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Civil War at 150: Revisiting scarred battlefields

In search of answers, an Associated Press reporter embarked on a tour through one scarred swath of the fighting grounds — from Manassas, Va., where the war's harsh terms first became clear, to ruins still standing along Union Gen. William T. Sherman's fiery march through Georgia.
Image: a statue of Confederate Gen. Thomas \"Stonewall\" Jackson stands on the Civil War battlefield at Manassas,
A statue of Confederate Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson stands on the Civil War battlefield at Manassas, Va. The first Battle of Manassas occurred in July 1861. Over the next four years, Americans will mark the 150th anniversary of major events in the Civil War, which ran from 1861 to 1865.Chris Sullivan / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A hush fell over the crowd filling the elegant hall in downtown Richmond, Va. The vote was about to be announced, and a young staffer of the Museum of the Confederacy balanced his laptop across his knees, poised to get out the news as soon as it was official.

Who would be chosen "Person of the Year, 1861"?

Five historians had made impassioned nominations, and the audience would now decide.

Most anywhere else, the choice would be obvious. Who but Abraham Lincoln? But this was a vote in the capital of the rebellion that Lincoln put down, sponsored by a museum dedicated to his adversary. How would Lincoln and his war be remembered in this place, in our time?

A century and a half have passed since Lincoln's crusade to reunify the United States. The North and the South still split deeply on many issues, not least the conflict they still call by different names. All across the bloodstained arc where the Civil War raged, and beyond, Americans are deciding how to remember.

For the next four years, we will mark the sesquicentennial at scores of crossroads whose names have become a bitter historical shorthand: Fort Sumter, which launched the war on April 12, 1861, and later Antietam, Shiloh, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, and so many others, all the way to Appomattox.

We'll reflect on more than 600,000 combatants who died, we'll debate the causes, we'll talk about slavery's legacy.

Through the years, each Civil War anniversary has mirrored our nation at that point in time. At first, remembering was forgetting, an occasion to bring former foes together to shake hands. Nostalgia for the so-called Lost Cause of the antebellum South defined many observances — even at the Civil War centennial in the early 1960s, ironically coinciding with the civil rights movement.

And what does today's anniversary tell us?

In search of answers, an Associated Press reporter embarked on a tour through one scarred swath of the fighting grounds — from Manassas, Va., where the war's harsh terms first became clear, to ruins still standing along Union Gen. William T. Sherman's fiery march through Georgia, which put the outcome beyond doubt.

Conversations along the way — with scholars, regular folks, Southerners, Northerners, blacks, whites — suggest we've matured about the war. It's a commemoration, not a celebration, this time. What we're recollecting now is the Civil War AND emancipation, many people say. Yes, there have been secession balls right out of "Gone with the Wind," but the viewpoint of the 4 million enslaved Americans is part of every serious observance.

And one more conclusion: This fight isn't really past. Even after 150 years, it holds us still.

Manassas, Va.: 'They spoke the same language'
Clotted interstates carry you to Manassas, but it's a surprisingly quick run from the heart of Washington, D.C.

In July 1861 — just weeks after the Confederates took Fort Sumter, and Lincoln responded with a call for 75,000 volunteers — Manassas would be the first real test of the opposing armies.

Some spectators ventured out from the capital for a look and a picnic on what began as a fine day, expecting the rebels to be quickly dispatched. Instead, they witnessed what became a Confederate rout. "Turn back!" cried Union soldiers in full flight. "We are whipped!"

This war, it suddenly became clear, would be deadly earnest.

And at Manassas today, it becomes clear that people still care. Tens of thousands are expected in July for commemorative events.

On a recent chilly day, a family pulled jackets tighter as they crossed the battlefield. All the way from Denmark, Per Moller came with his wife and young son for a vacation, with stops from Louisiana to here, to see where Americans from North and South struggled.

Conjuring the fratricide, Moller shook his head, saying, "They spoke the same language, maybe went to the same schools."

Richmond, Va.: 1861's 'Person of the Year'
From Lincoln's White House it's only about 110 miles south to the official residence of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Richmond.

It was in an auditorium near there that a few hundred people gathered for the Museum of the Confederacy's nominations for 1861 "Person of the Year."

