By EDWARD ROTHSTEIN
March 16, 2011
FORT SUMTER, S.C.
Stand atop the unexcavated mound of earth that covers part of this 19th-century fort and gaze northward over its half-disinterred ruins. Across the harbor, you can just make out the rooftops on which the inhabitants of Charleston stood 150 years ago this April, cheering as the fort — along with its some four score United States soldiers — was bombarded by the troops of the newly formed Confederate States of America. “A thrill went through the whole city,” wrote the aide de camp of the leader of the Confederate forces, Brig. Gen. Pierre Beauregard. “It was felt that the Rubicon was passed.”
It was the beginning of the Civil War. Or, as it is sometimes called here, the War Between the States. Or more provocatively: the War of Northern Aggression.
As commemorations of the war’s sesquicentennial begin this spring, with special exhibitions and symposia adding to the already extensive historical treatments that can be sampled at battlefields and museums reaching from Gettysburg to New Orleans, it might seem that the war’s heritage is relatively simple. As seen from a perch up North, the war’s purpose is morally and politically clear. Slavery’s abolition, like Lincoln’s powerful redefinition of the nation’s principles, set the United States on a path toward equality that it might have never found through antebellum thickets. The Civil War created contemporary America.
But spend some time in Southern museums, and it becomes clear that what seems evident up North is here clouded and contested. And if, in the North, the war seems part of a continuum of history, here it remains a cataclysm. The war was not a continuation of Southern history; it was a break in it. And that is still, for the South, the problem.
Even if Southern commemorations fully celebrate the Union that grew out of that war and readily repudiate slavery and its principles, disorientation is mixed with commemoration. The past is renounced, but not fully. The dead are remembered, but what about their cause? Nearly every war site and exhibition I have seen in the South wrestles with double perspectives and conflicting sentiments alien to the North.
Fort Sumter, for example, is a National Monument overseen by the National Park Service, primarily because of its importance in that inaugural battle. But it also has a different significance here. After defeating the Union soldiers, the Confederates held the fort almost to the end. For the South, Fort Sumter represented not just the start of the war, but one of the last hopes that it might prevail. At least five times during the war, the North tried to take Charleston, but the fort provided decisive protection. Eventually its fortifications and 50-foot-high walls were pounded to rubble. (“A stabilized ruin” is how the Park Service describes its current condition.) Charleston, also in ruins because of Union bombardment, ultimately fell after Gen. William T. Sherman cut a swath of devastation through the South.
This kind of devastation meant the experience of the war was quite different here. Soldiers from Massachusetts and Maine may have died, but the battlefields were far from home. The war really took place in the South. There were 43 major battles within 30 miles of Richmond, Va., the capital of the Confederate States of America. This gave the South a deeper acquaintance with trauma and hardship. New York and Philadelphia were never subjected to a blockade as Charleston was. The Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center tells us:
“In Charleston, where inconveniences soon gave way to chronic difficulties and privations, the war prompted suffering, tenacity, ingenuity and great personal bravery.”
This theme also runs through the Charleston Museum’s treatment of the war in its extensive permanent exhibition about the state’s history. “Indiscriminate shelling of the city,” we read, “was one of the many factors which generated hatred of Northern forces among white Charlestonians.” And at the war’s end, the exhibition notes, General Sherman himself urged anybody who took such things lightly to go to Charleston “and he will pray louder and deeper than ever that the country may in the long future be spared any more war.”
Ramifications were widespread and are still evident. Middleton Place plantation, just northwest of Charleston, is now a national landmark owned by the Middleton Place Foundation. As the plantation’s guide book notes, its gardens reflect “the grace and grandeur of the southern plantation of the 18th and 19th centuries.” Henry, the first Middleton to own the land, was the second president of the First Continental Congress; his son Arthur signed the Declaration of Independence; his grandson Henry was governor of South Carolina. His great-grandson Williams was a signer of South Carolina’s Ordinance of Secession, thus unraveling the work of his ancestors.
But the breaking of Southern history came not just with secession but with defeat — and the end of slavery. As you drive into Middleton Place you follow a long road through the grounds until you reach an enormous oval meadow. You expect to see a grand manor house at the far end, symmetrically framed by oaks draped in Spanish moss. Instead there is just an empty space, a flat foundation on which lie mounds of broken brick.
