150 Years Later, America's Civil War Still Divides

April 8, 2011

Melissa Block

Kurz & Allison
A print made in 1890 commemorates the 1863 storming of Morris Island by the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, one of the first all-black units of the Union army. The men lost that battle, but proved themselves as soldiers.
Richard Ellis
Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston, S.C., is the resting place of more than 2,000 Confederate soldiers. Above, Civil War re-enactors mark Confederate Memorial Day last year at the cemetery. As the 150th anniversary of the start of the war approaches, there are fears that the commemorations will rekindle old hatreds.
Brendan Banaszak
South Carolina state Sen. Glenn McConnell, shown at Charleston's Magnolia Cemetery, is a Civil War re-enactor. He says he wants to make sure the story of Confederate soldiers doesn't get lost in this year's commemorations. "You don't have to like something," he says, "just tolerate it."
Brendan Banaszak
Nichole Green, director of Charleston's Slave Mart Museum, estimates that 10,000 slaves were auctioned in the building that now houses the museum. She says she's hopeful this year's anniversary is part of a healing process.

On April 12, 1861, the first shots of the Civil War rang out in South Carolina.

Confederate forces, firing on the Union garrison at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, helped launch a four-year war that would kill more than 620,000 soldiers.

It's been nearly 150 years since the war began. But even now, the city of Charleston is still figuring out how to talk about the war and commemorate the anniversary.

Defending The Confederate Story

Think back 150 years to what led up to those first shots on Fort Sumter: Abraham Lincoln had just been elected president, promising to restrict the growth of slavery. That prompted South Carolina, on Dec. 20, 1860, to become the first state to secede from the Union.

Last December in Charleston, there was a re-enactment of that Secession Convention. It was followed by a Secession Ball — billed as "a joyous night of music, dancing, food and drink."

Costumed revelers waltzed and sang Dixie. Many South Carolinians were appalled; the NAACP protested outside.

"There was some criticism," says South Carolina state Sen. Glenn McConnell. "But I don't let that bother me."

McConnell re-enacted the role of the president of the Secession Convention, D.F. Jamison. "It was a fiery speech," McConnell says. "And I gave it verbatim because I was not gonna be part of sanitizing it or making it appear to be something other than it was."

A fervent Civil War re-enactor, McConnell brings some heavy artillery with him to the battleground: his own 3,000-pound cannon, known as "Big Ray."

"Made out of marine bronze, it's a beautiful thing. It looks like a stick of gold," he says. "But it can bark — and it can bark loud."

McConnell is active with the Sons of Confederate Veterans and wants to defend their story, making sure it doesn't get overshadowed in this year's commemorations.

"I've taken the position that the best way that we can stand up is to try to tell our story, and tell it in the context of, we've got a shared historical experience," he says. "And you don't have to like something, just tolerate it. Political correctness is almost now the new narrow-mindededness.

"To me, that's not what we should be about," he adds. "We should be about being able to say what we think, show what we respect — and you can accept it, reject it, but it doesn't have to be to the exclusion of the other."

But there are fears that this anniversary will rekindle old hatreds. How do you honor the Confederate cause without also honoring the institution of slavery?

Righting The Wrongs Of The Past

At Charleston's Old Slave Mart Museum, you'll hear the sound of heartbeats.

"It's so soft that it's usually subliminal," says museum director Nichole Green. "It's just representing in this space the enslaved person ... and the anxiety that they must have felt."

The museum is in the old Ryan's Mart — a narrow, low-ceilinged building where Green estimates that at least 10,000 slaves were put on the auction block and sold.

The museum displays newspaper ads from the time. "Prime gang of 27 orderly country-raised negroes," reads one. Among them:

Hercules: prime field hand.

16-year-old Richard: field hand — lost one eye.

Young Patty, age 3.

Green says she's hopeful the sesquicentennial is part of a healing process.

"The fear that I have is that they ... will try to use the sesquicentennial to divide people rather than bring them together," she says. "And I just have to work harder to make sure that that doesn't happen."

