The Civil War Is Still Being Fought, Civilly The war of words over the Civil War continues to this day. The Sons of Confederate Veterans are being criticized for controversial TV ads in Georgia and a "secession gala" in South Carolina to mark its break from the Union on Dec. 20, 1861. In advance of the sesquicentennial, host Liane Hansen talks to renowned Civil War historian James McPherson about why the Civil War continues to be a contentious issue even after 150 years.
NPR logo

The Civil War Is Still Being Fought, Civilly

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The Civil War Is Still Being Fought, Civilly

The Civil War Is Still Being Fought, Civilly

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


The Civil War ended nearly 146 years ago, but the Sons of Confederate Veterans and its opponents are still fighting a war of words. The organization's Georgia division is taking heat for its take on the war, largely over a series of ads that have aired on local television and can be seen on YouTube.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Woman: The year 2011 will mark the 150th anniversary of the War for Southern Independence. And the Sons of Confederate Veterans encourage you to celebrate this noble time in our history when men and women of the South stood courageously for liberty, even in the face of insurmountable odds.

HANSEN: The ad goes on to equate secession with the American Revolution but there's no mention of slavery.

The South Carolina division of the group has also drawn criticism for its role in a secession gala organized by the Confederate Heritage Trust. The event will be held in Charleston tomorrow night, the 150th anniversary of South Carolina's break from the Union. It will include a reenactment of the signing of the Ordinance of Secession, but it won't focus on slavery. The NAACP plans to protest the gala.

Mark Simpson, commander of the South Carolina division, says there's no disrespect intended.

Mr. MARK SIMPSON (Commander, South Carolina Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans): None of us deny that slavery was an element, you know, of that period of time and it was abhorrent. None of us in the Sons of Confederate Veterans would wish to perpetuate slavery. That is an abomination.

HANSEN: He said the gala is not meant to glorify slavery or the Civil War.

Mr. SIMPSON: What we are celebrating and commemorating is the determination and the courage of the 170 signers of the Articles of Secession from South Carolina. This secession document was signed unanimously by everyone in attendance and, you know, in very much the same way that the Declaration of Independence in 1776 was signed by 56 men who put on the line their lives, their fortunes, even their sacred honor, as they dubbed it.

HANSEN: Mr. Simpson said it's all an effort to tell the Civil War story from a Southern perspective. Others say it's an effort to rewrite history.

James McPherson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who's an expert on the Civil War. He's at Princeton University to offer his perspective. Welcome back to the show.

Mr. JAMES MCPHERSON (Historian): Well, thanks for having me.

HANSEN: Why does the Civil War continue to provoke such controversy?

Mr. MCPHERSON: Many of the issues that the war was fought over are still with us today - the issue of slavery, which involved the issue of race and race relations, but also the issue of the balance of powers between federal government and the states and the local government. That's also very much an issue with us today, as we've seen in recent months.

We're still debating these issues and we project our perspectives from today back into the past. And since these issues of slavery, race, state sovereignty, states rights, provoked the greatest war, the most bloody war in American history, it arouses passions that echo down to our own time.

HANSEN: There is a lot of controversy over this secession ball to be held in Charleston tomorrow night. Organizers say it's a commemoration of the fight against an oppressive federal government and detractors say it ignores slavery is the cause of the war. What is history saying now about the cause of the war?

Mr. MCPHERSON: Well, history says, and I would say probably 98 percent of historians would say, that the basic and most deep-rooted cause of the war was slavery and the question of the future of slavery in the United States. A country that was founded on a charter of freedom had become, by the middle of the 19th century, the largest slave-owning country in the world.

HANSEN: Why was South Carolina the first state?

Mr. MCPHERSON: Sixty percent of South Carolina's population in 1860 were slaves. It had a higher percentage of white families owning slaves than any other state in the South. It felt that its fate was more dire if slavery was ended, and there's a consequence going all the way back to the 1830s and to their ideological leader, John C. Calhoun, who served in Congress in the Senate for many years.

They had formulated a philosophy of state sovereignty and of secession if an anti-slavery party took over control of the national government.

HANSEN: Did President James Buchanan and President-Elect Abraham Lincoln try to do anything to stop South Carolina's move toward secession?

Mr. MCPHERSON: James Buchanan made a rather feeble effort, and what he became concerned about was the fate of the 80 or so American soldiers in Fort Moultrie in the Charleston harbor. And then they moved over to Fort Sumter because they feared that the South Carolina militia would attack them at Fort Moultrie. Fort Sumter was more defensible.

And Buchanan finally roused himself to order the reinforcement of the troops there at Fort Sumter. But the South Carolina militia artillery fired on the civilian merchant ship that was bringing the reinforcements and drove it out of the harbor. And Buchanan thereafter pretty much gave up.

Once Lincoln became president, not only had South Carolina seceded but six other Southern states had done so also. And now the issue was if Lincoln reinforced the fort, would it provoke a war? His decision initially was to just resupply the fort, food for hungry men, for those 80 soldiers. But now the new Confederate government, in which South Carolina would play a leading role, decided to fire on Fort Sumter to force its surrender before the supply ships and the reinforcements could get there.

So, they did so on April 12th, 1861, and the war began there right in Charleston harbor.

HANSEN: What was Abraham Lincoln doing before he was inaugurated?

Mr. MCPHERSON: Lincoln worked on his inaugural address, which he knew would be of great importance in announcing his policy toward this crisis. And then his inaugural address on March 4th made clear, as far as he was concerned, states had no right to secede and therefore they were still legally and constitutionally part of the United States. The Confederates in Montgomery, Alabama - that's where they'd established their temporary capital - talked back about their determination not only to gain Fort Sumter but to maintain their independence.

And this increasingly hard line on both sides formed the context to the background for the firing on Fort Sumter on April 12th, 1861, which began this terrible four years' war.

HANSEN: James McPherson of Princeton University is a Civil War historian. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his 1988 book "The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era." He spoke to us from a studio at Princeton University. Thank you very much.

Mr. MCPHERSON: Well, thank you for having me.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.