New perspectives mark Civil War anniversary

jprice@newsobserver.comJanuary 3, 2012 

  • Second Mondays of February, May, August and November at State Archives and History Building, 109 E. Jones St., members of the state archives staff will offer lectures on various Civil War-related topics.

    March 10-11: 150th anniversary of the Battle of New Bern, Tryon Palace Historic Site and Gardens, 610 Pollock St., New Bern.

    March 17-18: Living history program commemorating the 147th anniversary of the Battle of Bentonville, Bentonville Battlefield State Historic Site, Four Oaks. Activities include infantry and artillery displays, a medical demonstration and night hospital program.

    May 5: Living history program, state Capitol, Raleigh. Event will include a free concert by the 26th N.C. Band, infantry drills, historical recruitment speeches and medical demonstrations.

    May 12-13: Living history program at Bentonville Battlefield recreating an enlistment station to show how young civilians were recruited and processed.

    For more on the state's sesquicentennial commemoration, including stories, additional events and sites, go to the official website at nccivilwar150.com.

    For more on the symposium in New Bern: newbernhistorical.org/sesqui-centennial-symposium.

    For information on the symposium on Hatteras Island: flagsoverhatteras.com.

    For more on the North Carolina War Between the StatesSesquicentennial Commission: ncwbts150.com/NorthCarolinaSesquicentennialCommission.php

— North Carolina has begun the sesquicentennial of perhaps its most important year in the Civil War, when Union troops staged amphibious attacks and seized crucial swaths of coastal territory they would occupy for much of the war.

And, 150 years later, another battle is under way over how to remember the anniversary.

A more inclusive, diverse viewpoint looks to be winning the fight over how to view that period of American history: At state historic sites, the state history museum and dozens of commemorative events, it's no longer solely about the Blue and the Gray. It's also the black, the white, the slaves, the civilians, the men, women and children. Even the long-reviled Union sympathizers get a voice.

The war being examined via re-enactments, living history programs, displays and symposia is much different from the one celebrated 50 or 100 years ago, said Mike Hill, supervisor of the Research Branch of the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources and co-chairman of a state Office of Archives and History committee charged with planning the sesquicentennial commemoration.

For one thing, it won't be a celebration this time. No festive full-dress, "Gone with the Wind"-style costume ball like the one held 50 years ago in Raleigh.

It would seem profane, after all, to celebrate an event that killed more than 600,000 Americans, said the other committee co-chairman, Keith Hardison, director of the Division of State Historic Sites and Properties.

This more inclusive approach to the history of the war is part of a shift among historians who are interested in looking beyond the long-dominant perspective of white men, Hardison said. Still, those with more traditional views aren't fading away quietly. A group that has ties to the Sons of Confederate Veterans and a Southern separatist organization is running "The Official Website of the North Carolina War Between The States Sesquicentennial Commission."

The site features material focused mainly on the war and politics surrounding it and makes heavy use of diaries, letters and other personal accounts of the time. It is firmly sympathetic to the Confederate cause.

Bernhard Thuersam, a home designer and amateur historian in Wilmington who heads the commission, started it in reaction to the state's elaborate website which, he said, leans too much on revisionist thinking.

The goal, he said, was to focus intensely on the war through the eyes of the people who lived it.

"This is the North Carolina view of the war and the time shortly thereafter, and not the view from 150 years later," he said.

Given the links to the Sons of the Confederate Veterans' group, the bias toward the troops in gray shouldn't be a surprise, said Thomas Smith Jr. of Raleigh, the commission's vice chairman and commander of the state division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

"We (the Sons) have been in existence since 1896 and have always taken on the responsibility of doing the interpreting for our side, so nothing has really changed," Smith said.

The state historians said they wanted to tell the stories of the war from the perspective of everyone involved, not just those who held positions of power and wrote history their way. Their committee was intentionally diverse in race and gender to help ensure the results would be inclusive, Hardison said.

Thuersam's nine-member commission, though, is all male, as is its four-member academic board. Thuersam said he didn't know if they were all white because he had never asked.

"If Archives and History is focused on diversity rather than history, they're not focused on excellence, and I don't think that's a good use of my tax money," he said. "They're sort of slaves themselves to bureaucracy and politics, and I can tell you we resonate with people who are suspicious of anything that issues from government, particularly history."

Beyond usual views

Over the full four years of the Civil War sesquicentennial, which began last year, more than 200 events have been planned at state historic sites and dozens more elsewhere, Hardison said. And people who attend the symposia and visit sites during the commemoration will hear about the war and the history around it from perspectives that include, but also go well beyond, the traditional views of the war.

The battle of Bentonville in March 1865, for example, was indeed fought by 60,000 Union troops and 20,000 Confederate soldiers, making it the largest battle ever fought in North Carolina. But various aspects of what happened can be told through a host of perspectives: the soldiers of each side as well as civilians - black, white, male and female.

"Inclusive means including all the players," Hardison said. "You really aren't able to tell something unless you are able to reflect the experiences of all the players, and that's what we're working towards."

Among the parts of Eastern North Carolina that were invaded and occupied in 1862 were New Bern, Washington, Roanoke Island and Elizabeth City. A Union fleet called Beaufort home. The Union general who led the monthslong series of attacks was Ambrose Burnside, whose name and unusual, luxuriant facial hair led to the term "sideburns."

The sesquicentennial events of the occupation will be marked by, among other events, a symposium at Tryon Palace in New Bern this spring examining various aspects of the war and the lengthy stay by Union forces. Among other aspects of the occupation, the discussion will probe the phenomenon of slaves who fled from surrounding areas to the Union-controlled city and signed up to fight.

Also getting attention during the state-planned commemoration of the war are pockets of Union sympathizers, mainly in the western mountains.

Thuersam said his organization plans to deal with the topic of slaves turned Union soldiers on its website, too, but it will be tricky, because they were committing treason against the legal government of the state and killing North Carolinians.

Planning on a budget

The anniversary of the Bentonville battle, which will include extensive re-enactments, is expected to be part of the culmination of commemorative events in the state in 2015. Even in ordinary years, re-enactments at the hallowed battlefield in Johnston County have drawn tens of thousands of observers and participants.

Tight state budgets also have shaped commemorations of the war this time. Jeffrey Crow, deputy secretary in the state office of archives and history, created an internal staff committee to plan the commemoration, and directed that the official state effort be done without additional money or staff, Hill said.

The official state centennial commission 50 years ago, by contrast, had a budget, a hired director and several staff members.

Still, the state has been able to create an elaborate website for the sesquicentennial, is pulling many documents about the war from its archives and putting them online, and even has a blog focused on women in the Civil War that's getting international attention.

Broadly, the state's plans for its activities and programs are to examine not just the war itself, but secession, life for civilians during war time, slavery and the lives of slaves, and what happened to the state after the war.

The programs and events are designed to offer something appealing to practically anyone, including traditional Civil War buffs, and people of all ages, races and genders, Hardison said, and nearly all of it at no cost.

"Our goal is really, I guess, to just reinvest people in their own history," he said.

Price: 919-829-4526

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