In the early morning of April 12, 1861, Confederate soldiers, outnumbering their counterparts 100 to 1 by at least one account, began their assault on Fort Sumter. The island fortress had been the last bastion for Union troops since South Carolina’s dramatic secession nearly four months earlier on the Charleston peninsula. While the cannon attack on Fort Sumter is recognized as the “official” start of the war, local historians note a prologue — a Citadel cadet assault on a Union supply vessel called the Star of the West in January 1861. The school still honors a cadet each year with a Star of the West medal.

These dates and actions are facts. Untangling the emotions and intentions on either side of the Civil War would require a few decades and one really kick-ass cereal box decoder. Over the years, groups have taken pleasure in painting the rest of the Civil War legacy with whatever brush best served their politics — usually loaded with white paint. In 1961, the war’s centennial led by Southern segregationists came to a dramatic head in Charleston with political fireworks over the juxtaposition of the Civil War and civil rights taking most of the attention away from the pomp and pageantry of the Fort Sumter reenactment.

Nearly 50 years later, South Carolina is hoping to make a better go of commemorating the Civil War without celebrating the bitter animosity it stood for. To that end, the state’s newly minted Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission is peopled with diverse heritage groups that represent the descendents of both Confederates and slaves. Whether or not the group is successful will likely be determined, once again, in Charleston. The secession, Citadel firing, and Fort Sumter surrender offer up the first commemorations of the war, says Michael Allen, a local staff member for the National Park Service who is helping coordinate events.

“How you start dictates how you move forward in the future,” he says. “What happens in this state is going to set the tone.”

Some wonder about the need to commemorate this, the lowest point for these United States, while others persist in heaping praise on the heroes of the Confederacy. South Carolina created a commission of nearly two dozen that includes both camps and those with opinions somewhere in between. With some members yet to be appointed by Gov. Mark Sanford and legislative leaders, the group’s exact role in the commemoration hasn’t been determined. Much of the work to this point has involved organizing and seeking out public input, led by the staff of the state’s Department of Archives and History.

Organizers are hoping to dodge well-laid historical land mines, but it will be difficult to avoid some Civil War basics. While the prominent use of the Confederate flag may upset some, others may be riled by history lessons that call attention to slavery’s shameful role in the run-up to
the war.

The answer in 1961 was to tell the story of Confederate heritage, marginalizing the experience of blacks in the South, says Robert Cook, author of Tainted Commemoration, chronicling the mess of the Civil War centennial.

“Conservatives had no empathy for African Americans,” he says. “They had very little understanding of African-American history — partly because it was a little bit embarrassing.”


Allen sees opportunity as South Carolina prepares for 2011.

“Fortunately, this remembrance can be a little more open and broad based,” he says. “I am not going to be a part of another 1961.”

The One (and only) 1961

The lasting legacy of the Civil War centennial was the raising of the Confederate battle flag over the Statehouse. Presented as a temporary “commemoration,” the flag flew until it was all but dragged down in 2000 after a run of legislative negotiations and embarrassing national media coverage. It eventually landed behind a Civil War memorial in front of the Statehouse in what some argue is an even more prominent spot.

But, at the time, the flag was the least of concerns. People weren’t just looking at a symbol of the racial divide, they were living it. These tensions were boiling, but they were thought to be on the back burner as the white North and the white South struggled with their own animosity. After 100 years, it was still “us” versus “them.”

In a guidebook offering suggestions for commemorative events, the state called it “The Confederate War Centennial,” because the “secession and the fight for independence were in no way a rebellion against civil authority.”

Charleston’s interest in the commemoration was slow to rise. In March 1959, as plans were developing in Columbia, Washington, and other areas, Charleston Chamber of Commerce Director Julian Metz noted the response in the city was cold and that the main problem was “apathy.” E. Milloy Burton, director of the Charleston Museum, warned months later that Charleston “should put our best foot forward or the Civil War will be commemorated from a Northern point of view.”

Charleston’s first Civil War milestone was, instead, celebrated in Columbia. The state organized a televised reenactment of the secession convention at a Midlands church, with Strom Thurmond and other state politicians playing key roles.

