COLUMBIA, S.C. — Starting Monday, South Carolina will commemorate the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War with a series of events that underscore the state's central role in that titanic, tragic struggle.
It will be a delicate task.
Two of the first events scheduled to mark the anniversary — a privately sponsored secession ball Monday in Charleston and an effort to display the original Ordinance of Secession — show just how divisive the Civil War remains.
The ball, organized by the Confederate Heritage Trust and sponsored by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, has been criticized as a celebration of treason and slavery.
“There does appear to be an effort to make this a festive occasion,” said Lonnie Randolph, president of the NAACP’s South Carolina Conference, which plans to protest the ball. “It’s more about celebration than history.”
At a subsequent press conference, Randolph was even more critical, saying, "We are not opposed to observances. We are opposed to disrespect. This is nothing more than a celebration of slavery."
The gala’s website says the president of the South Carolina Senate, avid Civil War re-enactor Glenn McConnell, plans to attend.
Mark Simpson, the South Carolina division commander for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said his organization condemns slavery and respects the NAACP’s right to protest.
“We could look back and say (the Civil War) wasn’t something to celebrate – about 620,000 died in the North and South,” Simpson said. “If you count civilians, you’re up to about a million killed in that war.
“Do we celebrate that? Heavens no,” he said. “War and death is never something to celebrate. But we do celebrate the courage and the integrity of 170 men who signed their signatures to the Article of Secession – the courage of men to do what they think is right.”
Eric Emerson, the director of of the state Department of Archives and History, said the state advisory board, which he chairs, does not endorse or criticize events or the groups that organize them. He said about $30,000 remains of the $65,000 the state legislature approved for the celebration remains.
He learned first-hand how divisive the war remains when he sought to have the Ordinance of Secession displayed.
First, he said he tried to have the document displayed at First Baptist Church in Columbia, where it was drafted on Dec. 17, 1860. But the church mdash; whose website notes secessionists met there by order of the S.C. Legislature, “not by invitation of the church” — had no interest in displaying the document, Emerson said.
Emerson said he then thought it would be appropriate to have the ordinance displayed at the State House. But he got the impression that it would be unwelcome there, too.
“No one ever said, ‘No, you can’t do this,’” Emerson said. “It was just inferred. I can understand that. Everyone’s walking on eggshells. No one can afford to anger any constituency right now.”
And so the document will be on display at the Archives and History building on Parklane Road.
The new year will bring in a series of events in Charleston, including re-enactments, historical readings, programs detailing how the war impacted children and women, music programs and period militia drilling.
Many of the events will be held at Fort Moultrie, Fort Sumter and at Liberty Square in Charleston.
Rick Hatcher, a National Parks Service historian based at Fort Sumter, said the war was the genesis for expanding American life – giving the country the medal of honor, Memorial Day, national cemeteries, the date when Thanksgiving is held, and an understanding of and respect for the contribution of black soldiers.
“It really changed the nation and put us on the path to where we are today,” Hatcher said.
That fact still won’t make marking the war’s start any easier.
In 1961, the 100th anniversary of the war’s start, South Carolina also looked back to the war. With the civil rights movement in full swing – and with many white Southerners angry – commemorations then were not an inclusive. Instead, there was nostalgia for what was.
Mike Allen, a Parks Service ranger, said he will be working hard to ensure that events that mark the 150th anniversary won’t be a repeat of 1961.
Allen, who is African-American, serves on the state advisory board. He says he has worked to make sure his colleagues have an appreciation for how black South Carolinians might feel about 150th anniversary events. He said he wants to get black South Carolinians involved to ease any concerns they might have that the events will gloss over the horrors of slavery in a rush to lionize secessionists.
“The history is the history,” Allen said. “The events are the events. The burden is not on the National Parks Service, the National Trust for Historic Preservation or even the Sons of Confederate Veterans to tell the story. It’s all of our jobs. We all have a piece of this.”
The South Carolina Department of Archives and History lists events to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War at this website.
Monday — Institute Hall. Unveiling of a S.C. historical marker at the site of Institute Hall, where — 150 years ago — South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union. 11:15 a.m., 134 Meeting St., Charleston.
Monday — Secession ball and play, starting at 6 p.m. at Charleston’s Gailliard Municipal Auditorium. Sponsored by the Confederate Heritage Trust and Sons of Confederate Veterans. $100 a person includes dinner.
Jan. 8 — Firing on the Star of the West. About 20 faculty and staff from The Citadel will re-enact the 150th anniversary of what many consider the first hostile shots of the Civil War, when Citadel cadets on Morris Island fired on the steamship Star of the West, seeking to resupply Union troops at Fort Sumter.