150 Years Later The Civil War Remains Controversial

Here’s an interesting read by historian Amanda Foreman (The Telegraph, April 9, 2011):

In 1961, an official US Civil War Centennial Commission oversaw thousands of events to celebrate the 100th anniversary of American Civil War. All 50 states joined in, but not surprisingly the biggest events took place in the 11 southern states which made up the defeated Confederacy.

Citizens in Alabama, for instance, celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Civil War with a full-scale reenactment of the swearing-in of the Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, in front of 50,000 spectators, followed by an inauguration ball attended by 5,000 guests. In South Carolina, where the first shots of the four-year war were fired, the celebrations were even more elaborate. Confederate flags were flown from every building, including the dome of the Statehouse. There was a Miss Confederate beauty pageant, a gala and fireworks at Charleston (the site of the first battle), parades, and even a reenactment of South Carolina’s declaration of secession starring the State’s present-day legislators.

By contrast, the 150th anniversary of the Civil War – which starts next week on 12th April – has been marked by boycotts, protests, and an embarrassed silence from the politicians in Washington DC.

All nations struggle in the aftermath of a civil war. More than a 100 years after the English Civil War, for example, any prelate who was ‘enthusiastic’ about religion attracted censure and suspicion. The American Civil War of 1861 to 1865 was recent enough to be embedded still in the nation’s cultural memory. But that isn’t why it weighs so heavily on the American conscience. The ghastly statistics of the war is one reason: out of roughly four million combatants more than 620,000 died and a further one million were maimed or injured. The same proportion of deaths applied today would result in America losing six million men. The South, where all but two of the battles were fought, was utterly devastated by the war. One in five white males died. Ninety per cent of its railroads and factories were destroyed. Not a single bank was left with working capital. Many parts of the South were reduced to survival through bartering. It was a full generation before cotton production returned to pre-war levels.

The other reason is the explosive debate on the causes for the Civil War and the role played by slavery. Although all American school children learn that President Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, what they learn after that depends on whether they live in the North or the South. To this day, there is still an argument raging between the two sections of the country over whether the South seceded to maintain slavery, or to protect states’ rights and the idea of free-trade. Many Southerners don’t even accept the term ‘Civil War’, but refer to it as ‘the War of Northern Aggression’ or ‘the War between the States’.

The explosive nature of the debate means that the White House has yet to answer a request from history groups to create a presidential commission on the 150th anniversary. So far, only 19 states have bothered to set up their own Civil War committees. Virginia, where the majority of the fighting took place, is pumping $2 million into the project in the hope of seeing a return in the form of history tourism. But the majority has been parsimonious with actual funds. South Carolina, for example, has allocated just $10,000. Congress has also failed to agree on a bill that would allocate $6 million to a national Civil War Commission.

The main sponsor of the bill, Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr of Illinois, set off a firestorm last month with the remark: “It’s important for the country to have an open, honest discussion about the war, including the reason it occurred.” One angry letter-writer to a Louisiana newspaper complained, “What these Democratic congressmen want is a federally-sponsored committee that will broadcast nationwide that the only ‘reason’ for the War Between the States was slavery. Their ‘open, honest’ discussion will probably end up being a four-year-long national harangue about slavery being the sole cause and how we need to repudiate our ‘racist’ attitudes.”

Southern politicians who have tried to rise above the passionate rhetoric surrounding the Civil War have frequently found themselves dragged back down into the mire. Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, a Republican, was forced to apologise when his proclamation declaring April ‘Confederate History Month’ failed to make any reference to slavery. McDonnell then re-wrote the proclamation, adding a clause that “slavery led to the war”, but the damage to his national standing was profound.

In Mississippi, the Republican Governor, Haley Barbour, is currently under fire for his refusal to denounce a request from the Confederate Sons of Veterans – a Southern heritage association with 840 chapters across 29 US states and 12 countries – for a special license plate featuring the Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forest. Though unquestionably a brilliant tactician, Forest also has the dubious renown of being one of the first Grand Wizards of the Ku Klux Klan (an organisation he later repudiated). The head of Mississippi’s NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) will not rest until Barbour makes a statement, telling the press: “I think it’s the height of insensitivity to honour an individual on a state-issued license plate who demonstrated the highest forms of racial hatred, and who was a traitor to this country.”

Fifty years ago, when the civil rights movement was in its infancy, the prospect of black protests was considered more a public order issue than a political problem. But now Governor Barbour, who is expected to announce this month whether he will run for the White House in 2012, cannot afford to ignore them. South Carolina for example, which still flies the Confederate flag on the grounds of the Statehouse, has been under a NAACP economic boycott because of it since 1999, costing the State millions of dollars from lost conferences and sporting events.

Just the threat of protests meant that not a single Alabaman politician showed up for this year’s reenactment of Jefferson Davis’s swearing in. In Charleston, South Carolina organisers of a “secession ball”, defiantly continued with the scheme despite coming came under a barrage of media criticism. In the end only 300 tickets were sold, and on the night the party-goers, many of them wearing Civil War-era costumes, had to walk the gauntlet of protesters outside the building.

In attempt to forestall similar trouble erupting on the 12th April, the body that looks after Charleston’s battle-sites is adopting a deliberately sombre approach. In 1961, Charleston harbour was illuminated by fireworks displays over Fort Sumter, the scene of the first battle between Union and Confederate forces. This time, in a light display that has unsettling references to Ground Zero, a single beam will emanate from Fort Sumter up to the sky until exactly 4:30am, the moment the first shot was fired. Then the beam of light will split into two, symbolising the division of the nation. At 6:45am, a star shell will be fired over the harbour and the lights will be extinguished.

Yet, despite the fury and anguish swirling around the 150th anniversary, the claim that it has pitted whites against blacks, and Southerners against Northerners, is overblown. The cultural legacy of the war is far more complicated than either side of the “meaning of the war” debate will allow. The Detroit chapter of the NAACP, the largest in the United States, is now being boycotted by other chapters because of its decision to honour the pop star Kid Rock at its annual Freedom Fund dinner on 1 May. The Detroit-born rocker is under fire for his propensity to wave the Confederate flag during concerts. Neither the Detroit NAACP nor Kid Rock see the problem with it: “Sure, it’s definitely got some scars,” the singer admitted in 2008. “But I’ve never had an issue with it. To me it just represents pride in Southern rock ‘n’ roll music – plus it just looks cool.”



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