Civil War Confidential

Article excerpt

Byline: Malcolm Jones

The last time the United States observed a major anniversary of the Civil War, the centennial celebration in 1961-65, things quickly fell apart. When the Civil War Centennial Commission held a national convention in Charleston, S.C., where the war began with the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861, it denied a black delegate admission to the convention's segregated hotel. And in its official pronouncements and literature, the commission avoided any discussion of slavery, emancipation, or the participation of free African-Americans in the fighting. Such narrow-minded policies doomed the commission almost from the outset.

As the 150th anniversary of the war's beginning approaches, things look more promising. So far, the biggest fights have been about preserving land--keeping a Walmart out of the Wilderness battlefield and a casino away from Gettysburg. As for interpretation, the idea of promoting any particular agenda has given way to a preference for looking more closely at the testimony of people who lived through the conflict. In this regard, the sesquicentennial has already inspired one book that is simply indispensable--the Library of America's The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It, one of four volumes planned.

Beginning in November 1860, with Abraham Lincoln's election, the initial volume in this series re-creates--through diaries, speeches, letters, poems, and newspaper accounts--the thoughts and actions of star players and everyday citizens on both sides of the conflict. Some of this material, such as Lincoln's First Inaugural Address or the diaries of George Templeton Strong and Mary Boykin Chesnut, is familiar. …