RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The first shots of the Civil War were fired 150 years ago today, at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. The state was the first to secede from the union, and is treading carefully as it commemorates a war that left more than 600,000 dead. NPR's Kathy Lohr has this report.
KATHY LOHR: Fort Sumter is an island built of rock and granite at the mouth of Charleston's harbor. You can only get here by boat. Union troops occupied the fort after the state seceded. And when they refused to leave, Confederate soldiers decided to take it back. On April 12, 1861, they bombarded Fort Sumter in an attack that would last more than a day.
Mr. TIM STONE (Park Superintendent, Fort Sumter): It was a hard time for the United States and this part of the world.
LOHR: Tim Stone is park superintendent at Fort Sumter. Its a delicate balance - commemorating, yet not celebrating, the War Between the States. Fifty years ago, there were parades and fireworks. This time, Stone says, it will be different.
Mr. STONE: And well have two beams of light that will be one beam, and then on April 12th, those beams will split up to symbolize the splitting of our country.
LOHR: There will be a concert, art exhibits, lectures, and hundreds of people are in Charleston to re-enact the beginning of the war. Both Union and Confederate re-enactors are camping out at historic sites, including Fort Moultrie. Back in 1861, this was one of the Confederate strongholds that fired on Fort Sumter.
Mr. BRUCE BLACKMON (Palmetto Battalion): We have soldiers coming in from all across the United States - from North Carolina and Maryland, and points west of the Mississippi.
LOHR: Bruce Blackmon is with the Palmetto Battalion, South Carolina's largest re-enactment group. He's playing an officer in the Confederate army.
Unidentified Man: Are you registered?
Mr. BLACKMON: I am registered but I havent been to get my registration packet yet, so...
LOHR: Blackmon says he knows there are differences over how this bloody war should be remembered, but he says he's told his group to focus on portraying life as it was back then.
Mr. BLACKMON: Political discussions need to stay elsewhere, you know, unless they're complaining about Lincoln or something, you know. Make it an 1861 political discussion.
LOHR: Blackmon and others here say the issue of states fighting an encroaching federal government is still playing out in battles on Capitol Hill today, including those over the budget and health-care reform. Those who oppose the weeklong events disagree with what they see as romanticizing the antebellum South. Reverend Nelson Rivers III, with the NAACP, says people who believe the war was fought over states rights are not confronting the real cause, slavery.
Reverend NELSON RIVERS III (NAACP): No matter how you dress it up, how you try to revise history, when you finish with this story, the war was about the South - and my state in particular, South Carolina - wanting to be able to hold black people as property. That's wrong.
LOHR: The NAACP is planning its own teach-in event today to talk about the effects of the war and slavery. Longtime Mayor of Charleston Joe Riley calls the sesquicentennial an opportunity to learn, and show people that his city - and the country - have changed.
Mayor JOE RILEY (Charleston, South Carolina): Our country has adopted civil rights laws. Our country has become open and inclusive, and we have an African-American president. You know, I think its very interesting that the city in which the Civil War began - two years ago, a majority of our citizens voted for an African American as president.
LOHR: But in fact, South Carolina did not elect Barack Obama, and the NAACP is boycotting the state because the Confederate flag still flies on the grounds at the state Capitol.
In Charleston's historic district, the Slave Mart Museum tells the story of the slave trade in the South - of the tens of thousands who were bought and sold here. Many who live in Charleston say they want people to know more about this difficult part of history. Rashida Beach is a 19-year-old college student.
Ms. RASHIDA BEACH (College Student): All this stuff that we're going through -through slavery - all of this developed what America is today. So it shouldn't be something as in - oh this is bad, and this is good. You should just take it for what it is, and move on from that - yeah.
LOHR: The commemoration of the first shots fired at Fort Sumter is just the beginning of four years of events across the South that will focus on the Civil War and its battles.
Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Charleston, South Carolina.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.