The house, it turns out, was burned and ransacked by the Union Army in 1865; a major earthquake in 1886 finished the job. So while the trappings of the Old South can be seen in the centuries-old trees and formal gardens, an emptiness lies at the plantation’s center. The effect is all the more pungent because many of the Middleton furnishings and art works were saved from the wreckage or returned by relatives and set out in a small “flanking house” on the side, where the riches of the once powerful clan can now be seen.
It wasn’t only the house that was left in ruins. Without slavery, the antebellum plantation was simply unsustainable, which meant that traditional views about social life, culture and status were also overturned. Surviving plantations ended up being cherished as artificial relics of antebellum culture. In tours, little reference was made to slavery or how the lives of slaves and of masters intertwined. Only during the last 20 years have plantations and historical homes started to devote serious attention to the exploration of the lives and roles of the enslaved.
It is a peculiar Southern twist: some plantations are almost becoming museums about their slave-holding past. This kind of rebellion against remnants of the Old South can be found in other institutions as well. The Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, N.C., for example, established itself in 1991 in direct opposition to the traditions of the Old South. Its exhibitions are about Southern history and culture, but it embraces modernity and egalitarianism and rejects nostalgia and sentimental guilt. Of course, this too is a reflection of cultural trauma: it involves a radical break with traditions, never a simple matter.
But there are also still places in the South where the sting of disastrous defeat and the lure of the Lost Cause stubbornly resist submission or reflection. In Charleston, the small Confederate Museum is run by the Daughters of the Confederacy, just as it was at its founding in 1899. It has an official imprimatur: it holds a long-term lease on one of the most visible city-owned buildings, Market Hall, which stands at the head of Market Street. Inside, you find relics from that Lost Cause, including items donated by Confederate soldiers and their families at the end of the 19th century: clothing, banners, weaponry, curios.
By defining itself so narrowly, the museum indulges in a kind of fetishism. In one display case is a ball — a round bullet — that we are told was removed from the neck of Lt. Col. C. Irvine Walker at the Battle of Atlanta. Another case shows a small silver matchbox and unstruck matches that belonged to Beauregard, who attacked Fort Sumter. There is even a sliver of cedar cut from the tree where Gen. Robert E. Lee’s tent was pitched at the time of his surrender at Appomattox.
There is no discussion of historical causes or effects, no narratives and no interpretation. There doesn’t need to be. These are treated as almost magical objects. A wooden gavel made in 1899 is displayed: its head comes from wood used in the White House of the Confederacy in Richmond, where President Jefferson Davis oversaw the fortunes of the Confederate States of America; the handle comes from the wooden platform on which the gun that fired the first shot at Fort Sumter rested. Can it be doubted what kinds of rulings that gavel was meant to enforce?
That museum is an extreme case: it avoids historical crisis by turning its back on history. Matters are far more responsibly presented at institutions like the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond. That museum has a remarkable collection of objects and manuscripts; it has published research papers and lent objects to other institutions. But like Charleston’s museum, it grew out of personal memorabilia collected by the daughters and wives of Confederate soldiers. How could that heritage not affect the museum’s perspectives?
Its permanent exhibition, “The Confederate Years,” which I saw in 2008, recounts the history of the war’s Southern battles, accompanied by bullet-torn notebooks, weaponry and bloodstained uniforms. For the most part, it is simply history told from a particular geographical perspective. But there are also gnawing hints of unresolved tensions. A full accounting of the war’s causes is never given and the institution of slavery is minimized. Facts bend under pressure.
Lincoln, we read, wanted the war so badly he “succeeded in maneuvering the Confederacy into firing the first shot of the war.” The mobilization of the Confederate Army, we also read, involved the participation of “tens of thousands of African-American laborers” both “enslaved and free”; this is a strange wording implying broad black support, minimizing any hint of coercion and ignoring, too, the fact that nearly four million people — one-third of the South’s population — were then enslaved. But you can also feel hints of internal debates within the museum as differing exhibits express differing perspectives, sending out feelers, trying modifications.
Even after 150 years, this is not easy. At the Charleston Museum, there is a display of the furniture and artifacts associated with the composition of South Carolina’s Ordinance of Secession in 1860. At one time, these objects would have been sanctified, the way another museum might treat, say, Washington’s desk, or Lincoln’s stovepipe hat. And there still is an honorific aura bestowed on this Secessionist paraphernalia. But they occupy a strange middle ground: their status is a bit more historical than sacral. The exhibition never acknowledges Secession to have been a terrible mistake, but it also doesn’t fully embrace the idea of a Lost Cause.
