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The Sesquicentennial's Tangled Web

 The author, John Hennessey, talks to a group of battlefield preservationists about a proposed development near an area Civil War site.
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Date published: 8/7/2011

NO HISTORIC event has a more complicated place in American culture than the Civil War. We don't even agree on its name: One person's "War of Northern Aggression" is another's "War for the Union."

Today, at the leading edge of its 150th anniversary, the Civil War continues to provoke uproar and debate. A "secession ball" in Charleston, S.C., triggered howls of protest. In Montgomery, Ala., thousands pointedly stayed away from the commemoration of the inauguration of Jefferson Davis as president of the Confederacy. The Confederate battle flag has, in many eyes, been transformed from symbol of honor to one of oppression--banner of the KKK, emblem of resistance against civil rights, or, at least, symbol of modern rebelliousness.

Not so long ago, the war seemed a far simpler thing. The nation celebrated the opening of new battlefield parks, dedicating them, as one speaker in Fredericksburg declared, "to a more perfect understanding between the South and the North, and to an abundant increase in brotherly love." America reveled in the final reunions of Union and Confederate soldiers, cheering their legacy of courage and sacrifice in the name of home and principle (regardless of what those principles might have been). Fifty years ago, the nation entered the centennial of the Civil War bent on "celebration." (It didn't quite come off as planned.)

For more than a century after the conflict, the nation saw the Civil War through a singular lens with an unspoken purpose: reconciliation. The focus was squarely on those things Americans could agree upon, most of them embodied in the shared qualities of fighting men North and South: courage, sacrifice, fortitude. It is for this reason that battlefields and battles have been the dominant means through which Americans viewed their war. Set aside was discussion about the divisive issues that defined the war--difficult issues like slavery, the ordeal of Southern civilians, or the tragic fate of prisoners of war.

The quest for sectional reconciliation largely succeeded. That there are statues to Confederate heroes in the U.S. Capitol today is, when weighed against the fate of rebels and rebellions in other nations, astonishing.

A VERY PERSONAL WAR


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LOCAL SESQUICENTENNIAL EVENTS AIM TO SHED LIGHT ON OUR COMPLEX CIVIL WAR HISTORY

John Hennessy is chief historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and former chairman of the Fredericksburg-Stafford-Spotsylvania Sesquicentennial Committee.