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And Then It Was War

Tuesday, April 12, 2011, 19:06 EDT Leave a comment Go to comments

Flags of the United States and the ConfederacyIn addition to the modern milestones whose anniversaries are celebrated today, we also remember the anniversary of a conflict the likes of which is as old as humanity itself. It was 150 years ago today that the newly founded Confederate States bombarded Fort Sumter, South Carolina, in an effort to expel the United States Army.

The exact date on which the war started can be debated. Some might say it began on December 20, 1860, when South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union. Others might place the start at December 26, when federal troops were moved to the rebel state to secure Fort Sumter. Perhaps the war began on February 8, 1861, when South Carolina and five other states that had also seceded adopted a provisional constitution for the Confederate States of America, or on April 11, when the Confederacy demanded that the Union surrender the Fort. All these events and more paved the way to the bombardment that began on April 12 and lasted two days, until the Union army surrendered and left.

The war, the bloodiest ever fought on U.S. soil, would last until the Confederate army agreed to terms of surrender at Appomattox, Virginia, on April 9, 1865. Between the two sides, the cost in lives was high: over 200,000 military personnel died from battle wounds, more than 400,000 succumbed to disease while serving. If the brutal war needed any further punctuation mark, it came with the assassination death of President Abraham Lincoln six days after the surrender.

The cacophony of the Civil War echoes even today. Among some in the south, the Confederacy is still celebrated, the rebel flag still flown. Arguments persist over whether such observances perpetuate racism or merely recognize history, and about whether or not institutions named in honor of Confederate leaders should be renamed. We northerners can’t quite figure out why people generations removed from the rise and fall of the Confederacy can’t just let it go. I am proud of the fact that my great-great-grandfather, who was wounded at the siege of Port Hudson in 1863, was on the winning side—the right side. I like to think that I would be slightly ashamed if he had fought for the south instead, but who can say?

The last big anniversary of what was at the time called the War between the States was already a few years underway when I was born, so I don’t know how it was remembered back then. I do know that much of the south was still under the thumb of Jim Crow laws; my parents, who lived at the time in Baltimore, Maryland, recall segregated lunch counters and other signs of institutional racism. Southern schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods remained segregated. The state of Alabama had just elected segregationist George Wallace as its governor. President Johnson’s signature on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was barely dry.

The country has changed since then, not entirely for the better. We are a fairer country but, in many ways, more race-obsessed than ever. How different people in different parts of the country choose to commemorate the war over the next four years will tell us a lot about what we need to do over the next 150 years.

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