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Secession, slavery, states’ rights. Flag controversies, reenactments, monuments. The Civil War conjures ghosts and shadows. Hunleys and heroes, and conflict still here, where the first shots were fired 150 years ago. To mark the sesquicentennial, we asked noted historians, authors, and educators to offer their personal reflections on what the anniversary means to them, and to our community
Rising Above Ruins
Robert Rosen, attorney, author, and president of the Fort Sumter/Fort Moultrie Trust
As odd as this may sound, my main feeling about the sesquicentennial of the Civil War—and Charleston—is one of gratitude.
The Civil War almost destroyed our city. When Sidney Andrews, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, visited in September 1865, he found “a city of ruins, of desolation, of vacant houses, of widowed women, of
rotting wharves, of deserted warehouses, of weed-wild gardens, of miles of grass-grown streets, of acres of pitiful and voiceful barrenness—that is Charleston, wherein Rebellion loftily reared its head five years ago, on whose beautiful promenade the fairest of cultured women gathered with passionate hearts to applaud the assault of ten thousand upon the little garrison of Fort Sumter!”
In his memoirs, Reverend A. Toomer Porter of the Church of the Holy Communion on Ashley Avenue recalled coming home in 1865 to a desolate city. He preached a sermon, describing his church as “a sorry sight; carpet and cushions and books…all gone.”
The entire city was in ruins as a result of four years of brutal warfare and a pitiless bombardment by Union artillery. And it remained in ruins for many, many years. When Henry James visited Charleston in 1905, some 40 years after the war had ended, he felt the antique quality of life. He was captivated by “the Battery of the long, curved seafront, of the waterside public garden furnished with sad old historic guns,” by Fort Sumter, and by the tragic start of the Civil War at such a beautiful location. Further, in her 1906 history of Charleston, Mrs. St. Julien Ravenel wrote an epitaph: “With the fall of the city [in 1865] and the Confederacy went out the old life of Charleston.”
I was born in Charleston in 1947, grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, attended segregated public schools, rode on segregated buses, and remember the Civil War centennial in 1961. At age 13, I doubt I saw the connection between the celebration of the first shot of what we then called the “War Between the States” and the segregated world in which I lived. That April, 50 years ago, my main interest was in getting as many first-day-of-issue postage stamps commemorating the centennial as I could.
But Charleston changed dramatically after 1961. The Civil Rights movement ended segregation; the Voting Rights Act gave African Americans the ballot; and Mayor Joe Riley led the way in the 1970s and ’80s in bringing black Charlestonians fully into the city government.
Today, I am grateful that Charleston’s days of slavery, desolation, war, ruined lives, and segregation are in the past. Dr. Porter’s 1865 sermon included this passage from Isaiah: “Thus saith the Lord, set thine house in order.” He urged his congregation to not “waste energies on vain regrets” but to build for the future. During the sesquicentennial observance, we are taking a look back at the Civil War in order to reflect on what we were then, what we did, what we are today, and what there is still to do. We have come a long way from both 1861 and 1961.
Patricia Williams Lessane, PhD, executive director of the Avery Research Center
Before coming to Charleston, I had never spent any considerable amount of time thinking about the Civil War. I don’t recall it being covered in that much detail in any of my history courses in elementary and high school. Then again, I was raised in Chicago in the 1970s as a benefactor of the Civil Rights movement and in the wake of the Black Power movement, and the Civil War never really came up. Sure, my parents and one or two teachers taught me that Abraham Lincoln had freed the slaves, but that was the extent of it. While my hip, progressive, Afrocentric instructors at St. Sabina Elementary School went to great lengths to teach us about our rich heritage as blacks in America, discussions about liberation centered on our 20th-century experiences, not those of the enslaved Africans who were liberated at the close of the Civil War.
Ironically, my first real contemplation about the Civil War came through my love affair with all things cinema. Two very moving and altogether different films forced me—at a very young age—to think critically about the war that divided our nation and continues to shape the cultural landscape of the South. The first was Gone with the Wind. Like most precocious little girls, I identified with the strong-willed and dramatic Scarlett O’Hara and saw myself less in Mammy and the other black characters. My mother was not amused. Having worked as a sharecropper in Mississippi before moving to Chicago in the 1950s, the real-life vestiges of the Civil War were visceral memories for her.