Many people in Charleston talk about using this anniversary to right the wrongs of the Civil War centennial, 50 years ago. Then, it was celebrated as a joyful tribute to South Carolina's Confederate heritage. Now, many remember the 1961 anniversary with embarrassment.

Back then, white Charlestonians gathered with cocktails in hand to cheer fireworks and the re-enactment of the assault on Fort Sumter. Longtime Charleston Mayor Joe Riley was then a freshman cadet at the Citadel, the historic military college. He remembers watching that segregated celebration.

"[People were] celebrating something that we now quite solemnly understand was the beginning of a terrible tragedy that was caused because the South was dependent upon the inhumane practice of slavery," he says. "And 50 years ago, there was close to universal denial among white Southerners that slavery was the cause."

The Men Of The 54th: A Story Of African-American Bravery

Among the many stories that wouldn't have been told 50 years ago: a story of African-American valor on Morris Island, in Charleston Harbor.

The movie Glory showed what happened here in 1863. The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry — one of the first official black units of the Union army — took huge losses. It was a slaughter, really, as they launched an assault.

"It was a battle that the 54th lost," says Civil War re-enactor Joseph McGill. "The Confederate forces were successful in holding the fort, but the 54th did manage, indeed, to prove themselves as soldiers."

McGill wears his Civil War history as close as his Union blues. He's a re-enactor of Company I with the 54th Massachusetts Regiment.

"The centennial was an opportunity — I think a missed opportunity," he says. "As African-Americans, we were engaged in a larger fight — a fight for civil rights. And with that, some scholarship — some stories that were told may have gone unchallenged.

"There we were, 50 years ago, still fighting the battles that the men of the 54th had already won for us."

And now?

"Oh we've made a lot of progress," he says. "I was in Washington, D.C., in my Civil War uniform with a bunch of other African-American Civil War re-enactors marching in the inaugural parade for our current president."

'It's My Family, It's Our People'

The man who encouraged McGill to become a re-enactor — and then trained him how to do it right — is Randy Burbage.

Burbage has 11 Civil War uniforms in all, both Confederate and Union. "In fact," he says, "we probably portray Union soldiers more than we do Confederates around here, because it's hard to get real Yankees this far South.

"You know, it'd look bad for 500 Confederate soldiers to lose a battle to 10 Union soldiers, wouldn't it?"

Burbage is past commander of the South Carolina division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He feels a strong connection to his 56 Confederate ancestors.

Talk about the Civil War, and he'll also mention what happened to his great-great-grandmother when the Union army occupied Charleston in 1865.

"She was here with the children, and while she was out searching for food for the kids one day, she was raped on the streets of Charleston by a Union soldier while officers watched this happen," he says. "She never spoke again the rest of her life — it was such a traumatic experience for her."

On April 12, for the 150th anniversary, Burbage will raise a Confederate flag outside his home. It's not a racist symbol, in his view. But he's mindful that Confederate commemorations can be taken that way.

"We gotta be careful how we do this," he says, "because we don't want to project that image that we are some sort of racist organization or individuals, because we're not."

Burbage knows just how close to the surface these tensions are — and how fraught with emotion the Civil War still is.

After that controversial Secession Ball in December, he met with the NAACP to try to talk through their differences. "I attempted to explain why I feel the way I feel, and listen to the way they feel the way they do," he says. "It didn't go too well. It resorted to some name-calling and accusations."

Burbage says members of the NAACP wanted him to admit that his ancestors were traitors. Months later, his eyes well up with tears as he talks about it.

"Oh yeah it gets to me, it gets to me some," he says. "It's my family, it's our people. And it's part of our mission as descendants of Confederate veterans to defend their good name and be guardians of their history. And I take that mission pretty seriously."

There's a lot riding on it, Burbage says. "I think this next five years is going to be a crucial part of us mending those fences and moving on from what happened 150 years ago."

Beginning Saturday, if there's no government shutdown, there will be a single beam of light shining up from Fort Sumter to the sky.

At 4:30 a.m. on April 12 — the moment the first shot was fired in 1861 — that beam of light will split to symbolize the division of the nation. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.