150 Years Later, America's Civil War Still Divides On April 12, 1861, the first shots of the war were fired in Charleston, S.C. And 150 years later, the city is still figuring out how to talk about the war and commemorate the anniversary. How do you honor the Confederate cause without also honoring the institution of slavery?
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150 Years Later, America's Civil War Still Divides

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150 Years Later, America's Civil War Still Divides

150 Years Later, America's Civil War Still Divides

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

This country is approaching one of those milestone anniversaries, when we take stock of our history and how we've evolved. Next Tuesday, April 12th, will mark 150 years since the first shots of the Civil War rang out in South Carolina. Confederate forces fired on the Union garrison at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. The first shots of what became four years of civil war, more than 620,000 soldiers killed.


BLOCK: I found the Charleston Symphony Orchestra's Spiritual Choral rehearsing for concerts to mark the anniversary.


BLOCK: I went to Charleston to ask people what this sesquicentennial signifies to them, just what they'll be marking on April 12th. And even now, 150 years after the war began, I found the question of what we call the war still divisive.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I call it the Civil War, periodically slip of the tongue more. I really don't consider it a civil war. I consider it a war between the states.

MAN: The Civil War.

BLOCK: Would you ever call it the War Between the States?

MAN: I did as a child. That's what white Southerners were taught.

MAN: Sometime, depending who the audience, I would say: War of Northern Aggression; War for Southern Independence; The Recent Rebellion; The War to Free Slaves. But at the end of the day, it's the American Civil War.

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

GLEN MCCONNELL: And that the Union now subsisted between South Carolina and other states under the name of a United States of America is hereby dissolved.

MAN: Hear. Hear.


BLOCK: That re-enactment of the Secession Convention this past December in Charleston. It was followed by a Secession Ball, billed as a joyous night of music, dancing, food and drink. Costumed revelers waltzed and sang "Dixie."


BLOCK: Many South Carolinians were appalled. The NAACP protested outside.

MCCONNELL: Oh, yeah. There were some criticism, but I don't let that bother me.

BLOCK: That's Glenn McConnell, a powerful member of the South Carolina state Senate. We heard him re-enacting the role of the president of the Secession Convention, D. F. Jamison.

MCCONNELL: And it was a fiery speech. And I gave it verbatim, 'cause I was not going to be part of sanitizing it or making it appear to be something other than it was.

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

MCCONNELL: Made out of Marine bronze. It's a beautiful thing. It looks like a stick of gold. Always draws the attack of the infantry, but it can bark and he can bark loud.

BLOCK: I met Senator McConnell at Charleston's Magnolia Cemetery, looking out over the gravesites of Confederate soldiers. He's active with the Sons of Confederate Veterans and wants to defend their story, make sure it doesn't get overshadowed in this year's commemorations.

MCCONNELL: 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 got a shared historical experience. And you don't have to like something, just tolerate it. Political correctness is almost now the new narrow-mindedness. To me, that's not what we should be about.

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 the exclusion of the other.

BLOCK: There are fears that this anniversary will rekindle old hatred. How do you honor the Confederate cause without also honoring the institution of slavery?


BLOCK: I went to Charleston's Old Slave Mart Museum to talk about that history with Nichole Green, the museum director. Listen closely at the museum and you'll hear the sound of heartbeats.

NICHOLE GREEN: It's so soft that it's usually subliminal. It's just representing, in this phase, the enslaved person and that anxiety, the anxiety that they must have felt.

BLOCK: The museum is in the old Ryan's Mart, a narrow, low-ceilinged building where Green estimates 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 three.

Nichole Green thinks about this painful history and is hopeful the sesquicentennial is part of the healing process.

GREEN: The fear that I have is that they will use those people - try to use the sesquicentennial to divide people rather than bring them together. And I just have to work harder to make sure that that doesn't happen.

BLOCK: And 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. Many now remember 1961 with embarrassment; how white Charlestonians gathered along the Battery with cocktails in hand to cheer fireworks and the reenactment of the assault on Fort Sumter.

I met up with longtime Charleston Mayor Joe Riley at the Battery. Fifty years ago, he was a freshman cadet at the Citadel, the historic military college. And he remembers being here on the Battery watching that segregated celebration.

JOE RILEY: 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. And 50 years ago, there was close to universal denial among white Southerners that slavery was the cause.


JOSEPH MCGILL: You can see how close Morris Island was to Fort Sumter.

BLOCK: The story of Morris Island is one of many that wouldn't have been told 50 years ago, a story of African-American valor. If you saw the movie "Glory," it 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 on Morris Island.

MCGILL: It was a battle that the 54th lost. The Confederate forces were successful in holding the fort, but the 54th did manage, indeed, to prove themselves as soldiers.

BLOCK: That's Joseph McGill and he wears his Civil War history as close as his Union blues. He's a Civil War re-enactor of Company One with the 54th Massachusetts Regiment.

MCGILL: The centennial was an opportunity, I think a missed opportunity in the sense that, 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.

BLOCK: And what about now? We think about where we are now?

MCGILL: Oh, we've made a lot of progress. You know, I was in Washington, D.C., and my Civil War uniform with a lot of - bunch of other African-American Civil War re-enactors, marching in the Inaugural Parade for our current president.


BLOCK: I've gone into a walk-in closet with someone who encouraged Joseph McGill to become a re-enactor, and then trained him on how to do it right, Randy Burbage. This closet is filled with Civil War uniforms.

RANDY BURBAGE: This one here, this is a different shade of gray.

BLOCK: I'm thinking all these look very hot.

BURBAGE: They are.

BLOCK: Burbage has 11 uniforms in all, both Confederate and Union.

BURBAGE: In fact, 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?

BLOCK: Randy 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.

BURBAGE: 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. And she never spoke again the rest of her life, it was such a traumatic experience for her.

BLOCK: On April 12th, 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.

BURBAGE: We got to be careful how we do this because we don't want to project that image that we are some sort of racist organization or individuals because we're not.

BLOCK: Here's a sign of 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, Randy Burbage met with the NAACP to try to talk through their differences.

BURBAGE: And I attempted to explain why I feel the way I feel and listen to the way they feel the way they do. It didn't go too well. It resorted to some name-calling and accusations.

BLOCK: Randy Burbage says they wanted him to admit that his ancestors were traitors. Months later, his eyes well up with tears as he talks about it.

BURBAGE: Oh yeah, it gets to me, it gets to me some because it means a lot to me. 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 to be guardians over their history. And I take that mission pretty seriously.

BLOCK: There's a lot riding on it.

BURBAGE: Yeah, sure is, a whole lot. So 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.

BLOCK: Starting tomorrow, assuming there's no government shutdown, there will be a single beam of light shining up from Fort Sumter to the sky. At 4:30 in the morning on Tuesday, the moment the first shot was fired in 1861, that beam of light will split to symbolize the division of the nation.

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