Fort Sumter marked the start of the Civil War, with Confederates
shelling it on April 12, 1861. Today, the cannon rolls still
reverberate in a country that remains at peace, but torn by
On the morning of April 12, 1861, Charlestonians huddled on
rooftops, listening to the man-made thunder directed at the federal
outpost at Fort Sumter - the first blows of the Civil War.
Since the inauguration of President Lincoln, who had vowed to end
the western expansion of slavery while somehow preserving the union,
tensions had been gaining strength - fueled by the abolitionist
movement, slavery-related skirmishes in the western territories, and
the Second Great Awakening (a religious revival movement). As a
result of Fort Sumter, these pressures spilled over into a great
national convulsion: The undermanned, undersupplied South carried
out secession on the ground, and Lincoln, bolstered by a direct
attack on federal troops, mustered forces to stop it.
While South Carolina politicians vowed that no more than a
thimble of blood would be spilled at Fort Sumter - an accurate
description, actually, as no one was hurt from the fusillade - the
war dragged on for four years almost to the day. It left more than
620,000 Americans dead, the South in tatters, and the nation at a
moment of rebirth.
As modern-day Charlestonians - some dressed in Civil War garb,
most in street clothes - solemnly celebrated the moment Tuesday with
predawn music and the firing of cannon blanks, the country retains
an uneasy peace, 150 years to the moment. Some Americans contend the
war is still being fought. California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) said
Monday the nation is facing a "regime crisis" and a "point of civil
discord" of a magnitude not seen since before the Civil War.
But even putting political hyperbole aside, the Civil War does
still very much inform the American experience. The emancipation of
blacks is not quite resolved and the disagreements between Jefferson
Davis and Abraham Lincoln throw their long shadows across issues
like health-care reform and entitlements. Moreover, the tea party,
promoting small government, has risen to challenge the post-Civil
War view of government as a superior, benevolent force of good.
After the Civil War, "the older Jeffersonian tradition was
suppressed by the new Lincolnian vision of a unitary nationalist
regime, and it was never able to digest the Jeffersonian tradition,"
says Donald Livingston, a philosophy professor at Emory University
in Atlanta. "But it's still there, suppressed, in the memory of
Americans. What's interesting about the South is that it held onto
the Jeffersonian tradition longer - which is why you can't
understand America today without seeing this deep conflict between
these two groups."
Indeed, 56 percent of Americans, according to a new poll by the
Pew Research Center, believe the Civil War remains relevant. That's
partly because of its overarching themes, but also because it
remains a deeply personal conflict for many Americans: One out of 17
Americans - or about 18 million - can claim a direct line to someone
who fought in the war. "It really wasn't that long ago," says
Michael Hill, president of the League of the South, a Southern
nationalist group in Killen, Ala.
"The dislocations of the Civil War wrought so profoundly upon the
entire national character that the influence cannot be measured
short of two or three generations," Mark Twain and Charles Dudley
Warner wrote in 1873, nearly a decade after the end of the war. …