The second was Roots, Alex Haley’s African-American opus chronicling the experiences of Kunta Kinte and his descendants. Beginning with Kinte’s capture in Gambia, West Africa, the TV series—and the novel upon which it is based—documents the suffering of enslaved Africans and ends with Kinte’s grandson, George, moving his family to Tennessee at the end of the Civil War. For me, watching Roots each night alongside my mother and my siblings filled in the gaps where Gone with the Wind had left off. While I still loved Scarlett, I remembered Mammy, feeling sorry for her and guilty that I had not connected with her.
Scarlett O’Hara, “Chicken” George, and of course, Abraham Lincoln had been the extent of my knowledge of the Civil War until I read Margaret Walker’s Jubilee in my early twenties. I owe my understanding of the racial and cultural landscape that gave birth to secession to this historical novel. Walker’s characters, black and white, channel the cultural nuances that muddy our understanding of race, citizenship, and our “rights” as Americans. For how can we ever justify a system that benefits one class of people while subjugating another?
Now, as a recent “cumyah” to the Lowcountry, I am still learning to navigate the cultural waters. As I settle into life and work, figuring out what the sesquicentennial commemoration means to me personally is part and parcel of my experience. I recognize that the commemorations will happen, whether I sanction them or not. As a public servant, it is incumbent upon me to engage and be engaged in this topic in hopes that frank and honest conversations and debate will one day usher in a communal healing.
I hope that over the next four years, we Americans use the events of the Civil War to investigate our current social, political, and economic climate. We must ask ourselves if our materialism, individualism, and commitment to our “way of life” mean more to us than the collective wellness and prosperity of the entire nation. Perhaps had the leaders of secession taken more time to ponder these questions, thousands of lives would have been spared.
Time For Healing
Eugene Frazier Sr., author and a retired police lieutenant and C.S.O. for the U.S. Marshal Service
December 20, 1860, remains one of the most defining moments in the history of our state. On that day, South Carolina elected to leave the Union to protect the tragic institution of slavery. It is a moment that showed utter disregard and disdain for African Americans who then were considered “chattel” rather than human beings, and the legacy of that sad moment continues to permeate the lives of all South Carolinians.
As an African-American child growing up in 1930s Charleston, injustice and discrimination were prevalent. It was impossible to overlook the great divide that separated blacks and whites. My grandfather, Daniel Smalls (1853-1954), as well as many others, had shared their personal stories about slavery—the consequences of which continued in very visible ways until the 1960s when the Jim Crow laws were challenged and eventually overturned. But, not only did their stories show me how unjust this system was, my own life experiences did as well. I lived during a time when the economic outlook for African Americans was very bleak, when working on farms and other forms of manual labor were the order of the day. It was a time when we had to ride in the rear of public transportation, could not eat at lunch counters or restaurants, and were prevented from attending school with whites simply because of the color of our skin.
As I reflect back on the degradation suffered by African Americans during the eras of slavery, Jim Crow, and the Klan, it is hard for me to understand why anyone would want to commemorate the start of the Civil War. I believe that an African American celebrating this anniversary is tantamount to a Jewish person celebrating
the onset of the Holocaust. Any celebration that pays tribute to a time when other races or religions were victimized, disgraced, or murdered simply because of their skin or religious beliefs, is reprehensible.
Saint Francis of Assisi said, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.” The despair, darkness, and sadness of this legacy is etched in this state. I find no joy in celebrating a period of time that saddens others by its mere mention. I applaud men such as Jack Bass, whose December 26, 2010, editorial in the Post and Courier correctly stated the reason the South seceded was slavery. No amount of rewrite, research, or reconsideration of the facts will change this. I hope others who have voices will stand in union with him and make a difference.
Open dialogue is critical to our healing, and articles such as this are a step in the right direction. But dialogue is not about blaming, it is about discussing, conversing, and sharing. It is about adults laying their pain on the table and working to educate each other from an empathetic standpoint. It is a conversation that is long overdue in this state.
Heritage Or Hate?
