Fort Sumter Sesquicentennial: Charleston Changes Her Tune

Ethan J. Kytle is an assistant professor of history at California State University, Fresno. He is completing two books: Strike the First Blow: Romantic Liberalism and the Struggle Against Slavery, 1850-1865 and, along with co-author Blain Roberts, Searching for Slavery in the Cradle of the Confederacy.

Fort Sumter surrendered again this week—150 years after Confederate forces first bombarded the federal installation into submission.  Civil War re-enactors recreated the famous capitulation on the island fort, which sits in the center of the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, in a Thursday morning ceremony.  Once more Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard allowed U.S. Major Robert Anderson and his men to salute their flag before they relinquished control of the fort.

A crowd of a little over three hundred watched the proceedings with measured enthusiasm.  As several dozen Confederate and Union re-enactors retired the Stars and Stripes and raised its Confederate counterpart, tourists snapped pictures and applauded politely.  The scene would be replayed four more times that day, capping off a week of lectures, concerts, and re-enactments that marked the start of the Civil War in Charleston. 

If simulated surrender was the order of the day on Thursday, a more important submission characterized Charleston’s commemoration ceremonies as a whole.  Since the end of the Civil War, the city has done much to nurture the Lost Cause interpretation of the conflict, which emphasizes Confederate heroism, while downplaying the importance of slavery.  In concert with likeminded southerners and plenty of northerners, Charlestonians have repeatedly repackaged the bloody struggle into a noble fight that is worthy of celebration.

But not this time.

Instead, locals organized a series of sober, reflective, and inclusive events to recognize the anniversary of the attack on Fort Sumter.  In stark contrast to previous observations in the city, their program looked the critical connections between the Civil War and slavery squarely in the face.  Last week’s sesquicentennial was, in short, a dramatic—and welcome—departure from the city’s previous Civil War tributes.  As Major Anderson surrendered the fort yet again, Charleston finally gave up on its long-standing approach to remembering the war.

Fifty years earlier, for example, Charlestonians threw a party to mark the centennial of the Civil War.  There was a “festive air about town,” according to one observer. 

For many local whites, the revelry must have been a welcome change from the controversy that had swirled around the city in recent months.  The Civil War Centennial Commission had scheduled its fourth national assembly to coincide with the Fort Sumter commemorations.  But the site selected for the assembly—segregated Francis Marion Hotel—raised the ire of the New Jersey delegation, which included African American Madaline Williams.  When the hotel proved unwilling to accommodate Williams, the assembly was moved to a nearby naval base.

Despite national outrage over the story, the party went on as planned in Charleston.  Asked if the ruckus over Williams had disturbed the festivities, Mayor Gaillard left little room for doubt: “No sir….As far as I am concerned, it didn’t even exist.” 

Nothing, not even tornadoes, could dampen Charleston’s spirits.  A series of tornadoes that touched down in the area caused the cancelation of a few events, but the major observations went on as planned.

A crowd of 65,000 turned out on June 12 for an enormous afternoon parade that snaked through the center of the city.  Given the day off from school, local children climbed up telephone poles to get a glimpse of the rebel-grey clad soldiers, marching bands, and “a bevy of beauties on floats” as they passed by.  Confederate flags and hats were everywhere.  “No visitor in town could have doubted he was in Dixie,” reported the Charleston News and Courier.

Later that night, tens of thousands watched “the focal point of…centennial week”: a re-enactment of the bombardment of Fort Sumter.  As fireworks exploded over Charleston Harbor, a dramatic recreation dubbed “The Crisis” was staged on the East Battery, which looks out on Charleston Harbor.  Narrators recounted the tense moments leading up to the attack for an animated crowd that had assembled in adjacent White Point Gardens.  Accompanied by music including “Dixie” and “Tara’s Theme,” from Gone With the Wind, “Confederate gentlemen and belles danced and whooped it up” along the Battery walls.

Local radio stations broadcast the program so that listeners all around Charleston Harbor could follow along.  Audiences applauded wildly as rocket after rocket burst over Fort Sumter.  One witness compared the crowd to “the cheering section at a football game,” roaring as if a touchdown had been scored after each explosion.

Largely lost amidst the parades and pyrotechnics were the grim realities of the four-year fight that left 600,000 Americans dead.  Entirely absent were ruminations about the social and political significance of the conflict, especially its connections to slavery and race relations.  Neither the peculiar institution’s centrality to the coming of the war, nor the conflict’s revolutionary impact on 4,000,000 enslaved men, women, and children were mentioned.

