In this benighted time, when you say The War, somebody is sure to ask "Which one?" even in Washington, which seems to have picked up and moved not only north across the Mason-Dixon line, but into that rare geographical no man's land called "an international city."
Yet certainly, up until World War II, Washington (formed from Virginia and Maryland at the behest of George Washington and by the connivance of Thomas Jefferson) was Southern in culture and flavor. A number of its leading citizens, such as W.W. Corcoran, a founder of Riggs Bank and the gallery that bears his name, found it expedient to spend The War in England.
Until midcentury, no child of the former Confederate States with a grandmother would ever have dared call it the Civil War. The Southern position was, as Robert O'Brien's "Encyclopedia of the South" (Facts on File) affirms, "that sovereign states that freely joined the Union could as freely withdraw from it." And O'Brien goes on to write that "this was not a true 'civil war' because the intent was not to replace the federal government with another. Rather it was a rebellion to achieve independence for the region to be known as the Confederate States of America."
But today, if you mention the War for Southern Independence, the War of the Secession, the War of the Northern Aggression or even the once standard War Between the States -- all once perfectly acceptable euphemisms in the South for the conflagration (April 12, 1861-April 9, 1865) -- you may even be jeered at by people who don't know what you're talking about. Many are not even knowledgeable enough to give the appropriate Northern state retort, which is: "Do you mean the War of the Rebellion?"
Well, as you may have heard, the South lost. And a good thing, too. The slaves were freed and the Union preserved. Those were not the only reasons for which the War was fought, but ever since, the strongest national memories of those days have been of black Americans cruelly enslaved, a generation of young men lost, and once prosperous states devastated.
Historians know this, and interest in the period is growing. The reasons for the conflict, the classic battles, the plantation culture and the 19th-century city life of free blacks and whites are all being studied, written about and portrayed in the movies and television. A new cause ce'le`bre is to preserve the battlefield of Antietam, near Sharpsburg.
The mid-January reason to think about the period is Robert E. Lee's birthday. He was born Jan. 19, 1807. The South's favorite leader -- like many other right-thinking Southerners -- was opposed to slavery. He and his wife's people, the George Washington Parke Custis family of Arlington House (Custis was Martha Custis Washington's grandson), were leaders in financing Liberia as an alternative home for freed American slaves who chose to return to Africa.
Lee was offered the command of the Union Army, at Blair-Lee House across from the White House, but turned it down after Virginia seceded, saying his allegiance was first to his state and then to the federal government.
Concerts last week echoed through Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial, which commands the best Virginia view of Washington from the hill over Arlington Cemetery, once its plantation. Its curator, Agnew Mullin, said that a while back, after 8,000 people came through the historic antebellum house in one day, visitors were limited to 2,500, for fear the staircases would tumble.
A new group, the Capitol Hill Civil War Roundtable, will assemble at its first meeting on Feb. 1 to hear William Safire, the New York Times columnist, speak about his 1,125-page opus on the Abraham Lincoln administration, "Freedom." Gary Griffiths, Louisiana Rep. Richard Baker's legislative director, is president. Four other Civil War Roundtables meet in the District regularly, with another 23 nearby in Maryland and Virginia.
The Civil War Roundtables are dedicated to studying the period. Leigh Anne Russell, of the Civil War Roundtable Associates, Little Rock, Ark., says, "Six were organized in the last three months and 20 last year. We know of at least 125, including five overseas. About half the groups are in the North -- the first was in Chicago."
Even in New York, a "Gone With the Wind" dinner dance (complete with the Virginia reel) benefited the New York Public Library.
And last weekend, the annual Dixie Ball was held, with 300 dancing the Virginia reel at the Departmental Auditorium to raise money to preserve the handsome old Confederate Memorial Hall. This wonderful old row house at 1322 Vermont Ave. NW, owned by the Confederate Memorial Association, was a postbellum refuge for Confederate veterans who had no place else to go. Today, with the nickname the "Confederate Embassy," it holds a small (free) museum of the period, paintings of Lee, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and others, and a marble bust of Gen. Lee by Herbert Barbee, who sculpted many of the Confederate monuments throughout the South. It sponsors lectures, usually by John Edward Hurley, president of the association, on Southern tradition.
And on Lee's birthday last Tuesday a small group of 15 or so men -- on the invitation of Hurley; Louis Tuttle March, head of a chapter of the Order of the Sword of Robert E. Lee; and Mike Spencer of Kappa Alpha Order -- gathered at the Confederate Memorial Hall to toast, with Virginia wine, the Southern hero. In the Reconstruction period, the elegant and spacious 19th-century house would have rung with the birthday toast from more than 100 throats.
But that is long ago. The last Confederate veteran died in 1959. The last Union veteran died in 1956. And this threescore-years-old generation is probably the last to have known those who could tell firsthand of this time of grand tragedy on a classic scale.