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In North, Civil War sites, events 'forgotten'

Associated Press | 4/19/2011, 11:36 p.m.

FRAMINGHAM, Mass. — The gravesite of a Union Army major general sits largely forgotten in a small cemetery along the Massachusetts Turnpike.

A piece of the coat worn by President Abraham Lincoln when he was assassinated rests quietly in a library attic in a Boston suburb. It’s shown upon request, a rare occurrence.

A monument honoring one of the first official Civil War black units stands in a busy intersection in front of the Massachusetts Statehouse, barely gaining notice from the hustle of tourists and workers who pass by each day.

As the nation marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, states in the old South — the side that lost — are hosting elaborate re-enactments, intricate memorials, even formal galas highlighting the war’s persistent legacy in the region. But for many states in the North — the side that won — only scant, smaller events are planned in an area of the nation that helped sparked the conflict but now, historians say, struggles to acknowledge it.

“It’s almost like it never happened,” said Annie Murphy, executive director of the Framingham History Center in Framingham, Mass. “But all you have to do is look around and see evidence that it did. It’s just that people aren’t looking here.”

Massachusetts, a state that sent more than 150,000 men to battle and was home to some of the nation’s most radical abolitionists, created a Civil War commemoration commission just earlier this month. Aging monuments stand unattended, sometimes even vandalized. Sites of major historical events related to the war remain largely unknown and often compete with the more regionally popular American Revolution attractions.

Meanwhile, states like Arkansas, Virginia, North Carolina and Missouri not only established commissions months, if not years ago, but also have ambitious plans for remembrance around well-known tourist sites and events. In South Carolina, for example, 300 Civil War re-enactors participated last week in well-organized staged battles to mark the beginning of the war.

To be sure, some Northern states have Civil War events planned and have formed commemoration commissions. Connecticut’s 150th Civil War Commemoration was set up in 2008 and has scheduled a number of events and exhibits until 2015. Vermont, the first state to outlaw slavery, started a similar commission last year to coordinate activities statewide and in towns.

And some Massachusetts small non-profit and historic groups are trying to spark interest through research,  planned tours and town events.

But observers say those events pale in comparison to those in the South.

That difference highlights Northern states’ long struggle with how to remember a war that was largely fought on Southern soil, said Steven Mintz, a Columbia University history professor and author of “Moralists and Modernizers: America’s Pre-Civil War Reformers.” For Northern states like Massachusetts, Mintz said revisiting the Civil War also means revisiting their own unsolved, uncomfortable issues like racial inequality after slavery.

“We’ve spent a century and a half turning (the war) into a gigantic North-South football game in which everybody was a hero,” Mintz said. “In other words, we depoliticized the whole meaning of the war. And insofar as it was captured, it was captured by the descendants of the Confederates.”