Fort Sumter Cannons Sound Again: The Civil War 150 Years Later

By Jonsson, Patrik | The Christian Science Monitor, April 12, 2011 | Go to article overview

Fort Sumter Cannons Sound Again: The Civil War 150 Years Later


Jonsson, Patrik, The Christian Science Monitor


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 ideological divides.

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. …

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