We staged a world-class Civil War commemoration

Well Done, Charleston!

The Civil War Sesquicentennial observance is over, and I’m already thinking about the bicentennial. In the meantime, I would like to hand out kudos to the people of Charleston and South Carolina for the way they conducted themselves through these uncertain times of change.

With the exception of a certain Secession Gala last December, we behaved with intelligence and dignity, two things South Carolina is not noted for. We gave Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert nothing to yuk about. We witnessed our leaders speaking in the national media with constrained voices and rational words about the Civil War, its causes, and its consequences. Through the days of observance and national scrutiny, I felt like I was at a family reunion where everyone waited tensely for the crazy, drunk uncle to start raving about some long-ago indignity, which all others had forgotten. In 2011, the crazy uncle held his peace, and the reunion went on without interruption or embarrassment.

Things did not go so well 50 years ago. In 1961, the official National Civil War Centennial Commission divided in Charleston over the segregation of local facilities. A Southern rump of commission delegates seceded and formed their own S.C. Confederate Centennial Commission, which used its soapbox to bash the Kennedy administration and the civil rights movement. In all the toasting and speech-making of the centennial, there was hardly a word addressed as to the cause of the conflict.

Nothing remotely like that happened in 2011. Many institutions and individuals deserve credit. I would like to recognize The Post and Courier and the Fort Sumter-Fort Moultrie Historical Trust.

The Post and Courier, an amalgamation of the Evening Post and The News and Courier, has some dubious DNA. Fifty years ago, its antecedent papers treated the centennial pretty much as a big cocktail party and operetta. There were hooped skirts, Confederate uniforms, and bombastic speeches. The papers reported it all with giddy excitement, but there was no analysis. The Evening Post put out a special 20-page supplement on secession and the outbreak of hostilities, without mentioning slaves or slavery.

This time The Post and Courier acquitted itself admirably, starting with a smart, in-depth, 20-part series by Brian Hicks on the sectional strife that led to secession and the four years of warfare around Charleston. And local attorney and historian Robert Rosen offered a seven-part series on the maneuvering between Lincoln and Confederate leaders in the days leading up to the attack on Fort Sumter. But most important were the columns and stories that directly implicated slavery as the prime mover in Southern secession. The stodgy old newspaper has come a long way when assistant editor Frank Wooten can write about his own developing awareness of history, from posing as a Confederate soldier on the playground as a child to understanding what the Confederates were really about.

“Times have changed for the better,” he wrote. “On Tuesday, Charleston will rightly commemorate, not celebrate, the sesquicentennial of the most significant event that has ever occurred here.

“But we all should celebrate how far we’ve come toward racial fairness — and true historical awareness — since the South rose again on that playground.”

The Fort Sumter-Fort Moultrie Historical Trust, in conjunction with the National Park Service and the Fort Sumter National Monument, sponsored a series of lectures by leading historians, starting last fall and culminating last week. Several Pulitzer Prize-winners were among the guest speakers. I attended as many of the lectures as I could. I found them all impressive, and each historian I heard made the point at least once in their addresses that slavery and nothing else divided the nation and drove it to Civil War.

I also attended the Voices from the Civil War Concert in White Point Garden, featuring martial music, hymns, spirituals sung by the descendants of slaves, and Mayor Joe Riley speaking the words of Abraham Lincoln to Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait,” with Fort Sumter in the background. Such a sight would have been unthinkable 50 years ago.

It is good to remember the leaders who helped make this remarkable week possible, but, of course, the true champion of the observance was time itself. The passage of half a century since the Civil War Centennial has allowed many wounds to heal and anger to cool — even anger handed down from generation to generation like an old musket or saber. As one of the lecture series historians said, we are coming to see the Civil War not as a conflict but as the beginning of a great confluence — a confluence of North and South, a confluence of black and white. By the time we reach the Civil War Bicentennial, that confluence may finally be complete and we will be one nation, indivisible. I’m ready.

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