Thursday, November 5, 2009

Push for Sequicentennial Observances

Landrieu wants commission on war anniversary
By John Andrew Prime
November 2, 2009

U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., has taken up a banner of history that has fallen, at least on the field of battle.

She and fellow Democratic Sen. Jim Webb, of Virginia, have introduced the Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission Act of 2009 “to establish a Commission to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War,” a release from her office states.
“We must remember the legacies of the Civil War,” Landrieu said. “The United States emerged completely altered after the four years of struggle, and as a testament of American resilience, grew stronger than it was before. The cultural and political ramifications still shape the American landscape today. It was in the era of Reconstruction that Congress adopted the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, acknowledging black Americans as free and equal citizens of the United States. The Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission Act of 2009 is about preserving that memory.”

As someone with ancestors who fought on both sides of the nation’s bloodiest war, Webb said it has special significance for him. “It is important that all Americans are aware of the many sacrifices made, by soldiers and civilians alike, for which we emerged as a stronger, more diverse and free nation because of these sacrifices,” he said. “The intention of this commission is to ensure the proper recognition of the sesquicentennial and builds on my other legislative efforts to support educational and preservation efforts for this turning point in American history.”

It is the latest of a series of efforts to remember a war that still divides Americans of all races and political leanings.

In 1996, Landrieu’s predecessor, Sen. J. Bennett Johnston Jr., sponsored legislation that called for the start of planning for the Civil War sesquicentennial and named the U.S. Civil War Center at LSU and the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College as the co-facilitators. Later, Virginia was added to the mix of planners.

Earlier this decade, former U.S. Rep. Jim McCrery, R-Shreveport, and some two dozen other members of Congress have attempted, without success, to pass legislation creating a U.S. Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission.

Planning for the national centennial of the war, observed from 1961 to 1965, began in 1957. It competed with Sputnik being put into space by the Russians, the Cuban missile crisis, the assassination of a president and the beginning of the Vietnam War. But the centennial still became a tourist draw, with a national commission directing activities, an esteemed figurehead in Ulysses S. Grant III, 34 state commissions creating brochures and pamphlets and 300 city commissions coordinating activities. None of that was in evidence before 1957, though.

The Landrieu-Webb proposed commission would consist of 25 members drawn from government, business and academia, and would be charged to develop and carry out programs to ensure suitable national observance of the anniversary.

It also would work with state and local governments, as well as various organizations, to assist with commemoration activities and ensure that remembrance occurs at every level.

Two national organizations whose members are descended from soldiers who fought in the conflict, the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War and the Sons of Confederate Veterans, have been working for years to properly commemorate the conflict, and it is a special interest of the SCV’s new national Commander in Chief Charles “Chuck” McMichael of Shreveport.

“We started talking about it around 2000 and started our own commission two years ago to start making plans,” McMichael said. Whether his group would work with a national commission “depends on who is on it and what their focus is. We’re going to do our events. We’ll wait and see what they come up with, but we’re willing to be on the ground floor of it if they want us to be.”

A number of states already have established their commissions to begin planning, which may already be late on the national level.

“Oct. 16 was the 150th anniversary of the beginning of John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry and Oct. 17 was the anniversary of the retaking of it, with Col. Robert E. Lee at the head of U.S. troops,” said Gary Joiner, Shreveport historian and Civil War author. “Whether we are prepared for it or not, the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War began on Oct 17. Time waits for no one or any government entity. It marches on.”

Louisiana could benefit from the tourism of Civil War interest nationally and abroad.
Shreveport has a number of attractions to serve as a springboard for tourists. It was headquarters of the Confederate Army of the Trans-Mississippi, the seat of Louisiana’s Confederate government and, in June 1865, more than two months after Lee’s surrender in Virginia, the last part of the Confederacy to capitulate. It had 18 gun batteries and four earthen forts, several of which still exist to some degree.

But not all of its history is gray. It was occupied by federal troops until 1877, including black cavalry troops, and was home to one of the first people heavily involved in the state’s earliest civil rights movement, Union Army Captain and one-time state Lt. Gov. C.C. Antoine. He died in 1921 and Joiner and McMichael worked with Shreveport Mayor Cedric Glover, then a state representative, to properly mark Antoine’s grave in west Shreveport.

“Secretary of State Jay Dardenne is very interested in commemorating the Civil War in the state, and I would love to see it happen, too,” Joiner said. “It is something we need to do to honor all of our past, not just Southern, not just Northern, but American. It gives us, perhaps for the first time in our history, a chance to examine all sides.”