“The Dead of the Civil War Remembered: 150 Years Later”

On Sunday, April 19th, at 3pm, a brief but solemn service was held in Hampton Park, Charleston SC. A small crowd gathered in the park to honor the memory of all who died in the American Civil War, both Union and Confederate, black and white, enslaved and free, men, women, and children. After the Citadel Chamber Choir led the attendees in the singing of “God Bless America,” Lieutenant Colonel Joel Harris, Chaplain to the Corps of Cadets at the Citadel, began the service with an invocation. Then historian David Blight, the Class of 1954 Professor of History at Yale University, spoke to the audience about the historical significance of Hampton Park. He described what may have been America’s first Memorial Days, May 1, 1865—a ceremony at which African-American citizens of Charleston reinterred more than 200 Union prisoners-of-war previously buried in a mass-grave at the site. The day consisted of a parade, which included African-American troops of the 54th Massachusetts, the construction of a monument to the dead, sermons and readings from Scripture, and feasting and games. Blight thought it well that almost 150 years later we were gathered in that same space to honor and commemorate the dead of the Civil War. Following a singing of “America the Beautiful,” led by the Choir, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, pastor of Emanuel A.M.E. in Charleston, gave a homily. He read from the nineteenth chapter of Second Samuel, in which King David mourns the death of Absalom, the son who rebelled against him. Pinckney urged the audience not only to remember the ultimate sacrifice of so many but also to honor their sacrifice by continuing to work for the ideals presented by Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address. The Choir then led the attendees in the singing of the “Navy-hymn” “Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” and this was followed by a moment of silence, so that all could in their own way ponder and pray over all those who gave their lives in the war. A member of the Choir then played “Taps” as the audience continued to think and reflect. Rev. Harris brought the service to a close with a final prayer that reflected the solemn and conciliatory tone of the ceremony.

We would like to express our thanks to all who came out to join in the commemoration of the end of America’s bloodiest war and the honoring of all who paid the ultimate price in that terrible time of our national history.

Lessons on the Sesquicentennial

Last weekend, the sesquicentennial commemoration of the end of the American Civil War continued with “A Just and Lasting Peace Amongst Ourselves”?: Lessons on the 150th Anniversary of the End of the American Civil War. Held in the historic Dock Street Theater in Charleston, South Carolina on April 18th, the event consisted of two panel discussions that featured a number of respected scholars and fostered some interesting discussions.

The 10:00 am session was focused on the impact of the Civil War on American history, which its three panelists discussed at length. The first to speak was Annette Gordon-Reed, the Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History at the Harvard School of Law, Professor of History in the History Department, and Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute. In her remarks she noted the importance of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, and how these amendments sought to achieve the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. After her came Eric Foner, the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University. Professor Foner spoke about Reconstruction as an inseparable part of Civil War history, and he pointed out that such concerns as black equality are still with us today. Last to speak in the first panel was Emory Thomas, Regents Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Georgia. Thomas focused on the Confederate experience and the different meanings the war had for southerners, and he illustrated the viewpoints using Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Late Encounter with the Enemy.” After the remarks, audience members were invited to ask questions and create discussion. The panelists fielded such questions as what Lincoln’s Reconstruction might have looked like and the importance of the Dred Scott case leading up to the Civil War before the panel concluded at noon.

At 1:30 the second session was held, this one focusing on public memory of the Civil War, particularly as it related to South Carolina. David Blight, The Class of 1954 Professor of History and Director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University, spoke first. His talk was concerned with the Civil War’s end and the war’s legacies that remain with us today, and he noted several examples such as the use of passages from the Confederate Constitution on some Tea Party websites. Blight was followed by Thomas Brown, Professor of History at the University of South Carolina. In his remarks Brown discussed some of the histories of Confederate memory in South Carolina, using case studies like the changing memory of the H.L. Hunley. The final panelists were Ethan Kytle and Blain Roberts, both Associate Professors of History at California State University, Fresno. Kytle and Roberts have collaborated in the study of memory in Charleston, SC, and thus they presented jointly on that topic. Kytle discussed the history of the John C. Calhoun monument that stands in Marion Square along with its conflicted history, while Roberts talked about the Denmark Vesey monument in Hampton Park as well as the effort to have it constructed and how it commemorates ideals very far from those of the Calhoun monument. As with the first session, this panel was concluded by questions from those in attendance. Audience members asked about the numbers of Civil War commemoration sites as well as whether or not the Calhoun monument should remain standing. To the latter question the panelists pointed out that such actions tend to draw enormous controversy and that the monument is an important piece of evidence for studying memory.

Thanks to the panelists and the many people who attended, the event proved to be an interesting and thought-provoking commemoration of America’s Civil War.

“Now He Belongs to the Ages”

150 years ago this morning, as the Civil War was drawing to a close, America suffered one of its greatest national tragedies. In the early hours of April 15th, 1865, Abraham Lincoln died in the Petersen House across the street from Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC. The night before, while viewing Our American Cousin from his box seat, Lincoln was shot in the head by John Wilkes Booth. The president was taken to the red-brick townhome of William A. Petersen, a German tailor, where he spent his final hours before passing away in the early morning of the 15th.