By the end of the year, local activities were coming together. Citadel cadets grew their sideburns out and practiced century-old maneuvers for the recreation of the Star of the West attack on Jan. 9, 1961. Churches were encouraged to include a centennial sermon and Confederate flags were said to have been flown from every Charleston theater and at Charleston High School. The 100th anniversary of Fort Sumter’s opening salvo would include a Miss Confederate contest, a 15-float parade, grand balls, and a cast of about 1,000 for a Charleston pageant at the local football field.

The battle over the Confederate flag wasn’t evident (its raising hardly warranted mention in local reports of the centennial), but a battle over Charleston’s segregationist laws in the weeks leading up to the Fort Sumter events put a very real face on the unsettled realities of the South.

The national and state-organized centennial commissions scheduled a collective assembly in Charleston during the Fort Sumter commemoration in April 1961. But it had scheduled the event at the Francis Marion Hotel, which did not allow black guests. New Jersey commission members told organizers that a black member of their state group, Madaline Williams, would be refused lodging at the hotel, but their concerns were ignored. They eventually called for a boycott of the meeting, and other states followed, including New York and Massachusetts.

The turmoil was seen as one of the first major civil rights hurdles for President John F. Kennedy. Calls for the hotel to make concessions for Williams, including those from the White House, were met with indignation from South Carolina and accusations that the New Jersey commission was playing politics with the event. Gov. Fritz Hollings, a Democrat and friend to the Kennedy family, said neither the president nor the governor can “dictate” whom a hotel had to serve.

The president eventually relocated the convention to the Charleston Navy Base, a desegregated federal facility. But commissioners from the Confederate states went ahead with the planned event at the Francis Marion, including a speech by Thurmond warning of “most perilous and difficult times” and arguing that civil rights supporters “cry for equality beyond reason.” Charleston native and Philadelphia newspaper editor Ashley Halsey Jr. also offered up scathing remarks during speeches at both the Confederate and national meetings.

“Again, we have the same situation which pushed the great moderate majority of peace-loving Americans into Civil War,” he said.

Civil War timeline

New Jersey Commissioner Donald Flamm told reporters later that Halsey’s comments were “calculated to incite bitterness, to open old wounds, and, for good measure, to rub salt into the tortured flesh.”

Halsey would later argue that his speech was “a reasoned attempt to show, through the example of the Civil War and Reconstruction, the inadvisability of trying to change the South by sudden, coercive pressures, whether political or military.”

As the dust settled, nearly a week after the Fort Sumter reenactment and the commission assembly, the city of Charleston buried a 100-year time capsule in Washington Square with various Confederate knickknacks.

“With all of this, I am reasonably certain of one thing — and that is that man will always have differences of opinion,” said Mayor J. Palmer Gaillard. “I know that all of you join me in the hopes that these differences will be settled without arms and then when the capsule is opened our country will still be united.”

Still United … But Differences Unsettled

“I wish we wouldn’t commemorate (the Civil War), but we need to acknowledge our history,” says Jannie Harriot, president of the South Carolina African American Heritage Commission and a member of the state’s sesquicentennial group. “We don’t need this to be a repeat (of 1961). We need this to be a commemoration that honors everyone respectfully with no slanted views.”

According to the law creating it, the new commission should ensure “that any observance … is inclusive and appropriately recognizes the experiences and points of view of all people affected by the Civil War.”

But the sesquicentennial group has already struggled with finding the right mix of inclusion. After languishing for more than a year before the legislature considered it this spring, the law creating the commission received a few last minute tweaks over concerns about the number of black members.

Fearing lopsided representation, black members lobbied for the addition of a representative from Penn Center, a Lowcountry landmark on Beaufort’s Sea Islands that served as a community center and school for freed slaves during and after the war. Harriot says others had rebuffed the idea, arguing that more members would just weigh down the already lengthy commission roster.

“I felt like that was a slap in the face,” she says. “That’s just downright racist.”

