Civil War Anniversary Brings Angst, Racial Tension To Mississippi


JACKSON, Miss. — Commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War can be an angst-filled task in Mississippi, with its long history of racial strife and a state flag that still bears the Confederate battle emblem.

Well-intentioned Mississippians who work for racial reconciliation say slavery was morally indefensible. Still, some speak in hushed tones as they confess a certain admiration for the valor of Confederate troops who fought for what was, to them, the hallowed ground of home and country.

"Mississippi has such a troubled past that a lot of people are very sensitive about commemorating or recognizing or remembering the Civil War because it has such an unpleasant reference for African-Americans," said David Sansing, who is white and a professor emeritus of history at the University of Mississippi.

"Many Mississippians are reluctant to go back there because they don’t want to remind themselves or the African-American people about our sordid past," said Sansing. "But it is our past."

Black Mississippians express pride that some ancestors were Union soldiers who fought to end slavery, though it took more than a century for the U.S. to dismantle state-sanctioned segregation and guarantee voting rights.

Sansing is among dignitaries traveling to Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Md., this weekend to dedicate a blue-gray granite marker commemorating the 11th Mississippi Infantry, which saw 119 members killed, wounded or missing in battle there on Sept. 16-17, 1862. The infantry had almost 1,000 soldiers, including a unit of University of Mississippi students known as the University Greys.

Among the speakers set to dedicate the monument Sunday is Bertram Hayes-Davis, great-great grandson of Confederate president Jefferson Davis. He was recently hired as executive director of Beauvoir, the white-columned Biloxi, Miss., mansion that was the final home of his ancestor, a Mississippi native.

The state is taking a decidedly low-key and scholarly approach to commemorating the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.

Re-enactments have taken place at battlefields near Tupelo and are planned soon near Iuka. Lectures, concerts and other gatherings are scheduled over the next several months. Several events are expected in 2013 to mark the 1863 siege of Vicksburg, which gave the Union control of the Mississippi River.

Mississippi is the last state with a flag that includes the Confederate battle emblem, a red field topped by a blue X with 13 white stars. The symbol has been on the state flag since 1894. In a 2001 statewide election, voters decided nearly 2-to-1 to keep it, despite arguments it was racially divisive and tarnishing the state’s image.

With a population that’s 38 percent black, Mississippi has elected hundreds of black public officials in the past four decades – a change directly linked to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Many people, across racial lines, say it’s important that Civil War history commemorations not turn into celebrations of a lost cause.

Derrick Johnson, state president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said generations have been taught a "revisionist history" of the Civil War that ignores or downplays the impact of slavery. He said he wants a full discussion of the war.

"In mixed racial company, people don’t want to address race and there is truly an avoidance of conversation when it relates to history and race," Johnson said. "Civil War, pre-Civil War, Reconstruction, Redemption, segregation – nobody wants to have candid conversations about how the past affects the public policy of this state and how people of different races interact with one another in this state."

On Dec. 20, 1860, South Carolina became the first state to secede. Mississippi moved next on Jan. 9, 1861, with a secession declaration stating, in part: "Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world."

Rick Martin is chief of operations for the Vicksburg National Military Park, a 1,800-acre battlefield that sprawls through the city’s hills and bluffs. The park attracts about 800,000 people a year from around the world, and Martin said their most common questions are "Why did the war start?" and "How could this happen?"

"Depending on what part of the country you’re from … people have been brought up different ways to understand why the Civil War was fought," Martin said. "When it comes down to it, you can boil it all down to slavery. That is the root cause of the Civil War."

Robert M. Walker, a historian who became Vicksburg’s first black mayor in the late 1980s, was instrumental in pushing the park to install a monument that honors all black people – free and slave – who participated in military action in Vicksburg during the Civil War. The monument was added in 2003.

Black soldiers fought for the Union in the Battle of Milliken’s Bend, La., on June 7, 1863, just up the Mississippi River from Vicksburg. The site was a supply and communication post for the Union as it worked to conquer Vicksburg during a siege that lasted from May 22, 1863, until the Confederates surrendered on July 4.

"One thing I’m particularly proud of is that black men who were poorly or sometimes not trained at all took up arms to fight for their own freedom and the freedom of their loved ones," Walker said. "The conventional belief was that they were not battle worthy, that they wouldn’t fight."

After the Battle of Milliken’s Bend, the black soldiers won praise from military officers.

"These folks were genuine, were real freedom fighters," Walker said.

Beauvoir, owned by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, honors Davis’ service as Confederate president. The home was nearly wiped away by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Most of the restoration is finished, and Hayes-Davis said several events will mark the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. This fall, Beauvoir is reopening its presidential library.

Hayes-Davis doesn’t apologize for his ancestor and doesn’t shy away from discussing an era that divided a nation and killed an estimated 620,000 to 750,000 people.

"History is one of the most important things we have in our country and we need to make sure we understand it, that we know all the reasons things occurred," said Hayes-Davis, who grew up in Colorado Springs, Colo. "I don’t think it’s difficult at all to talk about the War Between the States."

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