Gordon C. Rhea, attorney, historian, and author
Symbols of the long-defunct Confederacy dominate memories of my childhood. Confederate battle flags waved defiantly in 1963 as Governor Wallace proudly proclaimed, “Segregation now. Segregation tomorrow. Segregation forever.” Confederate battle flags dominated the outdoor Ku Klux Klan rally in a nearby town. Battle flags were grasped firmly in the hands of whites protesting having to share water fountains, bathrooms, schools, and bus seats with citizens of color. The Confederate battle flag of my youth represented opposition to integration. Today, it decorates the armbands of skinheads and white supremacists here and abroad.
Confederate apologists protest that hate groups have hijacked their flag, that Confederate symbols represent a proud heritage, not a hateful ideology. But white supremacists did not appropriate the Confederate flag by accident. They were not drawn to it simply by its design. They embraced it because it represented a nation stridently and openly dedicated to its principles. In 1861, the Confederacy’s vice president Alexander Stephens proclaimed: “The Confederacy’s foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based on this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
As a Southerner, an historian, and a descendant of former slave owners, I hope that we use the opportunity of the sesquicentennial to open frank and civil dialogues about why our ancestors decided to leave the United States and set up their own nation. They were unapologetic about their reasons: the election of Abraham Lincoln threatened their “peculiar institution” of Negro slavery. While the rest of the western world followed an historic trajectory dedicated to abolishing slavery and expanding human rights and participatory democracy, the South marched off in the opposite direction. Our ancestors unabashedly formed a nation dedicated to the propositions that all men are not created equal and that the government’s job is to preserve and ensure institutionalized, race-based inequality.
The Confederate flag, we are told, represents heritage, not hate. But how can we celebrate the heritage of a short-lived nation whose self-avowed reason for existence was the exploitation and debasement of a sizeable segment of its population and the propagation of human bondage to new territories?
Those who question slavery’s role as a driving force behind secession should consult the sermons, speeches, and writings of Southern leaders in the days leading up to the decision to leave the Union. Reverend Furman of South Carolina sternly warned that if Lincoln were elected, “Every Negro in South Carolina and every other Southern state will be his own master; nay, more than that, will be the equal of every one of you. If you are tame enough to submit, abolition preachers will be at hand to consummate the marriage of your daughters to black husbands.” Typical was the speech of Stephen Hale, who urged that only through secession could the “heaven ordained superiority of the white over the black race” be sustained.
Southern spokesmen described an apocalyptic vision of emancipation, race wars, and miscegenation: The collapse of white supremacy would be so cataclysmic that no self-respecting Southerner could fail to rally to the secessionist cause. Modern Confederate apologists contend that secession was about “states rights,” not slavery. They should read the speeches and pronouncements of their forebears, who give lip service to “states’ rights” only in the context of the rights of states to decide whether some of their inhabitants could own other humans.
I recently read extensively through secessionist-era speeches and sermons. Word for word, they echoed the racist diatribes that I heard growing up in the South—from invocations of African barbarism to blatant portrayals of rape and racial amalgamation. Secession died in 1865, but the ugly sentiments behind it persisted. My hope is that the 150th anniversary of the Civil War will spur reasoned discourse and an end to our forebears’ destructive vision. I also hope that it will end denial by my fellow white Southerners. The next time you hear someone proclaim that secession was about state’s rights, not slavery, ask what right it was that the seceding states were so anxious to protect.
A Unified Future
Glenn McConnell, S.C. Senate president pro tempore and chairman of Senate Judiciary Committee
In the news, we see daily examples of conflict, even violence, between people who refuse to rise above old divisions. In some cases, they continue to nurture resentment, fueled by ancient disputes. Diversity among people with different traditions doesn’t have to be a source of conflict. It also offers an opportunity for mutual respect and celebration. That’s what the Civil War sesquicentennial means to me.
There are very few places in the world that wear its past as casually and comfortably as Charleston does. The remarkable history of our city is highlighted every day as scores of tourists take horse-drawn tours around town or visit the many museums and historical sites our city has to offer. Therefore, as we prepare to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, we do so as a city surrounded by its past, a place where history itself serves both as a source of inspiration and an engine for the tourism that strengthens our economy.
