A nation begins the marking of the Civil War’s sesquicentennial

Published 12:30 am Sunday, April 10, 2011

“Almost three-quarters of a million men died to give us the nation we have today. The sesquicentennial offers us a moment to remember that American democracy rests on one thing and one thing only — a spirit of compromise.”

A hush fell over the crowd filling the elegant hall in downtown Richmond, Va. The vote was about to be announced, and a young staffer of the Museum of the Confederacy balanced his laptop across his knees, poised to get out the news as soon as it was official.

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Who would be chosen “Person of the Year, 1861”?

Five historians had made impassioned nominations, and the audience would now decide.

Most anywhere else, the choice would be obvious. Who but Abraham Lincoln? But this was a vote in the capital of the rebellion that Lincoln put down, sponsored by a museum dedicated to his adversary. How would Lincoln and his war be remembered in this place, in our time?

A century and a half have passed since Lincoln’s crusade to reunify the United States. The North and the South still split deeply on many issues, not least the conflict they still call by different names. All across the bloodstained arc where the Civil War raged, and beyond, Americans are deciding how to remember.

For the next four years, we will mark the sesquicentennial at scores of crossroads whose names have become a bitter historical shorthand: Fort Sumter, which launched the war on April 12, 1861, and later Antietam, Shiloh, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, and so many others, all the way to Appomattox.

There will be many commemorative events, some light (like the recent vote at the Museum of the Confederacy) and some somber.

We’ll reflect on more than 600,000 soldiers and sailors who died, leaving mourners from Maine to Texas, Michigan to Florida — and on what inspired their self-sacrifice. We’ll judge again the leaders good and bad who played their parts. We’ll argue over the causes. We’ll talk about slavery and emancipation, what change the war brought and what it didn’t.

And what does today’s anniversary tell us?

In search of answers, an Associated Press reporter embarked on a 600-mile tour through one scarred swath of the fighting grounds — from Manassas, Va., where the war’s harsh terms first became clear, to ruins still standing along Union Gen. William T. Sherman’s fiery march through Georgia, which put the outcome beyond doubt.

Conversations along the way about the conflict and its legacy — with scholars, regular folks, Southerners, Northerners, blacks, whites — left several impressions.

There’s a sense that we’ve matured. In our own time of two wars, military valor resonates deeply as we look back. Even amid the country’s cultural divisions, one finds attempts to see through others’ eyes.

And one more conclusion: This fight, uniquely destructive and constructive, isn’t really past. Even after 150 years, it holds us still.

From Lincoln’s White House to the official residence of Confederate President Jefferson Davis is only about 110 miles.

The dove-gray mansion in downtown Richmond was one stop for Adam Ardire and Holly Coacsolonia on a trip “just to get a Southern perspective on the Civil War” and the country it left behind.

She’s from Indiana, he from Pennsylvania. Now living in Norfolk, Va., they’ve concluded we’re still two nations in many ways: culture, attitudes, even style.

“I like the laid-backness” of the South, he allowed, and both acknowledged Southern hospitality. At the same time, there are things about the region they don’t get. Some Southerners flying the Confederate battle flag on their homes, for example, he said. What’s that about?

Around the corner from where they stood, a few hundred people filled an auditorium at the Library of Virginia. This was the place where the Museum of the Confederacy brought together five noted Civil War historians to make their nominations for 1861’s “Person of the Year.”

One author proposed P.G.T. Beauregard, the egotistical Louisiana-born general who was in charge at both Fort Sumter and Manassas, giving the South two early victories. Another scholar named the largely unknown governor of Kentucky, saying his decision to keep that vital border state out of the Confederacy might have tipped the historical scales.

Of course, Lincoln was nominated.

And there were two other eloquent pleas for support.

Dr. Lauranett Lee, curator of African-American history at the Virginia Historical Society, nominated the enslaved blacks who made their way to Union lines to seek protection and a chance to help the Northern cause. Union officers reasoned that, since they were considered property, they could be taken like anything else being used to support the enemy. They became seized “contraband.”

Glancing at the other panelists, Lee noted, “Had it not been for the actions of the ‘contraband,’ I would not be where I am today.”

The last nomination came from James I. Robertson Jr., the eminent Virginia Tech historian and author, who said the person of that pivotal year was the Virginia volunteer.

This rank-and-file soldier was typically not a “fire-eating” secessionist in the mold of the South Carolinians who started the war, but a small farmer grimly determined to resist what he considered invaders.

“He died to protect that little parcel of farmland in the mountains,” said Robertson, his mellifluous Old Dominion accent bringing nods in the crowd.

And now the vote: Audience ballots were marked and carefully tallied. And S. Waite Rawls III, president of the Museum of the Confederacy, rose to announce the results.

The vote was close and there were, he noted, a few write-ins: Jefferson Davis and, on the other side, abolitionist firebrand John Brown.

But the winner in the rebellion’s capital, 150 years later?

“The audience has chosen Abraham Lincoln …”

Not everyone feels caught up in the war, even where it was fought. Life goes on, after all.

On the haunting battlefield at Cold Harbor, just outside Richmond, Wayne Herring was completing his usual three-mile jog at a recent twilight. Trails he circled were the scene of brutal trench fighting and sniper exchanges in 1864 that left as many as 18,000 casualties. The gunfire was so unforgiving, that one Virginian recalled, “A man’s life is often exacted as the price of a cup of water from the spring.”

