Across the South, the Civil War is an enduring conflict
By Rick Hampson,
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — With the firing of a cannon, the raising of the Stars and Bars and the singing of Dixie, people in antebellum finery will come Saturday to re-enact a most divisive moment in U.S. history: Jefferson Davis' inauguration 150 years ago as president of the Confederacy.
There will be a parade to the state Capitol along Davis' 1861 route, a landscape that since has become the Jerusalem of Southern memory — sacred to both the Confederacy and the civil rights movement.
The procession will start near the spot where, in 1955, black seamstress Rosa Parks boarded a public bus and refused to give her seat to a white man, sparking the Montgomery bus boycott. It will go up the avenue where Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers completed the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march in 1965. It will pass the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the first congregation King served as pastor, whose parsonage was firebombed in 1956 while King's wife and baby daughter were there.
And it will come within two blocks of the old Greyhound station where Freedom Riders, trying to desegregate interstate bus travel, were beaten bloody by a white mob in 1961 as police stood by.
"The ironies are rich," says Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group, "and particularly ugly. This is a racist event, celebrating a government that stood on a foundation of slavery." Bernard Simelton of the Alabama NAACP likens the re-enactment to "celebrating the Holocaust."
The group staging the event, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, says it's merely honoring those who fought what it calls "the War for Southern Independence." Hundreds are expected to attend.
"We're celebrating the only president the Confederate States of America ever had," says Tom Strain, an organizer whose ancestor of the same name was a cavalry soldier in the Confederate Army of Tennessee. "It's not about slavery. It's about remembering our history."
The Civil War still divides Americans, especially at a time when some in the Tea Party movement talk of states' rights and secession; when many states are rebelling against federal initiatives such as the health care overhaul; and when America's changing demographics make some nostalgic for a society in which white Christians were more dominant.
The five-year sesquicentennial of the war promises to be such a political, emotional and historical minefield that Congress has not created a centralized national effort, and only a few states have formed and funded their own commissions to mark the anniversary.
"We're walking on eggshells," says Cameron Freeman Napier, honorary regent for life of the First White Houseof the Confederacy, where Davis lived for several months before the capital moved to Richmond, Va.
The 150th anniversary of the war's first shot at Fort Sumter, S.C., is almost two months off, but controversies already have erupted across the South:
•Revelers in period dress gathered in Charleston in December for a "Secession Ball," described in invitations as a "joyous night of music, dancing, food and drink" to commemorate the 150th anniversary of South Carolina's withdrawal from the Union. More than 100 protesters gathered outside what state NAACP leader Lonnie Randolph called "a celebration of slavery."
Forrest, Potok says, has "dethroned" Gen. Robert E. Lee as the paragon among some hard-line neo-Confederates, because of Lee's conciliatory attitude toward the North after the war: "These groups don't talk about Lee. He's seen as a wimp."
Sesquicentennial observances of the Civil War may reveal as much about the nation's current mindset about that period as who did what to whom at which battle. It coincides with a revival of notions such as secession and nullification, ideas that flourished in the South in the first half of the 19th century and seemed to have been discredited by the Civil War.
Some Alaskans, including former governor Sarah Palin's husband, Todd, have talked seriously about secession. In 2009, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, hinted it was a possibility for his state "if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people."
At least a half-dozen states are considering measures to nullify the Obama administration's overhaul of the nation's health-care system, for example. In Alabama, a bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Scott Beason passed the state Senate last year before dying in a Democrat-led House committee.
He plans to try again. It's time, he said, "for the states to try to flex some sovereignty muscle."
A centennial to forget
In some ways, Americans are more divided by the war on its 150th anniversary than they were on its 100th in 1961. Then, says Yale historian David Blight, slavery and race were swept under the rug to celebrate Blue-Gray reconciliation — albeit a reconciliation of whites, achieved by sacrificing black civil rights after Southern Reconstruction ended in the 1870s.
The federal Civil War Centennial Commission created in 1957 under the leadership of Ulysses S. Grant III, grandson of the Union general and president, tried to show the valor of fighters on both sides and the unified nation born of the struggle.
These were themes the South had been pushing since its defeat. It was a rare occasion, says James Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, "where the history of a war was written by the losers." But historian Robert Cook says the rise of the civil rights movement in the early 1960s overran the commission's spin on the war.
This anniversary will be different. S. Waite Rawls III, director of the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, promises more attention to slaves, women and children, as well as black Union soldiers. In ads, the museum uses the Union battle cry, "On to Richmond!" — unthinkable at a Southern institution 50 years ago.
The new focus dismays some, including the re-enactor who will read Davis' inaugural speech Saturday here. Tyrone Crowley of Prattville, Ala., declined to be interviewed. But on his Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) chapter's website, he complains that, unlike 50 years ago, "when the Centennial was used to honor the Confederacy and the Lost Cause," now "there is an obvious, deliberate attempt to ignore and suppress all things Confederate ... as seen by the fact that Alabama state agencies use 'Civil War.' "
The neo-Confederate position on the war holds that the South had the constitutional right to secede; the war's cause was not slavery but an economically motivated Northern invasion, and that tens of thousands of Southern blacks, most of them slaves, willingly fought with the Confederate army.
