April 12 marks the 150th anniversary of the Confederate bombardment of federal troops at Fort Sumter, S.C., that marked the start of the Civil War.
Twenty-one states have established official commissions to commemorate the Civil War’s sesquicentennial, including Georgia. The Georgia Historical Society is leading the state’s remembrance efforts. Among them: dedicating a new historical marker that commemorates the burning of Atlanta in 1864.
Earlier this year, Georgia’s Old Capitol Museum in Milledgeville hosted a re-enactment of Georgia’s secession convention. Alabama’s capital, Montgomery — the first capital of the Confederacy — likewise marked the formation of the Confederacy in February with a parade.
Both the placement of the marker at the old Georgia Railroad Freight Depot on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and the parade, which passed the church where King served as minister while leading the Montgomery bus boycott, have drawn objections from NAACP.
Given controversy over the role of slavery in the conflict and other aspects of the war, what kind of commemoration is proper? We asked several Georgians to weigh in on the question of how and why we should mark this milestone.
publisher, Atlanta Daily World
As an African-American and native Georgian, I think it is very important to mark the 150th anniversary of the U.S. Civil War. While the war tore the Union apart, it led to the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed my forbearers from their enslavement. For this I am eternally grateful. Even though this freedom was curtailed after the war by the cruel Jim Crow laws of the South, I have lived to see those barriers come down. And most remarkably, I have lived to see the United States elect a black man as president of the nation.
James C. Cobb
Spalding distinguished professor of history, University of Georgia
The increasingly cosmopolitan quality of this state’s population is precisely the reason why Georgia should pay more rather than less attention to the meaning of the Civil War sesquicentennial, for denying its past is tantamount to denying what in this case is an identity already grown diluted and vague. The Civil War in Georgia is a classic example of black and white Southerners experiencing a common past quite differently. By the time the actual fighting reached Georgia, the sorely diminished prospects of the Confederacy signaled an impending reversal of fortunes for both blacks and whites.
project coordinator with the Milledgeville Convention & Visitors Bureau
History in itself will always be controversial, and we can’t shy away from it because it might make someone uncomfortable. Despite whether or not you agree with the Civil War or why it was fought, it still happened, and it is an integral part of our history and had a lasting impact even on our government today. Any country’s history is filled with right and wrong decisions that molded and shaped the entity it is today. Our city is simply recognizing that an impactful and pivotal event took place in the very buildings and streets that still exist. Milledgeville played a role in the secession and Civil War that no other city in Georgia can claim, and we feel the need to commemorate those events.
senior military historian and curator at the Atlanta History Center
The most important way we can address the Civil War is to look at it honestly and from all viewpoints. Yes, the Civil War was about battles and generals and guns and glory. But it is much more than that — it is about liberty and human dignity and values that define us as a nation, whether you are native-born or not. If public historical institutions can get our audiences to understand the war from this larger viewpoint, to understand that its history is not boring, but in fact relevant to the present in many ways, then we will have achieved our goal. Hackneyed though this expression may be, it is quite literally true that you can’t see where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been.
author, “Atlanta Will Fall: Sherman, Joe Johnston and the Yankee Heavy Battalions”
The sesquicentennial gives us an opportunity to reflect on what the Civil War was all about: freedom. [Historian] James McPherson said it best: “Both sides in the American Civil War professed to be fighting for freedom.” The problem was that the two sides defined freedom in different ways. For the South, the war was about a people’s right to live as they wished, without interference from the federal government in their way of life (meaning slavery). In this way, Southerners believed their fight was an echo of the original American Revolution. For the North, the war was about the Union: preserving the national compact forged from the Revolution, a government guaranteeing hallowed liberties. Finally, although it didn’t start out that way, the war was about freedom for millions of African-American slaves.
president and CEO, United Negro College Fund
I certainly don’t have any issues with recognizing the sesquicentennial. The Civil War was an event that all African-Americans have an interest in. I’m glad it was fought. I’m glad the right side won. I’m not interested in retelling the narrative of the Southern “lost cause.” I think that as a Southerner, with deep roots in the South and in Georgia, it is important to tell the story of how African-Americans of that time were liberated. I just want everyone to celebrate and remember that the South was freed from the shackles of slavery. Marking the sesquicentennial is a celebration for the South. The firing on Fort Sumter on April 12th was the day of the beginning of the end for slavery in the South. The war enabled us to live the lives that we would earn, for ourselves — through hard work.
U.S. Rep. John Lewis
an Atlanta Democrat
The Civil War is a part of American history. We must not sweep it into some dark corner, but we must look at the complete record of the war in the light of day. We may not like what happened and how it happened, but it is a part of who we are as an American people. Looking back is necessary because it reminds us of the facts and gives us the opportunity to learn the valuable lessons that history has for us. Some of those lessons are hard and difficult, but that does not mean they should be avoided. We need to teach the whole story of the Civil War, not just a part of it, so that we understand all sides of the conflict, both the good and the bad. And each time we open up and confront the truth of our history, we have an opportunity to heal the wounds of the past. That is one of the guiding principles of healing and reconciliation.