Observance of Civil War anniv. opens old wounds
By BOB DEANS
AJC Washington Bureau
Published on: 09/01/07
Washington — After so many years, the wounds have yet to heal. The
bitter debate over states’ rights. The conflict over race that split
the country into North and South.
The Civil War? No, the scuffle half a century ago over how to
commemorate that war’s centennial.
Rick McKay/Washington Bureau
Now, with the 150th anniversary less than four years off, it’s all
happening again. The country is grappling anew with how to mark the
sesquicentennial of the costliest war in the nation’s history.
"There are some folks who are still fighting the war. It can still
generate considerable heat," said Rick Beard, director of the Abraham
Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill.
"How do we get into this without just setting off a firestorm?" he
asked. "It’s time to really begin thinking about this."
The year 2011 will mark a century and a half since Confederates
bombarded Fort Sumter at Charleston, S.C., opening four years of war
that took the lives of more than 600,000 Americans, freed 4 million
slaves and ultimately held the United States together.
Congress has yet to create a federal commission to coordinate a
national commemoration. By contrast, a federal commission to
commemorate last May’s 400th anniversary of the settlement at
Jamestown, Va., was up and running four and a half years before the
There have been some low-key attempts to set up a Civil War
sesquicentennial commission. Rep. Richard Baker, R-La., introduced a
bill last February that would create one. In the seven months since,
it has picked up support from just 10 representatives in the 435-
"The whole Civil War can be a sensitive political issue," said Gordon
Jones, chief military historian with the Atlanta History Center. "I’d
be willing to bet that you’re not going to find too many national
representatives, or even state representatives, who are willing to
fund a Civil War initiative."
The reluctance isn’t hard to understand.
"Anniversaries tend to be celebrations, and this is not a
celebration," said Charles Bryan, president of the Virginia
Historical Society in Richmond, the former capital of the
Confederacy. "It is a commemoration of a great tragedy and a
breakdown of a system of government and a failure of leadership on
the part of a lot of people," said Bryan. "We haven’t gotten over
particularly in the South."
The Civil War grew out of deep regional divisions over race and
states’ rights. A century later, those divisions were mirrored in the
way its centennial was marked.
The Cold War with the Soviet Union was at its height, and the federal
commemoration commission hoped to engineer a period of collective
remembrance. The panel, chaired by Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant III —
the grandson of the commander of U.S. forces in the Civil War —
planned speeches, battle reenactments, pageantry and parades to bind
the nation in a patriotic fervor to defeat communism at home and
But the civil rights movement had also dawned, and in U.S. Supreme
Court integration orders some Southerners heard echoes of federal
aggression. Among people for whom Reconstruction remained part of
living memory, the centennial became a rallying cry for segregation
and the right of states to nullify federal laws.
"White Southerners in the late 1950s and early 1960s drew parallels
between their condition and that of Confederates in the 1860s," said
Robert J. Cook, professor of American history at the University of
Sheffield in England. "Some felt, ‘Here’s another example of federal
tyranny and the attempts by Yankees to impose their values on white
Southerners,’ " said Cook, author of "Troubled Commemoration: The
American Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965."
As a result, "the centennial was very disappointing," said Robert
Sutton, incoming chief historian of the U.S. National Park Service.
"I think it did more to hurt than to heal," added Jones of the
Atlanta History Center.
History has marched forward in the past 50 years, pulling historians
Recent decades have seen a renaissance in Civil War scholarship,
adding social, economic and political history to battlefield lore. At
Civil War sites nationwide, guides stress the contributions of
slaves, free blacks and women, said Sutton, who leaves his job as
superintendent of the Manassas National Battlefield Park in Virginia
to take up the Park Service post Oct. 1.
The new approach to history presents an opportunity, scholars say,
for the sesquicentennial to help pull the country together around the
nation’s most enduring themes — government by the people, the common
good, the ongoing struggles for equality and justice.
"It can become national if it’s structured the right way," said
Beard, former director of the Atlanta History Center. "If it devolves
into ‘my side won, your side lost,’ or ‘my side lost because we ran
out of bullets,’ if it gets down to that, it won’t work."
Some question the need for a new federal commemoration commission.
Differences in the way separate regions experienced the war, and
memories of the 100th anniversary, have created a resistance to the
idea of a national umbrella group to oversee commemorative events,
"This is going to be a very decentralized thing," he said. "Everyone
feels like ‘I don’t want a national commission to do any of this.’
Everyone wants to have a local commemoration to do something in their
"You also have a certain splintering of national history. The lack of
a national commission is evidence of that," Jones said.
Some states are already going their own way.
Virginia set up its own commemorative commission nearly two years
ago. South Carolina is weighing a similar approach.
In Georgia, the Atlanta History Center is partnering with Kennesaw
State University to create the new Center for the Study of the Civil
War Era, said Jones, and is working with other groups in the state to
create a sesquicentennial Web site to further scholarship and foster
Beard, however, insists a federal commission is needed to help pull
together common themes for marking a war that still marks the country
"If it’s done right, it will be the opportunity for a lot of
interesting national conversations," said Beard. "This is a chance
do it right."