A similar atmosphere prevailed this past December, when hundreds of Confederate enthusiasts flocked to Charleston for a grand ball to honor the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Ordinances of Secession.  Despite NAACP protests, the celebrants, many decked out in period costume, toasted secession with mint juleps and belted out “Dixie.”  Little had changed in “the cradle of the Confederacy,” or so it seemed.

Yet last week’s sesquicentennial commemoration, held just months after the Secession Gala, left an altogether different impression.  Indeed, The Fort Moultrie-Fort Sumter Historical Trust, which organized the events, appeared to have taken both the centennial and the Secession Gala as models for precisely what not to do. 

Led by attorney Robert Rosen, the Trust brought together National Park rangers, historians from the College of Charleston and The Citadel, and members of Confederate heritage groups, among others. “There is no joy to be found in war that caused the death of over 620,000 Americans,” their official program declared.  “It is important to know that the Sesquicentennial is not a celebration but an observance of an event that changed the course of the nation’s history.”

To their credit, the Trust largely succeeded in setting a different tone.  While the centennial drew comparisons to a raucous football game, the centerpiece of the sesquicentennial—an event held at White Point Gardens—seemed at once a summer concert and funeral observance.  The program featured slave spirituals, Civil War tunes, and classical compositions as well as brief remarks by nationally renowned Civil War historians and local politicians.  The audience of perhaps 1,000 people—including a handful of re-enactors—listened quietly for most of the evening.  Even when urged to sing and clap along they remained reserved. 

The lone departure from this pattern came when the performers on stage struck up “Dixie.”  Enthusiastic shouts and more spirited applause briefly filled the air, almost echoing the 1961 commemoration held at the very same spot.  But the solemn atmosphere quickly returned as the band transitioned to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

The substance of the Fort Sumter sesquicentennial also bore little similarity to the commemoration held fifty years earlier.  Rather than focusing primarily on military maneuvers, many events emphasized the war’s broader social and political context.  The speakers at White Point Gardens, for example, stressed that slavery had sparked the conflict, that African Americans had played a central part in the war, and that the most significant outcome of the conflict was emancipation.  Mayor Joseph Riley read selections from Abraham Lincoln as the orchestra played Aaron Copeland’s “The Lincoln Portrait.”

And while the crowd that gathered to watch the performance was overwhelmingly white, the area’s racial diversity was a central feature of the program.  The Mt. Zion A.M.E. Spiritual Singers sang a selection of spirituals and Barbara Jeanne Fields, an African American historian with local roots, addressed the crowd.  Even the re-enactors who participated—members of the Palmetto Battalion and 54th Massachusetts Regiment—reflected this spirit of inclusivity.  White Confederate and black Union soldiers marched in, and stood together, as a combined company.

Other sesquicentennial events likewise devoted attention to race relations and slavery.  In a series of lectures held at area churches and museums, leading historians explored topics such as racial tension in antebellum South Carolina and John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry.  One essential thread knit the talks together: the institution of slavery was too deeply intertwined with the coming of the Civil War to ignore it.  Historian Emory Thomas, among others, took pains to make clear the answer that he—and just about every other professional historian—gives to the question of what brought on the Civil War. “Slavery and race provoked secession,” he flatly stated more than once.

The week’s proceedings were not without their critics.  The staff at the Confederate Museum, which is owned and operated by a local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, complained about the emphasis on race in the speeches given at White Points Garden.  So, too, did a local conservative talk radio host, who was disappointed that Mayor Riley and his fellow speakers repeatedly brought up the issue of slavery.

Local NAACP members, for their part, objected to the tenor of some of the sesquicentennial events.  They held a well-attended “teach-in,” which aimed to further educate the public about the myriad connections between slavery and the Civil War.  One speaker denounced the celebratory atmosphere that prevailed at some of the week’s events.  And, truth be told, several of the observations that involved Confederate re-enactors did strike a discordant note with the broader proceedings.

Yet such examples were largely confined to the margins of the commemorations, functioning as exceptions that proved the rule.  All told, the Fort Sumter sesquicentennial was a major departure from past practices in Charleston.  And this is no small thing.  After all, the city remains a place that struggles mightily with more troubling aspects of its history. 

One can only hope that last week’s events will be the first step, among many, towards creating a more accurate, appropriate, and inclusive Civil War sesquicentennial in Charleston—and beyond.  Perhaps Charleston will eventually be remembered not just as the city where the war began, but also as the place where Lost Cause celebrations of the bloody conflict came to a close.

comments powered by Disqus
History News Network