Photograph by Michael Melford, National Geographic Stock
The war that divided a nation sets feet marching once more.
Ugly history can be honored in pretty places. The cannonballs flying over the tidal marshes and promenades ringing Charleston Harbor 150 years ago this April ushered in the bloody, brutal clash called the American Civil War. This spring both Charleston, South Carolina, home of Fort Sumter, and Washington, D.C., where Lincoln both ruled and rallied the Union, are sounding a reveille that marks the start of a four-year-long series of commemorations unfolding across the country but focused primarily in the states where the fighting occurred. Even Hollywood is getting into the act. Steven Spielberg is directing a Lincoln biopic in time for the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address in 2013. The movie, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Honest Abe, is based on the book Team of Rivals about the president and his bickering Cabinet.
The Civil War needs no cinematic special effects to dramatize its sweep. Americans have participated in 12 major conflicts, including two world wars; but the War Between the States remains the nation’s costliest. Of the some three million Americans who fought, more than 600,000 died. “It truly was the outstanding event in American history insofar as making us what we are,” said Shelby Foote, the late Civil War historian. The Civil War left rifts that have never quite closed, case in point—the ongoing debate over why Southern states seceded from the Union. Some battles between the Blue and Gray are still being fought today—a reason that many of the commemorations are low-key affairs. The scars are evident a century and a half later.
Despite some official ambivalence, over the next four years, ordinary travelers will mobilize, visiting battlefields, monuments, and museums. With hundreds of Civil War sites, Virginia, for example, is angling to attract history and heritage travelers. “We want visitors to experience our stories about the Civil War and Emancipation,” said Alisa Bailey of the Virginia Tourism Corporation, a group tasked with the delicate job of marketing the former Confederate state in a way that both honors Virginia soldiers while acknowledging the mistakes of a slave-owning past. In a strapped economy, the Old Dominion and other states clearly hope for a victory marked by crowded restaurants, hotels, and campgrounds while the invading hordes are touched by the history played out here. Below, a look at events in the war’s first bellicose cities.
Washington, D.C. When President-elect Lincoln arrived in Washington in 1861, the town’s muddy streets and half-built Capitol dome bore no resemblance to the marble-clad metropolis we see today. Despite the transformation, you can still get a sense of the great conflict. Tour Arlington House, home of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee (the mansion’s grounds became Arlington National Cemetery); Cedar Hill, home to the former runaway slave turned abolitionist Frederick Douglass; and Ford’s Theatre, where John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln. (Surratt Boarding House, where Booth and his conspirators plotted the assassination, is now a Chinatown restaurant called Wok & Roll.) As the Union capital, Washington bubbled with intrigue and espionage. Visitors to the International Spy Museum will learn that some of the most skilled were women, including Belle Boyd, the “Cleopatra of the Secession.” Guests can still check in to the opulent Willard InterContinental hotel, as Lincoln did before his first inauguration. (A copy of his bill—for $773.75—is on display in the lobby’s History Gallery.) At the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, “Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life” features artifacts such as the iron wedge he used to split his wood rails and the top hat he wore the night he died. Other exhibits will focus on the war itself; the Smithsonian American Art Museum exhibit “Civil War and American Art” demonstrates how artists such as Frederic Church and Winslow Homer depicted the war. For more, visit washington.org/civil-war/home.
Charleston, South Carolina The city commemorates the anniversary of the war’s opening shots at Fort Sumter National Monument with both hoopla and somber observation on April 12. The National Park Service features tours, living history demonstrations, and programs at the island fortress. Nearby Fort Moultrie tells the war’s story from the Union, Confederate, and African-American perspectives. In town, the Gibbes Museum of Art features 33 paintings by Conrad Wise Chapman depicting wartime Charleston. The very fabric of the conflict is on display at the Charleston Museum in “Threads of War: Clothing and Textiles of the Civil War.” Kids will enjoy the model of the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley outside the building. The real Hunley is in north Charleston at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center. The sub, found in 1995 and raised in 2000, is being restored; tours are available on weekends and select days. Open anytime is The Battery, Charleston’s famed promenade lined with antebellum homes and featuring an expansive view of the harbor. Confederate Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard watched the bombardment of Fort Sumter from the veranda of the Edmondston-Alston House. Today tours take visitors through its lavishly appointed rooms to rediscover the Southern aristocracy the war swept away. Any trip to the Deep South should include a taste of mint julep, such as the one served at the elegant brasserie 39 Rue de Jean. For more, visit www.sccivilwar.org.
For lists of commemorations, see www.civilwar.org/150th-anniversary, run by the Civil War Trust, which also maintains links to many state sites, and the National Park Service’s regularly updated website at www.nps.gov/civilwar.