Herring’s son attends a school named for Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, where the teams are the Confederates; his boss at work is a Civil War buff, but that’s not what has drawn Herring here for years.

“It’s just peace and quiet,” he said, “and a lot of nature.” And it’s true. As he spoke, the loudest sound on the battlefield that once ached with moaning wounded was the chattering of a squirrel.

Nor does Shirley Ragland spend much time thinking about the war. She lives about an hour’s drive from Cold Harbor in the town of Farmville. It had its war history, memorialized by one of the Confederate soldier statues that you see across the South, this one with an inscription never to let the battle flag falter, even in defeat.

But Ragland’s story picks up a century later.

“I was in the eighth grade,” she explained, “and the schools closed.”

After public schools were ordered desegregated in the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision, localities across the South tried many ways to delay or prevent implementation. But only one county, Prince Edward, where Farmville is the seat, closed all of its public schools rather than integrate. Starting in 1959, they were shut for five years, even as the centennial of emancipation was celebrated. (White students attended new, racially exclusive private academies.)

Hundreds of black children, including Ragland, left their homes and boarded buses to distant cities where placement programs run by Quakers and others set them up with families and schools. First, Ragland went to Washington, D.C., for schooling, then in the second year to Philadelphia, later to New York, but the separations were too hard for some students she knew. “Like so many here, they just stopped,” she said.

Today, at 64, she remains alert for lingering prejudice, but also hopeful. The county board, she noted, passed a resolution of reconciliation a few years ago — looking back with admiration for the black students’ fortitude “and with sorrow for closing schools.”

Farmville is near Appomattox, and many tourists stop en route in search of history. With a half-smile, Ragland said, “And here I am standing right in front of them — living history.”

Personal, human stories are never far from the sweeping historical narrative of the Civil War.

Individuals come into focus again and again: in an act of rash courage that helps turn a major battle, in wives’ journals detailing homefront hardships, in the explanations soldiers give loved ones for fighting.

“I am sick of war,” a Confederate wrote home, but he added he’d sign on again, thinking of his children and “our country’s independence.” A Union soldier wrote that “sick as I am of this war,” he’d fight on, unable to bear the notion of his children’s future “if we were to permit this hell-begotten conspiracy to destroy this country.”

East Tennessee saw individualism play out in deep divisions over the war. The region rejected secession when it came to a vote and raised Union units who fought Tennessee Confederates. Local guerrillas destroyed railroad bridges and were hanged.

From near Chattanooga, the Union army took aim at the rail and commercial hub of Atlanta.

I-75 carries you south past bloody Chickamauga, where in 1863 a Confederate victory came with 34,000 total casualties, and then past the flashpoints of the 1864 Union offensive — Resaca, Peachtree Creek and others — before Sherman set Atlanta alight.

An enormous oil painting, 42 feet by 358 feet, depicting the battle of Atlanta and its resulting desolation covers the circular walls of the Cyclorama, a century-old exhibit drawing new throngs for the war’s anniversary. It’s just one of many ways Georgia is remembering.

Firsthand signs of actual destruction are rare now — but if you leave downtown, passing through western neighborhoods where streets are named for civil rights leaders, then past the looping roller coasters of Six Flags, you come to Sweetwater Creek and what remains of a five-story textile mill, which supplied cloth for Confederate forces. In July 1864, Sherman’s troops seized and burned the mill. Today, wind whispers through the forlorn brick ruins, ringed in chain-link fence, at the edge of wild rapids.

After Sherman’s “march to the sea” that would assure war’s end, after Reconstruction, after Jim Crow and the tragedies and triumphs of the civil rights movement, the burned city grew into an economic powerhouse and, among other things, a prime job destination nowadays for black college graduates.

When the Olympics came to the glass-and-steel towers of the rebuilt city in 1996, Atlantans could laugh at a popular T-shirt caricaturing Sherman with the caption “The original torchbearer.”

Our trip through the war must end by looping back — to the rural settlement of Appomattox, Va., which we passed en route south and which was where, for practical purposes, the Civil War ended.

Early on an April morning in 1865, 6,000 Union soldiers lined the road respectfully as Lee’s surrendering Army of Northern Virginia trooped by. Then came the order to “stack arms,” recalled one Confederate.

“We obeyed the command, and that’s the last command we received.”

The surrender documents were signed in a handsome porticoed house, which was disassembled after the war. Rebuilding was delayed for years, and much of the original material rotted away. The foundation and some bricks were reused, but the painstakingly restored structure is something new, perhaps a bit like the nation that was restored here.

“Appomattox to me is not the end of something,” said historian James Robertson, who spoke at the “person of the year” conclave. “It’s the beginning of modern America.”

Now 80, Robertson was executive director of the national Civil War centennial commission 50 years ago and he’s a member of Virginia’s state sesquicentennial commission now.

We ought to learn from the war born of that earlier fracture, he said.

“Almost three-quarters of a million men died to give us the nation we have today. The sesquicentennial offers us a moment to remember that American democracy rests on one thing and one thing only — a spirit of compromise.”

On the front steps of the rebuilt McLean House, visitors paused to reflect.

David Cummings stood with his friend and fellow Civil War buff, Michael Overcash, at the end of a trip following the stages of Lee’s last retreat, 26 stops in all. Both had ancestors in fierce battles a century and a half ago — Cummings’ forebear killed at Shiloh, Tenn., Overcash’s captured at Fredericksburg, Va.

“This is where the healing had to begin, right here,” Cummings said.