The Civil War, the most wrenching and bloody episode in American history, may not seem like much of a cause for celebration, especially in the South.
And yet, as the 150th anniversary of the four-year conflict gets under way, some groups in the old Confederacy are planning at least a certain amount of hoopla, chiefly around the glory days of secession, when 11 states declared their sovereignty under a banner of states’ rights and broke from the union.
The events include a “secession ball” in the former slave port of Charleston (“a joyous night of music, dancing, food and drink,” says the invitation), which will be replicated on a smaller scale in other cities.
A parade is being planned in Montgomery, Ala., along with a mock swearing-in of Jefferson Davis as president of the Confederacy.
In addition, the Sons of Confederate Veterans and some of its local chapters are preparing various television commercials that they hope to show next year. “All we wanted was to be left alone to govern ourselves,” says one ad from the group’s Georgia Division.
That some — even now — are honoring secession, with barely a nod to the role of slavery, underscores how divisive a topic the war remains, with Americans continuing to debate its causes, its meaning and its legacy.
“We in the South, who have been kicked around for an awfully long time and are accused of being racist, we would just like the truth to be known,” said Michael Givens, commander-in-chief of the Sons, explaining the reason for the television ads.
While there were many causes of the war, he said, “our people were only fighting to protect themselves from an invasion and for their independence.”
Not everyone is on board with this program, of course. The N.A.A.C.P., for one, plans to protest some of these events, saying that celebrating secession is tantamount to celebrating slavery.
“I can only imagine what kind of celebration they would have if they had won,” said Lonnie Randolph, president of the South Carolina N.A.A.C.P.
He said he was dumbfounded by “all of this glamorization and sanitization of what really happened.”
When Southerners refer to states’ rights, he said, “they are really talking about their idea of one right — to buy and sell human beings.”
The secession events are among hundreds if not thousands that will unfold over the next four years in honor of the Civil War’s sesquicentennial.
From Fort Sumter to Appomattox, historic sites across the South, and some in the North, plan to highlight various aspects of America’s deadliest conflict — and perhaps its least resolved.
Some historical, solemn
Many of the activities are purely historical, and some, like a gathering this month in Gettysburg for the 147th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, will be solemn.
At Antietam, on Saturday, the annual memorial will feature 23,000 candles, representing that battle’s casualties.
Some cities and states are promoting their Civil War history with an eye toward attracting tourists.
In Atlanta, the Cyclorama, a giant painting-in-the-round that depicts the first day of the Battle of Atlanta, is being “refreshed and rebranded” as part of an overall marketing plan, said Camille Love, the city’s director of cultural affairs.
Commemorating the Civil War has never been easy. The centennial 50 years ago coincided with the civil rights movement, and most of the South was still effectively segregated, making a mockery of any notion that the slaves had truly become free and equal.
Congress had designated an official centennial commission, which lost credibility when it planned to meet in a segregated hotel; this year, Congress has not bothered with an official commission and any master narrative of the war seems elusive.
“We don’t know what to commemorate because we’ve never faced up to the implications of what the thing was really about,” said Andrew Young, a veteran of the civil rights movement and former mayor of Atlanta.
“The easy answer for black folk is that it set us free, but it really didn’t,” Mr. Young added. “We had another 100 years of segregation. We’ve never had our complete reconciliation of the forces that divide us.”
The passion that the Civil War still evokes was evident earlier this year when Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia designated April as Confederate History Month — without mentioning slavery.
Slavery led to war
After a national outcry, he apologized and changed his proclamation to condemn slavery and spell out that slavery had led to war.
The proclamation was urged on him by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which asserts that the Confederacy was a crusade for small government and states’ rights.
The sesquicentennial, which coincides now with the rise of the Tea Party movement, is providing a new chance for adherents to promote that view.
Jeff Antley, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Confederate Heritage Trust, is organizing the secession ball in Charleston and a 10-day re-enactment of the Confederate encampment at Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the war were fired on April 12, 1861.
He said these events were not about modern politics but were meant to honor those South Carolinians who signed the state’s ordinance of secession on Dec. 20, 1860, when it became the first state to dissolve its union with the United States.
“We’re celebrating that those 170 people risked their lives and fortunes to stand for what they believed in, which is self-government,” Mr. Antley said.
“Many people in the South still believe that is a just and honorable cause. Do I believe they were right in what they did? Absolutely,” he said, noting that he spoke for himself and not any organization. “There’s no shame or regret over the action those men took.”
Mr. Antley said he was not defending slavery, which he called an abomination.
“But defending the South’s right to secede, the soldiers’ right to defend their homes and the right to self-government doesn’t mean your arguments are without weight because of slavery,” he said.
Most historians say it is impossible to carve out slavery from the context of the war.
As James W. Loewen, a liberal sociologist and author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” put it: “The North did not go to war to end slavery, it went to war to hold the country together and only gradually did it become anti-slavery — but slavery is why the South seceded.”
In its secession papers, Mississippi, for example, called slavery “the greatest material interest of the world” and said that attempts to stop it would undermine “commerce and civilization.”
The conflict has been playing out in recent decades in disputes over the stories told or not told in museum exhibits and on battlefield plaques.
“These battles of memory are not only academic,” said Mark Potok, the director of intelligence at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“They are really about present-day attitudes. I don’t think the neo-Confederate movement is growing, but it’s gotten a new shot of life because of the sesquicentennial.”
This article, headlined "Celebrating Secession Without the Slaves," first appeared in The New York Times.