The war that made us 'we'

150 years later, the Civil War's nature and impact may finally be seen with clear eyes.

It is simply the most important event in American history, says Ken Burns. The award-winning documentary filmmaker has famously remarked that before it happened, people spoke of "The United States are...." Afterward, they said "The United States is" – one nation, indivisible.

But the Civil War is also a perpetual political hot potato that holds a searing truth: Americans once tolerated, and in some cases wholeheartedly engaged in, human slavery.

The war marks an important anniversary on April 12, exactly 150 years after Confederate forces bombarded federal troops occupying Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, S.C. – the first shots fired. Almost four years to the day later, when Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia on April 9, 1865, more than 630,000 Americans on both sides of the conflict had died, about 2 percent of the country's population at the time.

Historians today are hopeful that the 150th commemoration will provoke the most honest and wide-ranging look at the war yet.

"This is not your father's Civil War commemoration," says Peter Carmichael, director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, Pa. The war, he and other Civil War scholars say, is no longer just about generals and battlefield tactics.

From the role of women and African-Americans – both as slaves and as fighters for the Union cause – to lives on the home front and the horrors of mid-19th century warfare, the Civil War will be viewed from perspectives that have been either largely ignored or were not well understood at the time of the 1961 centennial.

Centennial clouded by civil rights issues

The 1961 centennial was overshadowed by two huge issues of the day: the civil rights movement at home and the cold war against the Soviet Union abroad.

A federal Civil War Centennial Com­mis­sion, established by Congress and Pres­ident Eisenhower in 1957, wanted to show the world, and the Soviets in particular, a picture of the valor, deeds, and bravery of 19th-century Americans in both blue and gray uniforms – and play down the awkward issue of racial segregation and inequality at home.

A national convention was scheduled at a hotel in Charleston to commemorate the shelling of Fort Sumter, says Caroline Janney, who teaches Civil War history at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. "An African-American member of the New Jersey State Commission was denied lodging because of segregation," she explains in an e-mail. "Her exclusion led the NAACP to respond, and the convention was moved to a naval station in Charleston."

Also 1961 was the year that President Obama was born – putting in clear relationship the nation's first African-American president and a war that freed more than 3 million African-Americans from slavery, says Dr. Janney, whose coming book, "To Bind Up the Nation's Wounds," looks at how the war was remembered by Americans from 1865 to 1965.

In general, interest in the war is fading, says George Rable, a Civil War historian at the University of Alabama. With each passing year a smaller percentage of Americans have ancestors who fought in the war as new immigrants arrive and others forget their ancestral ties to the war. Still, uncomfortable moments linked to the commemoration have already arisen, and more may come over the next four years. Among the controversies in recent months:

Some still argue that while slavery was obviously wrong, the South was fighting for a noble principle: states' rights. One legacy is seen in a movement in some states today to alter the Constitution to allow a vote of two-thirds of the states to repeal laws passed by Congress.

States' rights argument 'sanitizes' war

Making the Civil War about states' rights "is an unfortunate abuse of history," Gettysburg's Carmichael says. It "sanitizes" our view of the war from the real issues of slavery and race, he says.

Unlike 1961 or the 50th anniversary in 1911 – when Civil War veterans famously shook hands across a wall at the Gettysburg battlefield to symbolize the restored union – today slavery is acknowledged as the central issue of the war.

"Slavery is the cause of the war, and anybody who tells you differently doesn't know what they're talking about," says filmmaker Burns, whose 1990 documentary series "The Civil War" won scores of major awards and is being re-aired on PBS and re-issued on DVD for the 150th anniversary. "It all comes back to slavery," he says in an interview.

At "An American Turning Point," a new interactive exhibition at the Vir­ginia Historical Society that opened in February, the issue of slavery hits visitors as they enter.

"Slavery plays a very prominent part in our exhibition," says Paul Lev­engood, the president and CEO. "The first line of text you read says, 'Slavery caused the Civil War.' "

In one interactive exhibit, visitors can take on the role of a slave trying to escape north. They must make decisions such as whom to trust and which route to take to avoid capture. The exhibition, which will travel around Virginia in coming years, displays 200 artifacts and includes 17 audiovisual programs.

The society is also creating "Unknown No Longer," a project drawing on its more than 8 million manuscripts – and inviting other contributions – to create a database of information about slaves in Virginia. A slave's name on a farm plantation ledger may be the only written evidence that he or she ever existed, Dr. Levengood says. The database brings to light "the immense human tragedy that slavery was," he says.

A handful of states, including Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and especially Virginia, where more significant engagements were fought than in any other state, are taking the lead in commemorating the war.

Unlike in 1961, the federal government has not established a commission to commemorate the war, although Sens. Jim Webb (D) of Virginia and Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana – along with groups ranging from the History Channel to the Southern Historical Association – are still pushing for a national observance.

"The states are carrying the ball on this," Levengood says. "I think it's a shame. It's a lost opportunity for ... a national recognition of the importance of the Civil War."

The war is one of the most intensely studied moments in American history by both amateur and professional historians. Yet there always seems to be more to uncover.

"All the time there are new diaries and collections of letters and documents being donated to archives and being published," Alabama's Dr. Rable says. "It's rich material." Americans today have a chance to see the period "with the blinders taken off," he says, including "just how brutal and nasty the war was."

Historical oddity: losing side has its way

While controversies about the war may flare from time to time, "I'd like to see discussions – and not people shouting political slogans at one another," Rable says. "I don't think that that's ever very fruitful."

Remarkably, the Confederate view of the war has "fared very well in our national history," he says – a rarity for a losing side. President Lincoln's plea in the war's last days to "bind up the nation's wounds" led eventually to a more conciliatory view of the South. Residents of Southern states proudly erected Confederate war monuments and displayed the Confederate battle flag.

"I can't think of another nation where the losing side got to have its say, and continues to do so," Rable says. "I would argue that the war is still felt more in the South. I think that's absolutely true. But the people who want to refight it all the time, I think, are a diminishing breed."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.