Tracing blood brothers
Our 150th anniversary of carnage, deliverance, antique anger
At 3:20 a.m. on April 12, 1861, an aide to Confederate Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard handed Union Major Robert Anderson a written note: “We have the honor to notify you that [Beauregard] will open the fire of his batteries on Fort Sumter in one hour from this time.’’ The message was certainly civil. The war that followed was anything but.
Before the break of dawn, a mortar shell exploded over the island fort in the middle of South Carolina’s Charleston Harbor. The gathering storm between North and South finally erupted. As the bombardment illuminated the night sky over Fort Sumter, an epic darkness descended upon the nation.
At least 620,000 lost their lives before the awful fratricide ended in 1865. As the 150th anniversary of the Civil War approaches, Americans are preparing for a four-year commemoration, from secession to surrender. Among the thousands of sesquicentennial events planned around the country are solemn memorial services, living history portrayals, symposiums, museum exhibitions, and even commemorations of previous commemorations. So many battle reenactments are planned that reenactors may see more engagements than did Robert E. Lee or Ulysses S. Grant
The National Park Service has spent years planning for the sesquicentennial and examining how it interprets the Civil War, which even today can present a challenge. Robert Sutton, the National Park Service’s chief historian, says visitors to its properties will find a greater emphasis on the stories of common soldiers and their families and a focus on why the soldiers were fighting in the first place. “It’s really important, if we’re going to do our job successfully, to talk about the causes of the war. It’s probably the most controversial piece in dealing with the Civil War, but we really want to emphasize that slavery is the principal cause.’’
Over the next four years, millions will make pilgrimages to some of the estimated 10,000 battlegrounds where soldiers from the North and the South spilled their blood. From the most hallowed grounds to some lesser-known battlefields, these are among the notable activities planned for 2011:
CHARLESTON, S.C. (April 9-17) The Civil War sesquicentennial starts with a nine-day commemoration in the city where it began. Union reenactors will encamp inside Fort Sumter before giving way to Confederate portrayers, a changeover that will match history when the US garrison surrendered on April 14, 1861, after being pounded by Confederate guns and mortars for 34 hours. In addition, Confederate reenactors will occupy Fort Moultrie for the entire nine-day event. The Fort Sumter/Fort Moultrie Trust is hosting a series of lectures featuring Civil War historians and screenings of Civil War films, and there will be special exhibitions at the Charleston Museum and Confederate Museum. White Point Gardens on the shores of Charleston Harbor will be the scene of a concert of Civil War era music on April 11 and a candlelight sunrise concert commemorating the first shot at 4:30 a.m. on April 12. www.nps.gov/fosu, www.sccivilwar.org
BALTIMORE (April 15-17) Four soldiers from Lowell and Lawrence were among the first to fall in defense of the Union when the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment was attacked by a secessionist mob on April 19, 1861, while traveling through Baltimore. The city will remember the bloodshed with a grand procession from President Street Station to Camden Station that will include Union reenactors, fife and drum corps, and contemporary military units. Other events will include an encampment and candlelight tours at Fort McHenry, a symposium at the Maryland Historical Society, and special museum exhibitions at the B&O Railroad Museum and Mount Clare Museum House. www.civilwarbaltimore.com
GETTYSBURG, Pa. (April 29-30) The Confederate defeat at Gettysburg, the bloodiest battle in a bloody war, may have saved the Union. While the 150th anniversary of the battle and Lincoln’s subsequent speech that sanctified the sacrifice is not until 2013, Gettysburg will launch the commemoration of the war’s sesquicentennial with living history encampments, historical walking tours, reenactments of skirmishes throughout the town, a luminary with 150 candles in Lincoln Square, and the firing of 150 cannon shots and a musical performance at the Pennsylvania Monument in Gettysburg National Military Park. www.gettysburgcivilwar150.com, www.nps.gov/gett
