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Confederate re-enactors stand on the ramparts of Fort Moultrie are silhouetted in the rising sun to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War on April 12, 2011 in Charleston, South Carolina. (Richard Ellis/Getty Images/Richard Ellis/Getty Images)
Confederate re-enactors stand on the ramparts of Fort Moultrie are silhouetted in the rising sun to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War on April 12, 2011 in Charleston, South Carolina. (Richard Ellis/Getty Images/Richard Ellis/Getty Images)

Konrad Yakabuski

Remembering a war that is still being fought Add to ...

The first cannon shot commemorating the opening salvo of the U.S. Civil War went off at dawn on Tuesday, two hours later than Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard’s men actually fired on Fort Sumter in 1861.

This is about the only historical deviation diehard military re-enactors, in Charleston to mark the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the bloodiest and most controversial conflict ever to take place on U.S. soil, have been willing to concede.

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From the blue Union and grey Confederate uniforms, to the “hoe cakes” on which they feed – not to mention the 19th-century scent they emit from under their heavy garb – authenticity is a re-enactor’s pride and joy.

But not every historical artifact is as simple to reproduce as a musket. The reasons that led the Southern states to secede are as much in dispute today as when America marked the 50th or 100th anniversaries of its “War Between the States.” On this one crucial point, the “indivisible nation” is divided still.

On the ferry to Fort Sumter, the fateful Union garrison located on an island in Charleston Harbor, Toni Tolbert is living proof of that. She is the only black person among the 200 passengers on the boat.

“A lot of African-Americans may not really want to talk about it,” offers the Charleston native, now an emergency room doctor in Florence, S.C. “They think that if they come to a Civil War event in the South that things may be said that are disrespectful.”

The underlying tension is the product of a seemingly irreconcilable difference: For most blacks and Northerners, the war was fought over slavery, period. Southerners, citing the Constitution, are more likely to cite “states’ rights” as the primary reason the country fractured.

“Abraham Lincoln did not understand the Southern mentality,” insists Robert Sonntag, 51, an Orlando, Fla., medical consultant dressed in the Confederate felt coat of the 2nd Florida Volunteer Infantry.

Elected president in 1860, Lincoln did not initially seek to abolish slavery in the South, only to prohibit its extension to new U.S. territories in the West. But fears in the South that Northern abolitionists were fomenting a slave rebellion, like the one that dispossessed French plantation owners decades earlier in Haiti, set the country on an inexorable path to war.

What all Americans seem to agree on, however, is that the more than three million men who fought on both sides were fearless warriors who thought much less about the causes of the war than the consequences of defeat.

“A lot of fellows joined for the sheer adventure,” says Charles Engle, 74, a retired Pennsylvania native and member of the Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War. “It took a battle or two to get the romantic notion of war knocked out of their heads.”

Ms. Tolbert, too, concedes that “the reasons the South seceded and the reasons its soldiers fought are two different things. The soldiers thought their land was being invaded.”

The idea, then, that Confederate soldiers fought nobly for an ignoble cause is not entirely accurate. The first part is true; the second is subjective.

What is indisputable is that the cost was incalculable. About 620,000 soldiers, or 2 per cent of the U.S. population then, had been killed by the time the last shot was fired in June of 1865. Countless more were maimed beyond recognition in some of the most gruesome battles ever recorded.

The re-enactors seek to honour the soldiers from both sides by recreating, as faithfully as possible, the conditions they endured. Unfortunately, they seem to be having too much fun for some.

“Many times, these celebrations have been romanticizing the past, transforming the war from what it was to what they want it to be,” Nelson Rivers, a vice-president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, charged at news conference here on Monday.

Despite the festive ambience and Civil War souvenirs galore – from tin-penny whistles to replica .58-calibre musket bullets – organizers of the Charleston commemorations have sought to underscore the gravity of it all.

“During the next four years, we’re not celebrating anything,” the National Park Service guide leading the tour to Fort Sumter tells ferry passengers. “Treat it as a very solemn event, which it is.”

Aside from the re-enactments, there are serious lectures around Charleston, with historians and Civil War experts from across the country discussing the conflict and its enduring repercussions. The local Gibbes Museum of Art has mounted an engrossing exhibition of Civil War paintings by a Confederate soldier.

For Charleston, once a thriving port city and centre of the transatlantic cotton trade, the 150th anniversary of the war’s outbreak is also a sobering reminder of its antebellum glory days.

“The South’s way of life was destroyed, including most significantly, its immoral economic foundation – slavery,” Tuesday’s lead editorial in Charleston’s Post and Courier said, elevating the attack on Fort Sumter to “the most important episode in our city’s storied history.”

Charlestonians had hoped the first African-American president would attend the commemorations this week, but the White House announced only last Friday that Barack Obama would not be coming.

Speaking in Washington on Tuesday at an event for military families, Mr. Obama did not include any mention of the Civil War sesquicentennial. But late in the day, he issued a written proclamation calling on Americans to “honour the legacy of freedom and unity that the Civil War bestowed upon our nation.”

Talking about the Civil War has always bedevilled American presidents. Mr. Obama’s situation is particular not just because of his race, but also due to the rise of the Tea Party movement since his election.

Tea Partiers champion states’ rights just as much as they advocate a minimalist federal government. Their presence on the political scene has the stirred up the debate over the Civil War’s origins.

Indeed, the country is of a mixed mind. A Pew Research Center poll published on Monday showed that 48 per cent of Americans consider states’ rights to be the “main” cause of the Civil War. Only 38 per cent cite slavery as the principal reason the conflict erupted.

If the visitors to Fort Sumter are any indication, the poll is largely accurate. Though everyone repudiates slavery as a horrendous wrong, most insist the history of the origins of the Civil War are as complicated as the country whose indivisible fate it ultimately decided.

The American flag bearing 33 stars, reflecting the number of states belonging to the union in 1861, will fly at Fort Sumter until Thursday. It will be replaced then with a Confederate banner to mark the 150th anniversary of the fort’s surrender to the Southern forces.

This is just the beginning of four years of (hopefully civil) debate on the war that made America a reflection of its founding principle.

BY NUMBERS

31,200,000: Total population of the United States at start of Civil War

3,164,000: Total number of troops on both sides

620,000: Approximate number who died as a result of the war

412,000: Approximate number injured

$75-billion (U.S.): Estimated total cost of the war, in 2008 dollars

4,000,000: Approximate number of slaves freed as a result of the war

Follow on Twitter: @konradyakabuski

 

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