Old times seemed long forgotten at Magnolia Cemetery Thursday afternoon.

There wasn't a soul wandering among the graves of unknown Confederate sailors or members of the Palmetto Guard who “Fell at Gettysburg.”

At 3 p.m. today, however, several hundred folks will gather at the final resting place of more than 2,000 Civil War veterans to mark a state holiday that is, to say the least, controversial.

Like most things associated with the war, Confederate Memorial Day is considered very politically incorrect. Critics say honoring the Confederate dead glorifies a cause that, at its heart, was about enslaving human beings.

It's a fair point, but it's also more complicated than that.

And the people who are stereotyped for commemorating the Confederacy have quietly become the keepers of everyone's history — North and South, black and white.

Quiet anniversary

Local attorney and author Robert Rosen says it would be a shame if everyone forgot this important chapter in this nation's — and state's — history.

But the Civil War's 150th anniversary is passing more quietly than most people expected. And it's all because of the racial politics of the war.

The real story is not that simple. Yes, South Carolina politicians seceded over limitations on slavery. But they couldn't sell that to the men who would have to fight — 95 percent of the nation's slaves were owned by just 3 percent of the population. So they turned it into a battle for states' rights and defending the homeland.

That motivated hundreds of thousands of men to enlist.

Rosen wrote a book about the “Jewish Confederates,” German immigrants who fought and died for the cause, but did not own slaves.

That's the way it was for most of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers in the war. Ideology didn't motivate them; patriotism did.

So when someone tells you his grandfather didn't fight to preserve slavery, he's probably right.

All Americans

In 1961, Charleston marked the war's centennial with battle flags and “Dixie.”

These days, the Sons of Confederate Veterans commemorate battles by honoring the Confederate and Union soldiers who died. At the annual Secessionville re-enactment, they include entire programs on the lives of African-Americans who fought in the war, and were slaves to plantation owners.

This is not a token acknowledgment, this is their passion — telling the whole story of all South Carolinians, and all Americans.

June Murray Wells, the Daughters of the Confederacy leader who will host today's event, says few people who commemorate the day look at the past through the lens of “Gone With the Wind” anymore.

“We lost a generation of Americans on both sides,” she says. “Just think what they could have done for our country, the United States, if they had lived.”

In other words, we have enough trouble with 21st century politics — let's quit fighting over the 19th century's.

This isn't about Johnny Reb anymore. It's about our remembering everyone's history.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.