Charleston Plans For The Civil War Sequicentennial

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It appears that Charleston, South Carolina is taking the lead in planning for the Civil War sequicentennial celebrations. Plans are already being made to recognize the 150th anniversary of the Deomocratic National Convention which took place in that city in 1860. From the AP article:

The sesquicentennial of the bombardment of Fort Sumter by Confederate forces is in 2011. But the first key event will be a year earlier – the 150th anniversary of the Democratic Convention of 1860 held in Charleston. Historians, museum directors and tourism officials gathered Tuesday and agreed to ask state lawmakers to set up an advisory committee to help coordinate the observance. “One of the things that will come out of this is increased tourism. Let’s face it. It started here,” said Rodger Stroup, director of the state Department of Archives and History. During the Civil War centennial a half century ago, many viewed the war from a military or political standpoint. “We now know so much more about the cultures within our state,” said Marion Edmonds of the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism. “We also now know the differences between what was happening in the Lowcountry and in the Upstate.”

Looks like there is reason to be optimistic that the sequicentennial celebrations will not be reduced to a Lost Cause love fest. More importantly, there is little reason to think that the city will make the same mistakes as it did during the Centennial celebrations. As the sight of the first centennial observance the city of Charleston caused a great deal of tension and division over its decision to hold its proceedings in a hotel that was segregated. There was only one black delegate and her name was Madeline A. Williams from New Jersey. New Jersey, Illinois as well as New York (whose chair and vice-chair were Bruce Catton and John Hope Franklin respectively) decided to boycott the opening celebrations in Charleston. The chairman of the national commission who was none other than Major General Ulysses S. Grant III refused to get involved by arguing that it had “no authority or jurisdiction by which it can dictate” to the “owners and operators of the hotels concerned.” Even President Kennedy’s forceful request to accomodate black delegates and an attempt at compromise by event organizers failed to bring about a solution that was satisfactory to the states that had already decided to stay away.

The Civil Rights Movement interfered with much of the celebrating between 1961-65. The battle between those calling for the desegregation of centennial events were also challenging the prevailing tendency to see the Civil War as a national event devoid of race and slavery. Declining interest in events by 1963 suggests that Americans were not willing to make the jump into the race quagmire. A planned reenactment of the Battle of the Crater in 1964 was cancelled as the African-American presence would have been difficult to avoid. It will be interesting to see whether event organizers will follow the lead of the South Carolina commissioners who hope to move beyond the relatively simplistic and white-washed interpretation that has proven to be so attractive to white Americans.

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