The Davis inauguration is the first in a series of sesquicentennial "heritage rallies" planned around the South.
One city, two traditions
Two of America's most violent internal struggles played out in Montgomery. Today you can still touch Martin Luther King's old pulpit and a few blocks away see Jefferson Davis' Bible, bed and slippers.
Miriam Norris, an African American born shortly after the bus boycott, is a tour guide at Dexter Avenue Baptist. She's standing in the basement, where King helped organize the boycott. She's not eager to discuss the Davis re-enactment but eventually says she finds it "personally insulting. I see it as a black vs. white thing. ... It's silly for them to pay so much attention to a war they lost. They ought to get over it."
Black leaders say they plan no protests.
"That would be counterproductive," says state Rep. Alvin Holmes, a Democrat. "We don't want to give them publicity."
Cameron Napier and her husband, John, are an older white couple with deep roots in the South and contacts with both the black community and the Sons of Confederate Veterans, whose local chapter John helped revive.
Over chicory coffee and beignets at their stately brick home on an old cotton plantation south of the city, they say they have no problem with an accurate re-enactment of a historical event. But they express dismay over the distortion of Civil War history by what John Napier calls "Confederate extremists."
They're particularly vexed by the neo-Confederate claim that the Civil War was not caused by slavery. "Of course the war was about slavery," says John Napier, a retired Army general and amateur historian. "Read the state secession convention documents."
Cameron Napier agrees. "Some people don't even want to say the S word, but I say it — 'slavery.' How can you understand the Civil War without understanding slavery, and how can you understand the civil rights movement without the Civil War?"
Why is the Civil War such a hot potato? There are several explanations:
•The war failed to settle several of the disputes over which it was fought, according to James Robertson, a Virginia Tech historian who worked on the centennial observance in 1961. In 1865, the South accepted defeat and union; it never accepted a new racial order or the demise of states' rights.
•The sesquicentennial coincides with increasing racial, ethnic and religious diversity, symbolized by the election of the nation's first African-American president, notes Potok, who studies hate groups for the Southern Law Poverty Center. He describes the debate over the war's causes and legacy as being more about the present than the past — a proxy for some whites' anxiety about losing majority status.
•Although re-enactments of Civil War battles have been largely uncontroversial, similar commemorations of political events such as the Davis inauguration are more charged, says Robert Sutton, the National Park Service's chief historian.
A week to remember
Fifty years ago this week, the white citizens of Montgomery staged a week-long pageant about the six months leading up to the first battle of the war, the South's capture of Fort Sumter in Charleston Bay.
The 16-act spectacle, which began with an overture entitled A Salute to the Belle of the South, had a professional directing staff of 18,100 primary actors and dancers and a supporting cast of 1,000. There was a stage crew of 100, 3 miles of electric wiring, 1,000 props and 9,000 costume items shipped from New York and Hollywood in 83 trunks.
Tens of thousands attended; no one in Montgomery had ever seen anything like it. "Every dressmaker was busy," recalls Cameron Napier, whose mother got out her old hoop skirt for the occasion.
Festivities concluded Feb. 18 at the Capitol, with the re-enactment of Davis' swearing-in as three Southern governors looked on. "Dexter Avenue was more crowded than on the same day in 1861," The Montgomery Advertiser reported.
In a front-page editorial, the Advertiser defended the celebratory treatment of an event that ended in disaster: "The North and South are commemorating the origin of a tragic but noble heritage. No combative spirit is aroused."
Combat, and change, lay ahead. Three months later, the Freedom Riders would arrive in town. King, who had left his pulpit the prior year, would be back. And that summer, Barack Obama would be born in Hawaii, the newest state that Davis had sought to rend asunder.
Were he to attend Saturday's re-enactment, the old rebel might recall the atmosphere on Feb. 18, 1861, which contrasted sharply with his own mood.
Davis could not see the future — 620,000 dead, slavery abolished, the South in ruins. But later he would write that when he looked at the thousands below, "I saw troubles and thorns innumerable."
Today, 50 steps up from the street, standing on the brass star that marks the spot where Davis spoke, you can see them still.Editor's note
•Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, apologized last year after not mentioning slavery while proclaiming April "Confederate History Month." (Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican, added to the ruckus by saying the omission "doesn't matter for diddly.") McDonnell later decided the state will commemorate the entire war in Virginia.
•The Virginia Education Department issued a disclaimer last year after a college history professor noticed that her daughter's fourth-grade textbook said that thousands of blacks fought for the Confederacy — a claim most professional historians reject.
•The Sons of Confederate Veterans in Mississippi is seeking approval of a license plate to honor Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate cavalry general who made millions of dollars trading slaves; was accused of massacring hundreds of black Union POWs, and after the war became the first national leader of the Ku Klux Klan. Barbour said Tuesday he won't denounce the proposal but added he doesn't think Mississippi legislators will approve it.
Labels: Civil War, CONfederacy, Race, Racism