Charleston leads nation's Civil War commemoration

The U.S. Postal Service has released forever postage stamps commemorating the first year of the Civil War.

Wade Spees // The Post and Courier

Ernest Parks, a re-enactor from Company I, Massachusetts 54th Regiment, shows his respect after tossing a wreath into Charleston Harbor toward Fort Sumter (background) honoring the Civil War’s casualties. After solemn concerts at White Point Garden on Monday night and early Tuesday, cannon blasts from Fort Johnson across Charleston Harbor signaled the start of the Civil War 150 years ago.

Charleston led America into the 150th anniversary of its Civil War with a quiet concert followed by a booming early dawn mortar shot toward Fort Sumter, setting the stage for four years of remembrances across North and South.

Tuesday's many events attempted to tell the story of the war's beginning from as many perspectives as possible: soldier, wife, slave, mother and child.

Pre-eminent Civil War historian James McPherson told a standing-room-only crowd at the Gibbes Museum of Art about why Yankee and Confederate soldiers fought so hard for so long.

While religious beliefs, camaraderie with fellow soldiers and fear of being labeled a coward motivated many in battle, McPherson said soldiers' letters and diaries demonstrate that they were sustained by patriotic and ideological convictions in their cause.

"These persistent convictions were the glue that held both the Confederate and Union armies together through four bloody years and enabled them to endure far higher casualties than any other armies in American history and keep fighting until the end," he said.

From Washington, President Barack Obama issued a proclamation saying, "These were the first shots of a Civil War that would stretch across four years of tremendous sacrifice."

"On this milestone in American history, we remember the great cost of the unity and liberty we now enjoy, causes for which so many have laid down their lives," the proclamation said. "When the guns fell silent and the fate of our nation was secured, blue and gray would unite under one flag and the institution of slavery would be forever abolished from our land."

A light, then a bang

Shortly after 4:30 a.m., the exact anniversary of the first firing on Fort Sumter, a second beam of light reached skyward from the harbor fortification, symbolizing the moment of the disunion of North and South.

Hundreds gathered along the railings at the High Battery to watch, as special lights bathed the fort in red and blue. Nearby, a few hundred gathered to hear a brass ensemble play restrained hymns under the White Point Garden gazebo.

As day broke around the harbor, groups of Confederate re-enactors played their part, rising to let loose volleys of smoky salvos, symbolizing the start of 34 hours of siege that began on April 12, 1861.

White puffs helped identify the numerous cannon positions, including at least 11 guns perched high on a berm near Patriots Point.

Inside the fort, about two dozen Union re-enactors hunkered down.

While a light rain briefly interrupted the day's events, dawn broke cloudless and clear for the 700 people gathered at Fort Johnson on James Island to witness a mortar and flare firing that signified Brig. Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard's orders for war.

At 6:45 a.m., a thunderous boom rattled glass in adjacent buildings, while a signal flare shot up from a second nearby position. It more resembled a fired bottle rocket than a powerful wartime burst, reaching a height of about 40 yards.

A representative of the pyrotechnics company later explained that the shot was made to be weak, as a safety precaution for the nearby crowd.

Another barrage would follow around dusk.

Where should it end?

Re-enactors said they would not have missed being part of Charleston's sesquicentennial for anything, saying it was a chance to drift back in time.

"This is one of the four pivotal events of U.S. history," said Mike Lussier, of Charleston, a member of the Confederate crew that fired the authentic 1847 seacoast mortar brought in from Wisconsin.

Lussier grouped Fort Sumter's bombardment in with July Fourth, December 7 and 9/11 as the defining points of American history.

"We lost more people because of what happened here than all the wars since," he said.

Charleston's handling of its many Civil War events this week will help set the tone for how such ceremonies will unfold in other communities. But there remain lingering questions on how best to do it, some historians say.

"Should the 150th anniversary of Reconstruction -- the first civil rights movement -- also be marked?" University of South Carolina history professor Robert Weyeneth said when asked about the nation's mind-set of Civil War remembrances.

"Should the story be continued into the era of Jim Crow segregation where the gains of Reconstruction were undermined? Is the proper end of the story really the modern civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s, sometimes called the Second Reconstruction? These remain open questions for how the country and communities choose," he said.

Following in footsteps

At Fort Johnson, state Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, touched on several controversial factors that started the war. He concluded that no matter what someone's position is, the states of the old Confederacy have long since reaffirmed their role in the nation.

"The South is a place where the bonds of affection are strong, and race relations have greatly improved," he said.

McConnell also recognized the contributions of those who took part in the war, which claimed 600,000 lives. "From their long and costly war, they bestowed upon this country enduring peace," he concluded.

Several of those in attendance at Fort Johnson said they could trace their ancestry to those who were in Charleston during the attack. One of them, John Hugh Farley, of Roswell, Ga., had a distant relative, Henry Saxon Farley, who took part in the original mortar launch from Fort Johnson.

Farley called his involvement a mixed blessing because it brings memories "from way back." But he added, "It helps us to look at history, and learn from history."

After the ceremony ended, several attendees broke out in song, singing the Southern anthem "Dixie."

'Our survival at stake'

Thurgood Marshall Jr., whose late father was the first black to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, took part in an early afternoon ceremony to unveil two new postage stamps commemorating the war's earliest battles.

Marshall, a Washington lawyer who serves on the U.S. Postal Service's board of governors, said he was honored to be back in Charleston to mark the 150th anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter, "an event that we all know changed the course of our history."

"Since the founding of our country, Americans have wrestled with fundamental questions about the scope of freedom," he said, "and we know that nothing short of our survival as a nation was at stake during the Civil War."

Standing before the enlarged images of two stamps depicting Fort Sumter ablaze and the First Battle of Bull Run in northern Virginia, Marshall said the stamps not only will help bind the country together but also celebrate the example that the United States offers every nation.

"Today, many issues remain unresolved by this uniquely American war," he said, "yet one universal truth remains, and that is that we truly are one nation of free men and free women."

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551. Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.

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