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150 years later, Civil War still debated

Associated Press | 12/14/2010, 6:23 p.m.

“The centennial was very popular in the South, in part because Southerners saw that as a real opportunity to dull the civil rights movement,” Sutton said.

For the 150th anniversary, some commemorations are being conducted under state auspices, while others are being privately organized, such as the mock swearing-in in Alabama and the $100-a-head Charleston gala, which will mark the day South Carolina became the first state to secede, Dec. 20, 1860.

The state’s NAACP chapter plans a protest march and vigil outside the city-owned auditorium where the party will be held.

“I don’t care how they try to dress it up — that term ‘putting lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig’ — they are going to be hard-pressed to find a mixed audience for what they are putting on,” Joe McGill, a black historian from Charleston, said of the Secession Gala.

McGill, who portrays a soldier from the Union’s famed black 54th Massachusetts during re-enactments, sees the 150th anniversary as an opportunity to tell stories that weren’t told 50 years ago, those of blacks and the black units who fought for the Union.

“That is the story we will tell and that is the story African Americans want to hear,” he said.

During the next four years, there are plans in South Carolina for events that will commemorate the freeing of slaves and the seizure of a Confederate ship by a slave. In Virginia, a conference this fall was called “Race, Slavery and the Civil War: The Tough Stuff of American History.” And last month, black re-enactors from 13 states marched through Harrisburg, Pa., commemorating a similar parade there at the end of the Civil War.

In the run-up to the secession commemorations, South Carolina’s Ordinance of Secession has been displayed around the state.

David Rutledge, a descendant of David Jamison, who was president of the state’s secession convention, said he nearly cried when he first read it.

“It wasn’t what I expected — a sense of pride — but a sense of sadness because I knew that it came at a very great price and brought on war with all its horrors,” said Rutledge, a lawyer from Greenville whose great-great grandfather was killed in the Battle of the Wilderness.

Rutledge said the war’s entire history should be remembered.

“It is the war of soldiers who fought through it, and they shouldn’t be denigrated because they fought on the wrong side,” he said. “I honor not the Ordinance of Secession itself, but I honor the courage it took to sign it because it came at a terrible price.”

Eric Emerson, director of the South Carolina Department of Archives and History, said he hopes the anniversary events deepen people’s understanding of the war. But he conceded the divide over the war will remain.

“It’s kind of understandable. People want a short answer to everything. That’s why people are hitting each other with these buzzwords: slavery and states’ rights,” he said.

Associated Press