No federal recognition for Civil War anniversary
By Clint Johnson | GUEST COLUMNIST
November 27, 2010
On April 12, 2011, South Carolina troops will once again fire on Fort Sumter.
This time, unlike 150 years ago, the United States, like Rhett Butler, does not give a damn.
The sesquicentennial anniversary of the start of the American Civil War is six months away, but no Federal commission has been appointed to recognize it. The 100th anniversary in 1960 reignited the nation’s interest in its bloodiest conflict, in which at least 620,000 Americans died, but there seems to be no enthusiasm for history now.
North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia have formed commissions, and North Carolina will sponsor some symposiums and living histories, but it appears that most other governors and legislatures are wary of spending too much money on historical events that the public might consider frivolous.
It is sad that the nation now chooses to ignore the conflict. Many presidents have dealt with the war’s aftermath. A few days before he was assassinated, Abraham Lincoln asked a band to play his favorite song: Dixie. In 1905, Teddy Roosevelt returned the Confederate battle flags, then toured the South, saluting those flags at every train stop. In 1915, Woodrow Wilson dedicated the Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke before veterans of both sides at the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. Dwight D. Eisenhower kept a photo of Robert E. Lee on his White House desk and asked the nation’s boys to emulate Lee at the 1960 Republican nominating convention.
President Obama is unlikely to follow their example because of the same problem that has hampered public discourse over the last 20 years: political correctness.
To his credit, earlier this year, President Obama ignored a nasty letter signed by some historians and anti-Confederate activists asking him to stop the practice of laying a wreath at the Confederate Memorial at Arlington. These historians actually asked the president of the United States to dishonor American war veterans, which is what Confederate soldiers are recognized as by the United States government.
That incident got some press, but it was overshadowed when the governor of Virginia issued a proclamation recognizing Confederate History Week. He was labeled a racist for not mentioning slavery in the same proclamation. When Mississippi’s governor observed that the charge was much ado about nothing, he too was labeled a racist.
I imagine most Southern politicians will not be defending their state’s decision to leave the Union out of fear of getting that same label. It is PC doctrine that the South’s practice of slavery led to the war. Bringing up contributing factors such as high tariffs, high taxes on cotton exports or states’ rights only invites charges of obfuscation that the real cause of the war was slavery.
Personally, I am fine with the United States sitting out the 150th anniversary, because I have already seen what the feds have done in reinterpreting the Civil War at our national battlefield parks.
Since the Clinton administration proclaimed that slavery was the cause of the war, Civil War-related national parks have undergone a change in focus from explaining the battle to explaining social change. At the new visitor’s center at Gettysburg, a film does not spend a great deal of time explaining the movements of the two armies that fought there, but it does make the strained connection that the Union victory led directly to the civil rights movement. Before going to Fort Sumter, visitors walk past several panels detailing Southern slavery. There is scant mention of Northern slavery in places like New York City, where slaves died at a young age from overwork, or how the wealthiest Rhode Islanders were successful slavers.
How should the anniversary be observed? What I will do for the next four years is honor the millions of men and women, free and enslaved, who fought for the cause they believed was right. I’ll remember how North Carolinians in the Army of Northern Virginia won a coveted nickname — Tar Heels — given them for their refusal to leave the battle lines when confronted with overwhelming odds. I’ll read and write about and re-enact the war.
On April 12, 2011, I will be shooting at Yankees from Fort Moultrie. I’ll have to play a South Carolinian. North Carolina was still in the Union on April 12, 1861.
Clint Johnson of Ashe County writes about the Civil War and reenacts both sides with the 26th Regiment of North Carolina Troops.
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