Mourning of Lincoln’s death began almost immediately. In Milwaukee, for instance, the mayor proclaimed “that all the dwellings and business places of our City forthwith be clad in mourning, as a token of the deep and common sorrow that prevails; and that the people, abstaining from all excitement improper for such solemn occasion, postpone their ordinary business duties to-day, and that in all the Churches to-morrow such services be performed as will duly express the great and general grief.” In Buffalo, NY, it was reported that once the news had spread, “from the dwelling of the humblest colored family to the mansion of the most opulent citizen, fluttered the half-mast flag, and there were few localities where some manifestations of sorrow were not apparent.” As the Civil War drew to its end, grief over the loss of Lincoln cut across racial lines. Martin R. Delaney, a high-ranking black officer in the United States Colored Troops, wrote a letter to the Anglo-African paper in New York. He described Lincoln’s assassination as “a calamity such as the world never before witnessed” and he recommended that a massive monument be built, one that would be made possible by the contributions of all black people in the United States. For blacks across the North and South, the untimely death of Lincoln, the President whom Delaney described as “the Father of American Liberty,” was deeply saddening.

When Lincoln passed away that April morning, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton reportedly remarked, “Now he belongs to the ages.” Indeed, Lincoln entered history as one of America’s greatest presidents, with the memorial in Washington D.C. serving as just one reminder of his tireless work for the Union. Now, 150 years after his death, his legacy remains as we work to honor his pledge that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Anderson Raises the Stars and Stripes over Fort Sumter

150 years ago today, Charleston harbor found itself abuzz with activity. On April 14th 1865, four years to the day after Major Robert Anderson surrendered Fort Sumter to Confederate forces, a ceremony was held to celebrate the fort’s recapture and the coming end of the Civil War. Writing for the April 18th issue, a correspondent for the New York Daily Tribune noted how the whole morning of the 14th saw many steamers traveling to the fort. Included among these steamers was the Planter, piloted by Robert Smalls, a former slave who had commandeered the ship and escaped to the Union blockade and to freedom in 1862. The correspondent wrote that the ships were “all crowded with passengers—the Planter being black with the colored population of Charleston.” At the fort, he writes that “detachments of marines and sailors from the different vessels under command of Lieut. Commander Williams, survivors of the assault on Sumter, together with the 127th New York and 35th Massachusetts were drawn up in line on either side, and presented a fine appearance. These men had all distinguished themselves in the naval and military operations against Sumter, and were consequently assigned to a position of honor in the programme of the day.” While most of the spectators were visitors from the North, there were several hundred of the citizens of Charleston, including the black citizens who came on the Planter. After songs and prayers, Major Anderson was presented with the flag that he had hauled down four years before. After a short address, Anderson hoisted the flag to the top of the flagpole amid loud cheers. “The Star-Spangled Banner” was sung, and followed by a salute from Fort Sumter’s guns and guns from the forts around the harbor. In these moments, the ceremony announced the end of the war at the same place in which it had begun four years earlier.

After the salute, the abolitionist Rev. Henry Ward Beecher stepped forward to give an oration. In his speech he proclaimed that “on this solemn and joyful day, we again lift to the breeze our fathers’ flag, now again the banner of the United States, with the fervent prayer that God would crown it with honor, protect it from treason, and send it down to our children, with all the blessings of civilization, liberty, and religion.” He spoke at length about secession, the horrors of war, and the system of slavery which in his mind caused both of them. Nonetheless, he concluded on a more conciliatory note by invoking peace on the North, the West, and the South, and by declaring that “in the name of God, we lift up our banner, and dedicate it to Peace, Union, and Liberty, now and forevermore.” In his oration, Beecher also offered his congratulations that God had sustained President Lincoln through the burdens and sufferings of those four years. Tragically, on the very same day as the flag-raising ceremony, Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth in Ford’s Theater. Thus he would not live to lead the nation in the arriving period of reunion and reconstruction.

Lee Raises the White Flag!

“The contrast between the two commanders was striking, and it could not fail to attract marked attention they sat ten feet apart facing each other.” So wrote General Horace Porter when he recalled the moment 150 years ago today when General Ulysses S. Grant and General Robert E. Lee faced each other inside the McLean house at Appomattox. Grant’s army had pursued Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia since the fall of Petersburg and Richmond at the beginning of April 1865. Soon Lee found his army surrounded, and thus he consented to Grant’s demand for surrender. On April 9th, at the Appomattox Court House, the two adversaries met and the terms of Lee’s surrender were laid out. Grant, in a magnanimous gesture, was generous in his demands of Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, allowing the officers the dignity of keeping their swords. With this meeting the Civil War was brought much closer to its end.

News of Lee’s surrender was sent to Washington, and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton sent Grant a message of congratulations which read: “Thanks be to Almighty God for the great victory with which He has this day crowned you and the gallant army under your command. The thanks of this Department, and the Government of the U. States, their reverence and honor have been deserved, and will be rendered to you and the brave and gallant officers and soldiers of your army, for all time.” Stanton further ordered a two hundred-gun salute to be fired in every post and headquarters in commemoration of the surrender. Word quickly spread, and celebrations broke out throughout the Union.

Among the white citizens of the Confederacy, the reaction to the surrender was one of sadness and disappointment. As Mary Chesnut recorded in her diary, “Just now Mr. Clay dashed up the stairs, pale as a sheet. ‘General Lee has capitulated.’ I saw the news reflected in Mary Darby’s face before I heard him. She staggered to the table, sat down, and wept aloud. Mr. Clay’s eyes were not dry.” Many Southerners tried to console themselves with the notion that Lee had been overwhelmed by numbers, rather than conquered, and that he commanded Grant’s immense respect. Black southerners, especially former slaves, rejoiced at the victory, knowing that the promise of freedom would come to pass. Fanny Berry, a former slave, remembers that when slaves in Pamplin, Virginia learned of Lee’s surrender, they burst into spontaneous song, for they at that moment “knew dat dey were free.” For people like Berry, that moment 150 years ago carried a deep significance.