Monday, August 24, 2009

Sesquicentennial in South Carolina

Battle joined for tourist $$
Weak economy makes it tough for state to get ready
By Brian Hicks
The Post and Courier
Monday, August 24, 2009

Every day, Charleston honors, idealizes and trades on its key role in what many locals refer to as The War.

Not only are old times here not forgotten -- they're profitable.

But now, as the 150th anniversary of the Civil War approaches, just about every state in the old Confederacy is trying to horn in on what is one of South Carolina's biggest tourism draws.

Georgia plans to spend $5 million refurbishing its battlefields and historic sites. Virginia has put $4 million into its sesquicentennial tourism campaign. Tennessee, North Carolina, Alabama and even Maryland have started heritage events.

In South Carolina, more than a dozen public agencies and private boards and groups are working on plans for five years' worth of events to mark everything from the state's secession to the firing on Fort Sumter and the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation in Charleston. The state has set up a War Between the States Heritage Trust Commission, but it has not yet met.

So far, South Carolina has put no money into any of these efforts.

"I hope we don't let other states surpass us," said Randy Burbage, South Carolina division commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. "It could be a huge economic success, if we do it right."

State officials say it's still early and money could materialize, but it's a tough sell in a world of budget cuts, layoffs and record-high unemployment.

For now, local groups are handling most of the planning. The Fort Sumter/Fort Moultrie Trust is coordinating local events for the sesquicentennial. Right now, there are plans for a December 2010 event at The Citadel which will recall the state's secession with lectures from leading war scholars.

Like most states, South Carolina's plans are meant to be inclusive and touch every demographic. There are plans for exhibits on the role of women in the war, the plight of African-Americans and the ways that the war manifested itself in art and music.

"This is a commemoration, not a celebration," said Robert Rosen, a local attorney and president of The Fort Sumter/Fort Moultrie Trust. "We need to remember it in ways that are positive for all parts of the community."

Charleston is a natural focal point for the war's anniversary. South Carolina seceded from the Union in December 1860 in a meeting that took place in the city. Shots were fired on the Star of the West steamship by Citadel cadets in January 1861, and the war began with the bombardment of Fort Sumter in April 1861. Charleston fell and Columbia was burned in the early months of 1865, just before the war ended that April.

Already, a good number of the tourists who visit Charleston come for that history. At the Confederate Museum in the Market, director June Murray Wells says there has been a steady increase in visitors over the past few years. They flock to the museum, where they can find some of the most amazing artifacts of the war in this city: the first Confederate flag to fly over Fort Sumter, the first rifled cannon made in the south, a lock of Robert E. Lee's hair.

"I think we are having more people now than ever before," Wells said. "I don't think the sesquicentennial will have very much effect."

The museum will offer special exhibits during the five years of the anniversary, but is not coordinating with other groups. Many other agencies also are acting solo but expect the state commission to put them under one umbrella to better market the state. Most events are still in the planning stage; specific dates are not set. State officials note that South Carolina is a year away from the budget that would include money for tourism campaigns.

"People are just beginning to wake up to the fact that it's a year away," said Marion Edmonds, communications director for the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.

State Sen. Glenn McConnell, president pro tem of the Senate and chairman of the state Hunley Commission, said South Carolina's budget has been too tight of late to include any money for a marketing campaign. But there may be ways to benefit the state's commemoration in the coming legislative session. Perhaps, he said, the Legislature could direct some of the Parks, Recreation and Tourism marketing budget toward anniversary events.

"The only way to make a case for that is to show that it's advantageous for the state," McConnell said. "Put aside historical arguments, we have an opportunity to out-perform other states for a great many tourism dollars. Interest is going to be very high for five years, and we've got to look for ways to leverage that for economic development."

In the meantime, Rosen said the Fort Sumter/Fort Moultrie Trust will ask Charleston, North Charleston and Mount Pleasant for some accommodations tax money to help pay for some events.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans plans to contribute to the state's efforts of their own accord. Right now the group is working on a brochure that will direct folks to significant historical sites in each South Carolina county. The group will also sponsor its own seminar in January 2011 on the legalities of secession and plans to release information on where each of the 170 signers of the Ordinance of Secession are buried.

The group also will coordinate re-enactors who will camp at Fort Moultrie and Fort Sumter in the days leading up to the firing on the fort, but members aren't sure they will be able to pull off a re-enactment of the actual bombardment.

But Burbage says once again, South Carolina will be home to a shot heard 'round the world.

"It's such a part of our history," he says, "We can't let it pass by."