including “The Long Street,” “The Tall Men” (which calls upon Southerners to reclaim their heritage), and one of his best known, “Lee in the Mountains.” The latter work, a dramatic monologue, especially lends itself to oral performance, and Harris, a former student of the Savannah College of the Arts and a thespian of striking talent, assumed the persona of the aging Robert E. Lee with an uncanny power:
And was I then betrayed?
Did I betray?
If it were said, as still it might be
If it were said, and a word should
run like fire,
Like living fire into the roots of grass,
The sunken flag would kindle on
The brooding hearts would waken,
and the dream
Stir like a crippled phantom under
the pines . . .
In Abbeville, the “brooding hearts” have indeed awakened, and the dream stirs, not like a “crippled phantom,” but in the flesh and blood of the young and old alike. Hayes, a retired high-school science teacher from the Lowcountry, is one of the old, but I was astonished by his unflagging energy and devotion to the Southern cause. His center of operations is a two-story building on North Main Street, which houses the local League headquarters and the Southern Culture Centre (www.sccsc01.com). While the original idea for purchasing the building was the brainchild of League member Scott Goldsmith, Hayes was instrumental in the opening of the building and for making a number of ongoing improvements. Just as significantly, when Hayes first moved to Abbeville, Secession Hill had become little more than a two-acre vacant lot overrun with weeds and littered with thousands of liquor bottles. The town of Abbeville was on the verge of selling the hillside to developers when Hayes and the Culture Centre stepped in and raised the funds necessary to purchase it. Assisted by the occasional volunteer, Hayes has dismantled, plank by plank, an abandoned dwelling that once stood on the property, and has begun clearing it for a Memorial Park that will “honor all the South Carolina men who wore the gray and the women who supported them.” The park will feature a number of Confederate monuments and will be enclosed by a Wall of Honor, where thousands of brick tiles will display the names of the more than 18,000 South Carolina soldiers who gave their lives for the Confederacy. I was lucky enough, toward the end of the Olde South Christmas, to join Hayes and a small group of visitors on a walking tour of Secession Hill. As we tramped about the site, struggling to keep up (for he propels himself along on a hand-carved wooden cane like some Confederate dervish), Hayes spoke movingly of his plans. If I still had any doubts about the value of what Hayes and his associates are doing in Abbeville, they were certainly dispelled by listening to his impassioned vision. For, as he imagines it, the Secession Hill Memorial Park will be much more than simply a monument to the tragic and glorious past; it will be a place of pilgrimage for those who wish to renew their sense of Southern identity, a sacred ground where not only the descendants of the fallen may pay their respects, but where generations of Southerners to come may recover something of the patrimony that has been lost or forbidden to them.
At the foot of Secession Hill there lies buried an unknown Confederate soldier, believed to be from Alabama. What is known about him is sketchy, but it seems that he died suddenly of scarlet fever at the end of the war as he was headed south on a train. His death occurred just outside Abbeville, so his body was—for fear of infection—quickly removed, and all his personal property destroyed. As it happened, the Abbeville depot was situated just across the road from Secession Hill, so the soldier’s body was hastily interred there and marked with a circle of rough slate. To this day, the grave and the circle of stone remain, but Hayes, who has vowed to “have no Yankee slate” on this soldier’s grave, plans to place a proper stone there, one that will memorialize not only this single soldier from Alabama but all the unknown Confederate dead. After Hayes had spoken to us of that soldier’s death, we gathered around the gravesite and listened to Deborah Brinson sing a heartbreaking ballad in which that nameless Alabama boy laments his own fate. (“Almost four years ago I left my home / With my rifle in my hand. / I fought for my land / Against all the Federal might. / But it’s a long, long way to Alabama.”) As Miss Brinson sang (to her own music) those lyrics penned by the Rev. Alan Peeler of Gaffney, South Carolina, there was not a dry eye left in the small crowd. And I was reminded of all the Southern boys that left their homes to fight in Mr. Lincoln’s war, the farewell songs of their womenfolk still ringing in their ears, of all the boys and men who never returned, and some who did, maimed and broken.
In this now-defunct Republic, to call oneself an American is an increasingly vacuous assertion. Moreover, insofar as Americans once possessed a national identity, it was always provisional, always fraught with internal contradictions and sectional strife. But what is often overlooked is that our regional identities have generally been much more deeply rooted than the factitious national identity that has been imposed upon us by our deracinated elites. For an authentic identity requires, above all, a sense of place. Until very recently, most Americans could easily be identified by their regional characteristics: their manner of speech, demeanor, culinary preferences, religious affiliations (or styles of worship), moral attitudes, habits of work and play, and even sense of humor. We may have paid lip service to the American creed, but at a deeper level we have been New Englanders, Southerners, Midwesterners, Texans, Californians, Westerners, and so on. In recent decades, however, the regional loyalties of Americans—especially younger Americans—have become tenuous, and their distinctively regional characteristics, less pronounced. The forces responsible for this development are not hard to discern: the mass media, suburbanization, mass transportation, mass marketing, nationalist political propaganda, an increasingly centralized public-education bureaucracy—just to name the most decisive. By the same token, even as this ongoing homogenization of American culture and the centralization of American political expression have spread, pockets of resistance have developed.
In the South, of course, that resistance has a long and tragic pedigree. In no other region has the separatist impulse ever given rise to a fully realized political maturity. For many Southerners, the South has remained, since 1865, an occupied nation, only nominally American. Arguably, the South’s consciousness of her identity remains more deeply rooted than that of any other region. Indeed, the persistence of a distinctively Southern identity is all the more impressive when one considers that Reconstruction never really ended here but has, if anything, become more aggressively programmatic in recent decades. Yet Southerners still speak differently, eat differently, worship differently, and mate differently. Here the bonds of kinship are still more powerful than political, or social, or even religious affiliations. Traditional sex roles are still more deeply rooted than one would have believed possible, and the Christian tradition still provides a protective—if somewhat leaky—canopy against the toxic secularism that has fallen like acid rain over much of the American heartland. While I do not wish to idealize the South, I would nevertheless suggest that, if any truly effective revolt against the secular and multicultural imperium is going to emerge, it will begin here. Indeed, there are signs, in Abbeville and elsewhere, that it has already begun.