This week, 150 years ago, important and powerful men in tall hats and frock coats from around this young nation converged on Charleston. They arrived by ship from the northeast and by train from the interior.

They convened on April 23, 1860, at Institute Hall on Meeting Street, adjacent to the site of the present-day Circular Congregational Church. Their mission: to nominate a Democratic presidential candidate for the November election.

It is known and recited by generations of school children that the Civil War started in Charleston, with the Ordinance of Secession and the bombardment of Fort Sumter. But in a real sense it started at Institute Hall in that fragrant April, when the Democratic convention fell apart, foreshadowing the disunion of the states a few months later.

The unraveling of the Union was further advanced than most realized when the delegates started checking into the Mills House, the Charleston Hotel, the Planter’s Inn, and other fashionable hostels around the city. John Brown had led his raid at Harper’s Ferry the previous October, trying to spark a slave uprising that would ignite the South. Charleston had been anticipating a slave rebellion for generations. The city was a police state; its white inhabitants lived in perpetual fear.

Frederick Law Olmsted, who visited the city in 1859, observed that “the cannon in position on the parade ground, the Citadel … with its martial ceremonies, the frequent parades of militia … the numerous armed police, might lead one to believe the city was in a state of siege or revolution.”

Charleston was the most radical city in the South, seething with secessionist fervor. The Southern Episcopalian of Charleston spoke for many when it editorialized: “Slavery [is] a necessary element towards the composition of a high and stable civilization — as a thing good in itself … in short the best mode in which labor and capital can stand associated.”

The leading Democratic candidate was Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, who advocated limiting access to slavery in the western territories. It was soon clear that the Southern delegates would have none of it. When the Douglas forces carried the day in the platform committee, the delegations from 10 Southern states seceded from the convention on April 30, thus rupturing the last national institution capable of holding the United States together. What was left of the convention voted to adjourn to Baltimore, where they met six weeks later, and the Southern delegates gathered in Richmond. The Baltimore contingent easily nominated Douglas; the Southern “fire-eaters” nominated the sitting vice president, John C. Breckinridge of Tennessee. A third splinter party nominated John Bell of Tennessee. With the Democrats divided three ways, the door was open for the Republican, Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, to win the presidency in November. The Southern radicals had used the Charleston convention to cast a Republican victory in apocalyptic images and whip the region into a frenzy of fear. South Carolina delegates returned to Institute Hall in December 1860 to sign their Ordinance of Secession.

The sesquicentennial observance of the Civil War, which will begin in a few months and continue into 2015, will be very different from the centennial observance 50 years ago. Anyone following the popular images and literature of the Civil War centennial would have been hard pressed to discover that the nation’s great blood-letting had anything to do with slavery. To the extent that the cause of conflict was discussed at all, it was portrayed as a struggle between white folks over the mystical and ineffable principle of states’ rights.

Fifty years have transformed the nation and the culture and has cast a new light on the meaning of the Civil War. The commemoration in Charleston, headed by the Fort Moultrie-Fort Sumter Trust, will recognize many events of the war that were ignored half a century ago, including the slave Robert Smalls’ capture of the Confederate steamer Planter and his escape to freedom in 1862, the enlistment of former slaves in the Union army at Beaufort, and the attack by the black troops of the Massachusetts 54th on Battery Wagner in 1863.

We can only hope that a forthright exploration of the causes of the Civil War and the role blacks played in it will lead to some much-needed soul-searching and reconciliation in this racially stressed state.

The sesquicentennial cannot do any worse than the centennial observance of 50 years ago. In 1962, the all-white General Assembly voted to raise the Confederate flag atop the Statehouse as part of the commemoration. But in 1965, when the centennial observance ended, the flag remained above the dome. It was not lowered until 2000, and it remains a source of bitter public debate. That’s one bit of history we do not want to repeat.

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