This occasion also offers a perfect opportunity for a new generation to learn the importance of the Civil War to the history of our city and nation. By reflecting on the most divisive and violent event in our history, we can derive inspirational lessons from the long and difficult efforts so many have made to bring us, as a people, to where we are today. And we can do so without running each other down, by accenting the positive aspects of our diverse traditions.
I have long been interested in the Civil War because of the Lowcountry’s unique involvement and because much of the character of our area still retains the flavor of the mid-19th century. Our architecture makes it easy to evoke images of what life must have been like during those times. I have also learned how the study of history can play an important role in our efforts to develop a know-ledge-based economy. For example, when we recovered the C.S.S. Hunley submarine from Charleston Harbor, we knew that both vessel and crew had an important historic meaning. But I don’t think anyone imagined that we were opening a door to the future.
The restoration of the Hunley led to the creation of cutting-edge technologies that could have a pronounced affect on 21st-century manufacturing. The Warren Lasch Conservation Center not only served as a site for the conservation of the submarine, but it also became a lab where research is being done on a scale like nowhere else in the world. The Hunley also led to a partnership with Clemson University, which led to the Clemson Restoration Institute. From a Civil War-era submarine, we now have landed grants that could put us at the forefront of wind-turbine technology.
The sesquicentennial is not merely a look into the past. More importantly, it shows us who we are, and it dramatizes how far we’ve traveled together. By this commemoration, Charleston can literally show the world how people with diverse traditions, histories, and views can come together in a spirit of unity and mutual respect. That is a lesson badly needed in today’s world.
Facing A Legacy
Taylor Drayton Nelson, board member and former director of Magnolia Plantation and Gardens
In Charleston, when one speaks of “before the war,” no additional clarification is needed. It is understood that the period under discussion is closer to Gettysburg than Ypres, more likely to refer to Fort Sumter than Pearl Harbor. For in Charleston, the Civil War is the war that continues to resonate most strongly; it is a tolling bell whose ring may wash over our cobbled streets forever.
Growing up here, I don’t recall learning about the Civil War per se. It certainly wasn’t something I picked up at school in history class. Actually, the Civil War seemed as if it were an event that was embedded in the local landscape, a landmark as quintessentially Charleston as St. Michael’s Church. Depending upon whom you talked to, “before the war” was either a charmed era, a time before the South was forced from its Paradise, or a barbaric and repressive age of gross inhumanity. Is it possible it was both?
Even today, it is difficult to agree on what the Civil War was and what it meant. Some cry the war was about slavery; some claim it was about states’ rights; some point to economic imperatives or the machinations of political expediency. Whatever the war was about, what we are left today is a cultural wound that—though the scar may still show—has largely healed.
As Charleston looks back on the war a century and a half later, it seems phenomenal that the conflict is still so widely discussed. At Magnolia Plantation where I live, the topic is everyday conversation. Tourists are deeply interested in the war. Visitors come here from all over the world, most with open minds, to learn from us. They might be fascinated by the lush beauty of our gardens, but they are especially curious about slavery, its grim realities, and how the system affected the daily lives of the slaves themselves. They are struck by slavery’s contradictions and quieted by its subtleties.
With the cooling distance of 150 years between today and the first shots at Fort Sumter—and more than 40 years since the shot that killed Martin Luther King Jr.—perhaps we are better able to consider the Civil War dispassionately, less influenced by preconceived ideas or bias. Still, rather than simplifying the war, we need a balanced perspective in order to appreciate its deep complexity.
On March 22, 1861, my great-great-great grandfather, the Rev. John Grimké Drayton, Magnolia’s owner, wrote the following in a letter to a Delaware minister:
“Everything looks dark. Our harbor at a moment’s warning to inaugurate a reign of blood…. Our city lights put out…. Can it be that in a Christian land such a war is to be waged? A war whose only end must be desolation and the kindling of a fire of hate which will live for generations? Oh, let us hope and pray that wisdom and guidance will be given from above and that this disgrace to humanity…will be spared us!”
The disgrace was not spared us, but
neither were wisdom and guidance. Having been battered by the Civil War’s devastation and divisiveness, Charleston today can commemorate it with her head held high, in full knowledge that her citizens can face its legacy unafraid. It is only by discussing the war truthfully and recalling its lessons with humility, courage, and grace that we will continue to heal and prosper.