RALEIGH — Fifty years ago, North Carolina celebrated the Civil War centennial with a two-day Confederate Festival managed by a state-supported commission. On Friday, the state will mark the 150th anniversary of secession not with a party but with a symposium on how Americans remember the war.
“It will be thoughtful and reflective,” said Mike Hill of the N.C. Office of Archives and History. “We reject celebration. And we believe the 1960s event was more celebratory than commemorative.”
The weekend events include a re-enactment of the secession vote, period music and a drill and dress parade. But the 1961 Confederate Festival included a reception at the Governor’s Mansion; theatrical productions at Memorial Auditorium re-creating war-era plays; a parade with floats; and a ball at Reynolds Coliseum that mimicked debutante balls with 40 Confederate belles.
Fifty years later, the state has provided no extra funds for the sesquicentennial celebration. Instead, the Office of Archives and History is paying for events with existing money.
And Friday’s symposium, titled “Contested Past: Memories and Legacies of Civil War,” is the first of three parts of North Carolina’s anniversary observance.
The state has divided its commemoration into three parts: Memory, which begins Friday at N.C. Museum of History; Freedom, beginning in 2013 to coincide with the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation; and Sacrifice, in 2015, to mark the fall of Fort Fisher, Wilmington and Raleigh and the negotiated surrender signed at Bennett Place in Durham.
One of the underlying themes of events will be why people care so much about the Civil War. Historian David Blight says it’s because the Civil War set into play the debates that still dominate our public discussions today.
“It’s about who we are as Americans; how we define ourselves; how equal we really want to be; how we define federalism from generation to generation; and what we believe government is,” said Blight, a Yale University history professor, Civil War scholar and keynote speaker at Friday’s symposium. “Big government, centralized government was invented in the Civil War by the Lincoln administration. When we debate Civil War memory, we are debating a lot of fundamentals about our social and political systems.”
All along the way, the organizers have made sure to involve the people left out of previous Civil War commemorations, especially blacks, Hill said. For example, part of Friday’s symposium concentrates on blacks and their memories of blacks about the war and reconstruction.
The head of the state chapter of the NAACP is dubious of the state’s efforts to be inclusive in the observance, taking issue with the use of the word “commemoration.” On the other hand, he says, “thank God we’re not celebrating.”
“We ought to remember the Civil War with great tears for all the lives that were lost, the senselessness of even having to fight a war over slavery, which shouldn’t have even been an issue to start with,” the Rev. William Barber said.
Discussions about the Civil War remains in our society today in other debates, such as resegregation of public schools, Barber said. “We have some real issues around race now,” he said. “You have discussions right now about changing the voter ID and issues of resegregating schools and the issue of stopping same-day registration. The impact of race and politics is still very much with us.”
North Carolina voted to join the Confederacy on May 20, 1861, a reluctant partner to the cause, says Jeffrey Crow, deputy of the Office of Archives and History. The state had voted earlier that year not to call a secession convention, and it wasn’t until the firing on Fort Sumter on April 12 and President Lincoln’s call for troops that North Carolina and Tennessee became the last two of the 11 Confederate states to join.
Quakers in the Piedmont area opposed the war and slavery on humanitarian terms, while white yeomen resented slavery for limiting their economic opportunities. So being a unionist didn’t automatically mean that you supported civil rights, Crow said.
The Civil War is the single most important event in the United States’ history, probably even more than the American Revolution, the historians agreed.
“What really happened with the Civil War was the destruction of the first American republic, created by the Revolution,” Blight said. “It dies in the Civil War. That’s really the argument that Lincoln is making in the Gettysburg Address of rebirth. We have the second American republic, defined in the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments of the Constitution. And ever since, we’ve been trying to line up to, define and fight over the nature of that second republic.”