A “family history” like no other — the musings of blogger David Ivey
My Civil War commemoration began four years ago, on April 12, 2011. I watched from The Battery at Charleston Harbor as a giant spotlight sent a beam into the night sky above Fort Sumter. At 4:30 a.m. that beam split in two, signifying the moment the first shot of the war was fired. Four years later another shot was commemorated. At 7:22 a.m. on April 15, I watched a televised ceremony that concluded with a bugler playing Taps in front of an old brick building in our nation’s capital on the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s assassination. Bells tolled throughout the city, just as they had in 1865. Our Sesquicentennial commemoration ends on the anniversary of Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston’s surrender to Major General William T. Sherman. That surrender of almost 90,000 troops effectively ended the war. What is it about those four years, out of 239 years of U.S. history, that reaches out to us, demanding our attention? Most of the war generation have been in their graves more than a century, yet our fascination has never waned. I believe it has grown stronger. Allow me to pass along a few explanations I’ve heard from others, and to share some of my own. Earlier this year, at the event commemorating the capture of Fort Fisher, a speaker asked for a show of hands of those who had an ancestor who served with the Confederacy. This being the South, many hands went up. Then the speaker asked if any had ancestors who wore Union blue. A number of hands were raised. He then suggested that a big part of the explanation for our fascination with the American Civil War is that we are literally and figuratively studying our nation’s family history. As someone whose great-great-grandfather served in the war, I believe that’s correct. Perhaps something else is going on, as well. During the commemoration of General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, a historian offered this idea: The Civil War serves as an “oracle” for us. In ancient times, people sought the advice and perceived wisdom of counselors and seers about future events. Oftentimes, the answers were more complex than the questions. Similarly, the study of the Civil War raises complex questions about who we are as a nation and how we got where we are. Sometimes the answers draw us into matters that are hard to face. Differences regarding race and the proper role of the federal government still confront us. Maybe we can help resolve those issues by learning from the struggles of the Civil War generation. Our unending interest may also have something to do with the vast scale of the war. At least 623,000 men died in those four years. Recent scholarship suggests a toll exceeding 700,000. Those deaths represented 2 to 3 percent of the U.S. population at the time. A comparable loss today would be six to seven million. Ponder that for a moment. We could talk for hours about people whose involvement in the war was significant – titans of history such as Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, Frederick Douglass, Ulysses Grant, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, Sherman. Those are just a few of the major actors. Did you know that at least five future presidents served in the conflict? Moreover, the war freed four million Americans from bondage. Their struggle to be truly free continued for generations after the last shot was fired. All good explanations, I suppose. But follow me on my own journey in search of a simpler explanation. Almost 50 years ago, a four-year-old was taken by his grandparents to the Averasboro Battlefield in Harnett and Cumberland counties. He had heard stories about the American Civil War, and seen pictures in books. It had all seemed like story-time stuff. But when he viewed the headstones of men killed in the battle, something changed inside. This wasn’t make-believe. It was real. This actually happened to real people. And it was a story he could understand and later read and ponder for as long as he wished. That visit awakened a passion for history and for a really good story that has never left, because the story of the Civil War is a story like no other in American history. I think about the child I used to be when I think about the North Carolina Civil War History Center. To have had, in those days, a place where my passion for history could have been nourished would have caused squeals of delight. Many thousands of youngsters who have that desire to learn about the war and the part our state played in it will be enriched by what the Center offers them. It will be a complex story, comprised of accounts by Union and Confederate soldiers. Stories of Americans who came through the travails of slavery and tried to make lives for themselves after the war. Tales of women on the home front and the challenges they faced. In all, a powerful story that will not only fascinate but also kindle a desire to learn even more. Our fascination with the Civil War will continue. It’s unlikely I’ll be around for the bicentennial in 2061, but the youngsters who get their first encounter with the subject from the Civil War History Center will be. The four-year-old in me envies them.