Fort Sumter cannons sound again: the Civil War 150 years later

Fort Sumter marked the start of the Civil War, with Confederates shelling it on April 12, 1861. Today, the cannon rolls still reverberate in a country that remains at peace, but torn by ideological divides.

Alice Keeney/AP
Civil War reenactors fire a 21-gun salute at Fort Johnson, near Fort Sumter, to commemorate the moment the first shots of the Civil War were fired 150 years ago in Charleston, S.C., on Tuesday, April 12.

On the morning of April 12, 1861, Charlestonians huddled on rooftops, listening to the man-made thunder directed at the federal outpost at Fort Sumter – the first blows of the Civil War.

Since the inauguration of President Lincoln, who had vowed to end the western expansion of slavery while somehow preserving the union, tensions had been gaining strength – fueled by the abolitionist movement, slavery-related skirmishes in the western territories, and the Second Great Awakening (a religious revival movement). As a result of Fort Sumter, these pressures spilled over into a great national convulsion: The undermanned, undersupplied South carried out secession on the ground, and Lincoln, bolstered by a direct attack on federal troops, mustered forces to stop it.

While South Carolina politicians vowed that no more than a thimble of blood would be spilled at Fort Sumter – an accurate description, actually, as no one was hurt from the fusillade – the war dragged on for four years almost to the day. It left more than 620,000 Americans dead, the South in tatters, and the nation at a moment of rebirth.

As modern-day Charlestonians – some dressed in Civil War garb, most in street clothes – solemnly celebrated the moment Tuesday with predawn music and the firing of cannon blanks, the country retains an uneasy peace, 150 years to the moment. Some Americans contend the war is still being fought. California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) said Monday the nation is facing a "regime crisis" and a "point of civil discord" of a magnitude not seen since before the Civil War.

But even putting political hyperbole aside, the Civil War does still very much inform the American experience. The emancipation of blacks is not quite resolved and the disagreements between Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln throw their long shadows across issues like health-care reform and entitlements. Moreover, the tea party, promoting small government, has risen to challenge the post-Civil War view of government as a superior, benevolent force of good.

After the Civil War, "the older Jeffersonian tradition was suppressed by the new Lincolnian vision of a unitary nationalist regime, and it was never able to digest the Jeffersonian tradition," says Donald Livingston, a philosophy professor at Emory University in Atlanta. "But it's still there, suppressed, in the memory of Americans. What's interesting about the South is that it held onto the Jeffersonian tradition longer – which is why you can't understand America today without seeing this deep conflict between these two groups."

Indeed, 56 percent of Americans, according to a new poll by the Pew Research Center, believe the Civil War remains relevant. That's partly because of its overarching themes, but also because it remains a deeply personal conflict for many Americans: One out of 17 Americans – or about 18 million – can claim a direct line to someone who fought in the war. "It really wasn't that long ago," says Michael Hill, president of the League of the South, a Southern nationalist group in Killen, Ala.

"The dislocations of the Civil War wrought so profoundly upon the entire national character that the influence cannot be measured short of two or three generations," Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner wrote in 1873, nearly a decade after the end of the war. It's now been five generations – Robert E. Lee V is today a high school football coach – and the events still wrench the American zeitgeist.

While the 50th anniversary was marked by surviving veterans from both sides embracing at Gettysburg, and the 100th anniversary celebrated the war's military significance, the 150th commemoration has a more somber, political focus.

"The 150th is very different, as is what people are discussing, which are not just military issues, but political and social issues as well," says William Blair, director of the Richards Civil War Era Center at Pennsylvania State University in University Park. "There's a sense today that war is not romantic. And you see emancipation, slavery, and African-American issues running hand in glove" with more traditional elements in state commemorations.

To be sure, the war settled some questions once and for all, including the end of John C. Calhoun's "theory of nullification." That held that states could "nullify" federal policy – such as abolition – that wasn't in the original contract signed at the Constitutional Convention. And before the war Americans said, "The United States are ...," while after the war they said, "The United States is ...."

Furthermore, the idea of federalist government took hold after the war, defining legal rulings and political thought to the present day. But now it's being questioned by groups like the tea party and others worried about the weakening of the 10th Amendment, which guaranteed the states or the people all powers not specifically reserved for Washington.

"What Lincoln did was effect a revolution where he took a constitutional confederate republic and turned it into a consolidated nation-state," says Mr. Hill at the League of the South. "I really think the dividing line in the country today is between those who accepted Lincoln's revolution as something permanent and good and those who see it as something to be overturned."

"The difficulties with the American system are we're not all one thing and we're trying to balance two competing values – liberty versus equality – and they're antithetical values," adds Mike Martinez, a Civil War expert at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. "Shelby Foote once said the genius of America is our ability to compromise, and the Civil War is the one time in history when that spirit of compromise broke down and 2 percent of the population was killed as a result."

While the enslavement of Africans – crucial to the South's plantation economy – was directly referenced by Southern politicians and in the Confederate Constitution, more Americans today believe the war began over states' rights (as Southern historians insisted after the war). Forty-eight percent of Americans believe the war was mainly about states' rights, and 38 percent say it was chiefly about slavery, according to Pew.

But if that revelation means that the South got to write at least part of the history of the Civil War, the cannon shots Tuesday at Fort Sumter were met not with regional glee, but with national solemnity.

"As this fort was a symbol, what they’ve done here is symbolically reflect that we were at war with ourselves,” Fred Kiger, a Civil War lecturer at the University of North Carolina, told The State newspaper of Columbia, S.C. “This is a very powerful moment, very sobering.”

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