Rupert Cornwell: After 150 years, the Civil War Still Divides the United States





[Rupert Cornwell writes for The Independent.]

"A joyous night of music, dancing, food and drink" is probably not how most people would choose to mark an event setting the stage for a conflict that lasted four years, cost 620,000 lives, and ended in annihilating defeat.

But when it comes to the American Civil War, South Carolina is not ordinary. It was the state where passions ran highest then, and where the flame of the "Lost Cause" is most tenderly nourished now. The war was made inevitable by an act of defiance by South Carolina. How fitting, indeed how inevitable, that the 150th anniversary commemorations of the most traumatic and divisive event in the country's history should begin in similar vein, in the same state, tomorrow.

Whatever else the "Secession Ball" (tickets $100 apiece) at the handsome Gaillard Auditorium in downtown Charleston will be a colourful occasion. The programme kicks off with a 45-minute play re-enacting the signature of the Ordinance of Secession on 20 December 1860, by 170 delegates to a special convention set up by the South Carolina legislature as soon as news arrived of Abraham Lincoln's election victory on 6 November that year.

Then the party gets going in earnest. The guests, sipping champagne and mint juleps, will mostly be dressed in period clothes. The band will play "Dixie". The gentlemen will bow and the ladies curtsy as they step forward for the Virginia Reel, just like Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind.

And perhaps the mood really was as festive, on that fateful evening a century and a half ago, with little suspicion of the bloodletting and savagery ahead that would destroy the Old South and its way of life for ever...


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