Money challenges face somber Civil War anniversary
by Bruce Smith
Jan. 8, 2009 — The upcoming 150th anniversary of the Civil War, unlike the commemorations of a half-century ago, will be marked with a broader, more reverent recounting of the bloody struggle that wrenched a nation.
But money for sesquicentennial events may be tough to find in a troubled economy and an era of political correctness, some planners said.
"This is not a celebration. There is nothing to celebrate when 700,000 Americans die. This will be a commemoration, and everything will be done in a very formal and reverent way," said James Robertson Jr., director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies who headed the federal Civil War centennial commission.
Before the centennial, America felt better about itself, he recalled.
"We were connecting the nation with interstate highways it was just a good time to celebrate a critical moment in American history," said Robertson, a history professor at Virginia Tech who is on Virginia's sesquicentennial commission.
Legislation to create a federal sesquicentennial commission has languished in Congress for years so states and local groups will take the lead.
Groups in South Carolina, where the war began, envision re-enactments of the bombardment of Fort Sumter and the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation to freed sea island slaves.
There is talk of recreating the battle of Battery Wagner on Morris Island, where the famed black 54th Massachusetts fought in a fight chronicled in the movie "Glory."
But money will be a challenge.
"Certainly for the next couple of years there's not going to be any state funds available to help with anything," said Rodger Stroup, the director of the South Carolina Department of Archives and History.
The 150th anniversary of the signing of the Ordinance of Secession is next year—an event which prompted Charlestonian James L. Petigru to famously quip the state was "too small to be a republic and too large to be an insane asylum."
The 150th anniversary of the bombardment of Sumter is little more than two years off.
South Carolina has a sesquicentennial committee, but only one of six political appointees has been appointed and lawmakers didn't provide any money. The cost of recreating a bombardment is estimated at more than $70,000, said Bob Dodson, superintendent of the Fort Sumter National Monument.
"It's going to be a challenge, and we have only a couple of years. Charleston is where the war started. Hopefully things will improve," he said.
Staging a conference with international Civil War scholars could cost $50,000, said Eric Emerson, executive director of the Charleston Library Society, who chairs the Charleston area sesquicentennial committee.
"I just don't know how much public money there will be if there is any public money," he said. "And with this economy, private foundations are hurting as well."
Cities in northwest Georgia, southeast Tennessee, and northeast Alabama are working together.
"Funding is tight for things like this. Our plan is to band together instead of everyone out there on their own," said John Culpepper, chairman of the Georgia Civil War Commission and city manager for Chickamauga, one of the largest battle sites in Georgia.
Other factors also enter the equation, Stroup said.
"One of the problems we find is that the Civil War—in terms of raising funds from corporations and depending on what you really want to do—is politically incorrect," he said.
"There are many who will tell you this is not true, but it really was a war to continue slavery," he said. "Not only do we have the Ordinance of Secession here at the state archives, we have what's called the Declaration of Causes. It clearly states one of the primary concerns was that the federal government would eliminate slavery."
Virginia is well ahead of other Southern states in its planning. It established a sesquicentennial commission several years ago, and state lawmakers have provided $4 million to date for efforts which include promotion, a museum exhibit traveling the state, and a mobile exhibit to travel the nation.
Most planners agree the commemoration should center on all aspects of the conflict, not just military campaigns as was generally the case during the centennial.
"Because Virginia was a slave-holding state, because Virginia was the seat of the Confederate government, because armies marched over and fought over the Virginia landscape for four years, Virginia is in a position to tell all of those stories," said Richard Lewis, a spokesman for the state's sesquicentennial commission.
"The story of the Civil War is a fabric woven of many threads. If you pull any of those threads out because you don't want them to be there, you are putting a hole in the fabric," he added.
Robertson sees a more subdued, reflective event than those of 50 years ago.
People, he said, are interested in social history and "what we attained from that war, what we learned from it, and where we can go from it."
During the centennial, souvenir makers flooded the market with Civil War kitsch, he recalled.
"You could buy the Confederate flag on women's lingerie," he said. "Today that would seem absurd. It shows you the way the mind-set has changed."