After lobbying legislators, Penn Center received a seat on the commission, but it led to the addition of a 22nd member: the chairman of the War Between the States Heritage Commission — a not-so-subtle reminder that the state will be juggling two competing views on this war. What one gets, the other will covet.

The law calls for the commission to develop a “statewide observance” with programs and activities commemorating the war, but Rodger Stroup, director of the state’s Department of Archives and History, imagines the group’s role as a more hands-off clearing house to help local groups in their efforts. The move is likely to be one part penny-pinching (with little offered in state funding) and one part political dodgeball.

“I really don’t see this group talking content,” Stroup says. “I’m hoping what it will do is open the doors to a wide variety of interpretations.”

Everyone involved sees education as the key component for this sesquicentennial, but these disparate “interpretations” will leave long-lingering disputes to somebody else. A similar move was made after the Charleston fiasco in 1961. Conservative centennial organizers were replaced by academics, making it seem more like a lecture tour and less like a pageant.

While the discussion on the war and race may be tough, it also may be good medicine, says the Park Service’s Michael Allen.

“This is a sensitive topic,” he says. “We (as South Carolinians) haven’t really talked about how race shaped this state. This time period is going to open that can of worms.”

These different heritage groups have come together on some issues, like support for the preservation of Morris Island ­— an important landmark immortalized for the battle between a black regiment of Union soldiers and fortified Confederates in the movie Glory.

“Everyone was speaking the same message of preserving and protecting Morris Island,” Allen says.

Others have also found this balance. At the American Civil War Center in Richmond, Va., exhibits are presented from the vantage point of the Union, the Confederacy, and blacks. “No side offered a monopoly on virtue,” an introductory video tells visitors.


And modern southerners honoring their Confederate roots recognize the South wasn’t always right. Claude Sinclair, colonel of the Palmetto Battalion reenactment group and a sesquicentennial commission member, says he’s more concerned about portraying the history and not the politics.

“Most of them are right in one way or another,” he says. “Both sides didn’t try hard enough (to avoid the war).”

Just as the centennial shined a light on the civil rights struggle nearly 50 years ago, this commemoration will be less of a reminder of where we were and more of a mirror reflecting where we are. The next three years will show how far South Carolina has come.

S.C. Short on Sesquicentennial funding

When the state legislature approved the Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission in May, South Carolina was already behind the ball in relation to other states. And they’re even more behind in funding it.

Virginia, where many of the war’s pivotal battles were fought, developed its commission in 2006. The legislature has also budgeted $2 million for early planning for events, with a promise for more as we get closer to the 150th. Georgia has its sesquicentennial group operating under the state’s tourism department, with nearly $1 million already budgeted in hopes of catching Gettysburg, Pa., in the number of Civil War tourists.

So far, South Carolina has allotted $64,000.

Organizers are hopeful that money will be coming in the next few years to help fund exhibitions by state and confederate museums, as well as some grant and seed money the South Carolina commission could dole out to local or regional programs, says Robert Stroup, director of the state’s Department of Archives and History.

The National Endowment for the Humanities and the Arts has already pledged assistance for programs in other states, including projects in Illinois, Missouri, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania.

“In 2009, the interest among cultural organizations to mount such programs will intensify,” said Chairman Bruce Cole to a Congressional committee in May. “NEH is prepared to invest … funds to support these teaching and learning opportunities.”

If the tough budget years continue toward 2011, South Carolina may need all the help it can get. —Greg Hambrick

Love the Flag, but Don’t Love the Flag

A state guidebook in 1961 for the recognition of “The Confederate War Centennial” had a bundle of information and suggestions. For example, calling the Civil War “the singingest war in history,” the book suggested lots of music. There was also an unusually strong reverence for the Confederate flag.

“We have an obligation to prevent an outburst of commercialism and bad taste during the centennial,” the book read, discouraging, “the sale of tasteless souvenirs. The use of the Confederate flag as a design on jackets, underwear, handkerchiefs, paper plates, napkins, and receptacles is generally to be deplored.”

Now, if only the legislature would be so protective of the state flag.
Greg Hambrick