RENTIESVILLE, Okla. (April 29-May 1) Just days after Gettysburg was the Battle of Honey Springs, a clash that Sutton says is often overlooked by history. The battle helped the Union regain control of Indian Territory — as Oklahoma was then called — from the Confederacy, but it is just as notable because it featured more black and Native American troops than white soldiers. “It’s important for people to recognize the Battle of Honey Springs today because frequently we don’t talk that much about the fact that there were many minorities in the battles,’’ Sutton says. This year a special reenactment, expected to draw 5,000 portrayers, is being held on the original battlefield. www.okhistory.org
2011 Tauck Civil War Event (May 22-26) Tour operator Tauck has partnered with documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and collaborator Dayton Duncan, who crafted the PBS miniseries “The Civil War,’’ to create a trip for Civil War buffs. The five-day itinerary includes visits to sites around Washington and northern Virginia, gala events at Washington museums, and a keynote lecture by Burns at the National Archives. In the fall, Tauck is offering an 11-day “Most Hallowed Ground’’ tour of locations including Antietam, Gettysburg, Appomattox, and Harpers Ferry. Special film vignettes by Burns will air on the bus rides between stops. The trips are unique, but pricey at more than $3,500 per person. www.tauck.com, 800-788-7885
STRASBURG, Va. (May 28-29) One of the most unusual living history events of the sesquicentennial will relive the June 1861 Great Train Raid when “Stonewall’’ Jackson captured railroad engines and had them pulled over the roads of western Virginia by horse to Confederate-controlled tracks. Men, horses, and mules will muscle a replica Dutch Wagon locomotive and a caravan of equipment over the same historic route used by Jackson’s forces. There will also be a Confederate encampment and B&O Museum traveling exhibit at Cedar Creek & Belle Grove National Historical Park. www.greattrainraid.com
MANASSAS, Va. (July 21-24) On July 21, 1861, the roar of gunfire shattered the pastoral Virginia countryside. When the smoke cleared, the Confederate victory at the First Battle of Manassas (also known as the “First Battle of Bull Run’’) dashed Northern hopes for a quick war. On July 23 and 24, the ground will once again shake as the first battle reenactment in Manassas in 40 years is staged, an event so large it includes bleacher seating for spectators. (The reenactment will not take place on the actual battlefield as the National Park Service does not permit reenactments on park property.) More than 80 other events are planned, including lectures, concerts, art and dance events, a 26-acre military encampment, and period baseball games. There will even be a full re-creation of the 1911 Peace Jubilee at the Old Manassas Courthouse with vintage automobiles and portrayals of President Taft and Civil War veterans. At the Manassas National Battlefield Park, the park service will host special ranger tours, historical musketry and artillery demonstrations, a 3-D photo exhibit with historic battlefield images, and a concert by the Quantico Marine Corps Band. www.manassasbullrun.com, www.nps.gov/mana
REPUBLIC, Mo. (Aug. 12-14) Missouri may not spring to mind as a key theater of the Civil War, but only Virginia and Tennessee saw more battles and skirmishes, according to historian Frederick H. Dyer. “Missouri was a border state, and there was always concern that it would join the Confederacy because a lot of the political leaders in Missouri were Confederate sympathizers,’’ Sutton says. The August 1861 Battle of Wilson’s Creek, the second great battle of the Civil War, was among numerous engagements across the state in the war’s first year. More than 3,000 participants are expected to descend on Wilson’s Creek for the first reenactment in 20 years of the bloody six-hour battle. Other reenactments of 1861 battles across Missouri include the Battle of Carthage (May 14-15), Battle of Boonville (June 17-19), Battle of Wentzville (July 16-17), Battle of Athens (Aug. 6-7), and Battle of Lexington (Sept. 16-18). www.wilsonscreek150.com, www.nps.gov/wicr, www.mocivilwar150.com
LEESBURG, Va. (Oct. 21-23) Union troops crossing the Potomac River were routed in the Oct. 21, 1861, Battle of Ball’s Bluff. More than 200 were slaughtered or drowned, some of their bodies floating downriver to Washington. The battle will be remembered with an encampment and a reenactment at Ball’s Bluff Battlefield Regional Park. www.150thballsbluff.com
The commemorative events will continue through 2015 at key Civil War sites from Antietam to Richmond to Appomattox. And even areas of the country that saw no battles (such as New England) will join in. Living history events and battle reenactments are planned for New Britain, Conn., on April 16-17 and for Woodbury, Conn., on Aug. 13-14. www.ccsu.edu/civilwar, www .woodburybattle.com
Christopher Klein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.