150 years later, Civil War still debated

Associated Press | 12/14/2010, 6:23 p.m.
CHARLESTON, South Carolina — At South Carolina’s...

CHARLESTON, South Carolina — At South Carolina’s Secession Gala, men in frock coats and militia uniforms and women in hoopskirts will sip mint juleps as a band called Unreconstructed plays “Dixie.”

In Georgia, they will re-enact the state’s 1861 secession convention. And Alabama will hold a mock swearing-in of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Across the South, preparations are under way for the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. And while many organizations are working to incorporate both the black and the white experience, there are complaints that some events will glorify the Old South and the Lost Cause while overlooking the fundamental reason for the war: slavery.

“It’s almost like celebrating the Holocaust,” said Benard Simelton, president of the Alabama conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “Our rights were taken away and we were treated as less than human beings. To relive that in a celebratory way I don’t think is right.”

Mark Simpson, commander of the South Carolina Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, acknowledged that an event such as the Dec. 20 Secession Gala in Charleston is seen by some Americans as politically incorrect. But “to us it’s part of our nature and our culture and our heritage.”

“Slavery was a very big issue. Anyone who denies that has his head in a hole somewhere,” said Simpson, a Spartanburg businessman who counts 32 ancestors who fought for the South. “But slavery was not the single nor primary cause, and that’s where the line gets drawn.”

Simpson said the primary cause was states’ rights — the purported right of states to nullify federal laws and freely leave the Union they voluntarily joined.

Many historians would disagree, and strongly.

“Slavery was the principal cause of the Civil War, period,” said Bob Sutton, chief historian for the National Park Service. “Yes, politics was important. Yes, economics were important. Yes, social issues were important. But when you get to the core of why all these things were important, it was slavery.”

A few weeks before the first shots of the war were fired at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens called slavery “the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.”

But as the war progressed, the Confederate government shifted its rationale to states’ rights because Davis knew neither England nor other third powers would support the South in a war to preserve slavery, Sutton said.

And after the war, writers and historians who were part of what became known as the Lost Cause movement contended it was fought not over slavery — which they characterized as a benign institution —but over states’ rights.

“The interesting thing about the Civil War, unlike almost any other war, is generally the victor is the one who controls the story,” Sutton said. “The Civil War is different in that the Lost Cause really was the message about the Civil War well into the 20th century.”

That interpretation lingered through the Civil War centennial in the 1960s, during the height of the civil rights movement. The 100th anniversary commemorations tended to focus on the military genius of the South’s generals and the valor of its troops in battle. Slavery was largely ignored.