After 150 Years, the Civil War Still Divides the United States

Article excerpt

As the country prepares to commemorate the great schism, the echoes of the bloody conflict still reverberate through its politics and culture Out of America

'A joyous night of music, dancing, food and drink" is probably not how most people would choose to mark an event setting the stage for a conflict that lasted four years, cost 620,000 lives, and ended in annihilating defeat.

But when it comes to the American Civil War, South Carolina is not ordinary. It was the state where passions ran highest then, and where the flame of the "Lost Cause" is most tenderly nourished now. The war was made inevitable by an act of defiance by South Carolina. How fitting, indeed how inevitable, that the 150th anniversary commemorations of the most traumatic and divisive event in the country's history should begin in similar vein, in the same state, tomorrow.

Whatever else the "Secession Ball" (tickets $100 apiece) at the handsome Gaillard Auditorium in downtown Charleston will be a colourful occasion. The programme kicks off with a 45-minute play re- enacting the signature of the Ordinance of Secession on 20 December 1860, by 170 delegates to a special convention set up by the South Carolina legislature as soon as news arrived of Abraham Lincoln's election victory on 6 November that year.

Then the party gets going in earnest. The guests, sipping champagne and mint juleps, will mostly be dressed in period clothes. The band will play "Dixie". The gentlemen will bow and the ladies curtsy as they step forward for the Virginia Reel, just like Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind.

And perhaps the mood really was as festive, on that fateful evening a century and a half ago, with little suspicion of the bloodletting and savagery ahead that would destroy the Old South and its way of life for ever.

Within six weeks, the four other Deep South states, as well as Florida and Texas, had followed South Carolina out of the Union. Within three and a half months, Confederate guns had fired the first shots of the Civil War on the federal garrison at Fort Sumter in Charleston harbour.

What Lincoln called the "Mighty Scourge" was under way. The conflict would not end until 9 April 1865, with Robert E Lee's surrender at Appomattox court house in rural Virginia. In many respects the Civil War was the first war of the industrial era, fought with mass-produced weapons, whose battles prefigured the mass slaughter of the First World War just 50 years later.

It was also a war that aroused extraordinary passions. The fighting was mostly done by volunteers; yet by the time it was finally done, more than three and a half million Americans had been under arms - at a time when the total population was only 31 million (including more than three million slaves), a tenth of the figure today. The Civil War took as many lives as all America's other wars combined - from Lexington and Concord in 1775 against the British redcoats, to present-day Iraq and Afghanistan. And even now those passions have not subsided.

Mark Twain's observation in the South - "The war is what AD is like elsewhere; they date from it" - is an exaggeration. But it contains a kernel of truth. Argument still persists over what the Civil War was about. In the South's collective folk memory - nurtured by organisations such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which is sponsoring the Secession Ball - it was a struggle for "states' rights"; a war of self-defence against a domineering North, a gallant struggle in which the agrarian Athens of Dixie was ultimately defeated by a brutal Roman North, but only because of the latter's overwhelming advantages in population, industry and weapons.

To which, of course, most neutral historians, as well as every African-American, would respond that the Confederacy was fighting for just one single right: that of enslaving its fellow men. …