You feel the strain in the museum’s attempt to explain “a Southern Perspective”: “What, many Southerners argued, was the advantage of remaining in a Union which did not protect their rights and interests?” But is this sympathetically posed or analytically asked? At times, the sympathy is apparent: “The story of Charleston in the War Between the States is one of suffering and sacrifice, ingenuity and tenacity, and great personal bravery of Americans in a time of total war.”
Yet the same exhibition is quite frank about other issues. And we learn, too, about the bizarre consequences South Carolina’s legal code could have when a black regiment of Union soldiers was captured. What was to be done with them? “There was no such thing as black soldiers,” a label reads. “Either the men were free blacks leading a slave revolt or they were slaves in rebellion. The penalty in either case was death or re-enslavement.”
As it turned out, when four former slaves among them were brought to trial, the courts ultimately supported the notion that they were to be treated as prisoners of war. But this meant that, even before its defeat, Southern axioms were being shaken.
So it is no surprise that accounts of the war remain quite different in the South and the North. In 2008, an exhibition about Generals Grant and Lee mounted by the Virginia Historical Society was to travel to the New-York Historical Society. But the New-York Historical Society believed the show had too strong a Southern perspective; it had to be reworked.
In 2009, the same two institutions created contrasting exhibitions about the abolitionist John Brown. In New York, he was championed as a hero for his abolitionist beliefs and attempts to oppose slavery. But in Virginia, while his cause was honored, questions were raised about his methods that went unasked in New York, including whether Brown’s raid on an arsenal, his taking of hostages and his murder of innocents made him more similar to contemporary terrorists than to other abolitionists. In New York, the justice of the cause trumped the method; in Virginia, it did not.
So striking are such differences that one museum, the American Civil War Center in Richmond, claims to tell the history of three different ideological parties to the war: the North, the South and the Slaves, or, as they are peculiarly called here, Union, Home and Freedom. The museum even labels maps and charts with the initials, U, H and F. The effect is strange because we can’t quite figure out how to evaluate the arguments. Great effort is made not to give offense to any party.
But is this really helpful? Aren’t there times when moral clarity and the justice of a cause must be identified and upheld? Will a civil war always have to be fought over the meanings of the Civil War? The history of the Civil War in the North is by no means a simple matter, and it too has come under revision, but Southern discomfort with assessing the Southern cause in memorials and exhibitions is rampant. And a tendency to embrace cultural relativism as a compromise ends up making it all seem fairly trivial.
These tendencies become particularly jarring at a place as important as Gettysburg. A recently constructed Gettysburg Museum of the American Civil War offers an encyclopedic survey of the conflict, giving pride of place to Lincoln’s address. In addition, a 360-degree oil painting of the battlefield — a cyclorama — was reconditioned and mounted in its own gallery, offering a stunning panoramic vision of a battle that may have turned the tide of the war.
Gettysburg became important because of the Union victory there and because of Lincoln’s extraordinary tribute. Eventually regimental memorial monuments from Northern states were erected on the battlefield. But after the war, how could a unified nation exclude Southern memorials? Gettysburg had become a national site. So 50 years after the war, Southern states were permitted to erect memorials. The first, raised in 1917 by Virginia, was a triumphalist statue of Robert E. Lee mounted on his horse atop a towering pedestal. The last, which appeared in 1982, honored the veterans of Tennessee.
The result is strange. The defeat of the South here was the turning point of the war: one spot became known as the “high water mark of the Confederacy” because it was the closest Southern forces came to winning and putting the cities of the North at risk. But the Southern memorials do not generally affirm a unified view of a new nation. They insist on their own perspective as if nothing has changed. The South Carolina monument, dedicated in 1963, reads:
That men of honor might forever know the responsibilities of freedom.
Dedicated South Carolinians stood and were counted for their heritage and convictions.
Abiding faith in the sacredness of States Rights provided their creed.
Here many earned eternal glory.
The responsibilities of freedom? The sacredness of States Rights? Eternal glory earned for their creed? Where is the vision Lincoln affirmed, which ultimately triumphed? Gettysburg’s ground was hallowed because of the principles upheld. But such monuments are public declarations that turn the war itself into contested ground. And they don’t even try to comprehend the cause for which the Union dead gave the last full measure of devotion. The war over the War continues.
© 2011 The New York Times Company