Early on the morning of April 12, 1861, Confederate artillery in Charleston, South Carolina, opened fire on Fort Sumter out in the harbor. The artillery barrage launched a Civil War that dragged on for almost exactly four years, killed more than 600,000 people and transformed the nation. A century and a half later, the American Civil War still fascinates Americans — but it also left behind scars that have not fully healed. Those scars reveal themselves when people protest the display of a Confederate flag — or last spring when Virginia's governor sparked outrage by issuing a proclamation about Confederate History Month without mentioning that slavery played a role in the war's outbreak.
The Civil War is an ongoing conversation that we have with ourselves about ourselves, says Barbara Franco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, which is overseeing Pennsylvania's commemoration of the war's sesquicentennial. Civil wars, she says, are unlike other wars: They never end.
Many who will commemorate the sesquicentennial have ancestors who fought on opposite sides — and one of those sides lost. Furthermore, the war's root cause — slavery — remains a contentious issue. Some people insist that slavery did not cause the war — which is something like clearing the iceberg of any responsibility for sinking the Titanic. Check out the website of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, where the organization claims the South's motivating factor for fighting the Civil War was "the preservation of liberty and freedom." Except, of course, for the approximately 4 million people of African descent that the slave-holding states held in bondage.
So how does a country commemorate events that nearly tore it apart and still provoke argument? For the war's 50th anniversary, starting in 1911, the United States stressed the theme of reconciliation, with gray-bearded veterans from both sides clasping hands across the stone wall at Gettysburg "high-water mark."
Fifty years later, the Civil War's 100th anniversary proved more contentious as a resurgent civil rights movement raised questions about how we should remember the war.
"Each of these anniversaries is more about what's going on at that time," says Franco, who explains that the 50th-anniversary commemoration marked the real end of the post-war Reconstruction period, with Woodrow Wilson being only the second Democratic president in the White House since the Civil War, and a Southerner to boot. And in the same year that Wilson attended the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, his administration encouraged the segregation of federal employees.
"There's movement backwards," notes Franco, who also points out the rise of Jim Crow laws in the South around the same time.
By the 1960s, the civil rights movement was struggling to right those wrongs, but the U.S. Civil War Centennial Commission wanted to keep race at arm's length.
"Race was the principal fault line," wrote Robert Cook, author of Toubled Commemoration: The American Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965. "The centennial was built on a racially exclusive interpretation of the Civil War era. This interpretation denied agency to blacks and downplayed the significance of those events, notably emancipation and Lincoln's use of African-American troops, which dominated the marginalized black folk-memory of the Civil War."
"Things got off to a bad start for the centennial, racially speaking, when the commission held a convention in Charleston in April 1861 and African-American members were denied rooms in the event's hotel.
Lingering memories of that difficult commemoration might explain why there is no national body to coordinate events for the sesquicentennial. "I'm a little troubled by the fact that we don't have a national Civil War commission," says Dana Shoaf, who edits Civil War Times magazine for the Weider History Group in Leesburg, Virginia. Shoaf believes a national commission would "help people understand how pivotal this event was." He is also troubled by the Secession Ball that took place last December in Charleston on the anniversary of South Carolina's separation from the federal union back in 1860.
"Unfortunately, the sesquicentennial is starting off with controversy instead of just commemoration," Shoaf says. "I'm hoping things will settle down and we can really appreciate what happened."
Lacking a central organizing body, sesquicentennial events have been left up to the states and regional organizations. For its part, the Keystone State formed Pennsylvania Civil War 150, a statewide alliance of organizations coordinated by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and the Pennsylvania Heritage Society in Harrisburg, the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Its cornerstone is an ever-growing website (pacivilwar150.com) that serves as a central clearinghouse for information on both history and current events.
"We wanted to have the best website we could put together," Franco says, one that people could use as a central source of information but also use to find links to regional and local sites. The organizers hope the sesquicentennial events will contribute to an influx of tourists who want to do more than make a quick visit to Gettysburg.
One overall goal was to encourage statewide participation by working with organizations such as the Philadelphia Civil War Consortium and Gettysburg National Military Park. "I think that decentralized model has been working really well," Franco says. "It really allowed each of the regions to think about what they need to do and to work together more effectively."
Another big project is the Pennsylvania Civil War Road Show, an exhibition housed in a 53-foot trailer that will visit all 67 of the Commonwealth's counties. It will tell the story of the Civil War's effect on Pennsylvania, not just through the eyes of military leaders but also as politicians, women, children, immigrants and African Americans experienced it. The Road Show will visit local history centers but also nontraditional venues, including county fairs, which Franco sees as an opportunity to broaden the audience for history. After an April preview in Harrisburg, the Road Show will make its first official appearance in Pittsburgh in May.
Franco says she is interested not only in what happens over the next four years, but also how future historians will look back at the sesquicentennial. "What unfolds during the next four years is really going to be like taking the temperature of the country," she says. It will tell us who we are today — not who were we in the 1860s. Just as the previous commemorations did. Future historians might want to start taking notes.
— Tom Huntington lives in Camp Hill and is writing a book about Gen. George Meade, the victor of Gettysburg.