One author proposed P.G.T. Beauregard, the general in charge at both Fort Sumter and Manassas, who gave the South two early victories. Another scholar named Kentucky Gov. Beriah Magoffin, saying his efforts keeping that vital border state neutral, and out of the Confederacy, may have tipped the historical scales.

Of course, Lincoln was nominated.

And there were two other eloquent pleas for support.

Dr. Lauranett Lee, curator of African-American history at the Virginia Historical Society, nominated the enslaved blacks who made their way to Union lines. Union officers reasoned that, since they were considered property, they could be taken like anything else being used to support the enemy. They became seized "contraband," and many would eventually aid the Union's ultimate victory and reshape the future for black Americans.

Glancing at the other panelists, Lee noted, "Had it not been for the actions of the 'contraband,' I would not be where I am today."

The last nomination came from historian James I. Robertson Jr., who said the person of that pivotal year was the Virginia volunteer.

This rank-and-file soldier was typically not a "fire-eating" secessionist, but a small farmer grimly determined to resist what he considered invaders. Robertson told the story of one such, and quoted his tender letters home before he succumbed to wounds suffered at Manassas.

"He died to protect that little parcel of farmland in the mountains," said Robertson, his mellifluous Old Dominion accent bringing nods in the crowd.

And now the vote: Audience ballots were marked and tallied. And S. Waite Rawls III, president of the museum, rose to announce the results.

The vote was close, but the winner in the rebellion's capital, 150 years later?

"The audience has chosen Abraham Lincoln ..."

This was news. Leo Rohr of the museum marketing staff instantly announced it in a tweet.

Farmville, Va.: Stopping in search of history
Not everyone feels caught up in the war, even where it was fought.

On the haunting battlefield at Cold Harbor, just outside Richmond, Wayne Herring was completing his usual three-mile jog at a recent twilight. Trails he circled were the scene of brutal trench fighting and sniper exchanges in 1864 that left as many as 18,000 casualties.

But Herring doesn't come here because he's a Civil War buff.

"It's just peace and quiet," he said.

Nor does Shirley Ragland spend much time thinking about the war. She lives about an hour's drive from Cold Harbor in Farmville. It had its war history, but her story picks up a century later.

"I was in the eighth grade," she explained, "and the schools closed."

After public schools were ordered desegregated in the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, localities across the South tried to thwart implementation. Prince Edward County, where Farmville is the seat, closed all of its public schools rather than integrate. Starting in 1959, they were shut for five years, even as the centennial of emancipation was celebrated. (White students attended racially exclusive private academies.)

Hundreds of black children were placed with families and schools far from home. Ragland went to Washington, D.C., then in the second year to Philadelphia, later to New York. For other students, though, schooling "just stopped."

Today she remains alert for lingering prejudice, but also hopeful. The county board, she noted, passed a resolution of reconciliation a few years ago.

Farmville is near Appomattox, and many tourists stop in search of history. With a half-smile, Ragland said, "And here I am standing right in front of them — living history."

Stagville, N.C.: Another 150 years?
We move southward into North Carolina, where many battle sites attest to the war's harsh legacy.

Another kind of memorial is found off Exit 177 from Interstate 85: Stagville, a restored plantation, where 900 slaves once worked. Some of its land today holds high-tech corporate parks. A state-of-the-art vaccine manufacturing plant's entrance is visible from that of Stagville, which is used now for conferences.

"When we met, our very first meeting, we met at Stagville," said professor Freddie Parker, referring to the state's Civil War sesquicentennial commission, of which he is a member. He was speaking in his office in the history department at North Carolina Central University, a historically black school nearby in Durham.

Besides his Ph.D., Parker brought to the commission his personal history, including enslaved ancestors. He told of how the commission determined to offer "a balanced commemoration," recognizing all viewpoints. When staff members created a website, groups of Confederate descendants objected that their side was underrepresented, which led to more discussion, some of it heated, among commission members.

"I remember ... an older individual, every time something came up about the South, the North, he put it out there: 'The War of Aggression.' And everybody knew his position."

But as the meetings continued, and members listened to each other's side of things, the man began to join with those pushing, for instance, for an official state memorial to black struggles, too. "He was one of the primary ones ... And tears in his eyes. He made a complete flip."

And how does Parker process this?

"That people are continuing to evolve. People are not static, stagnant beings," he said.

Still, it will take the nation time "before we get to the point where we are less emotional, where we're less polarized" about the war.

How much more time?

"A hundred and 50 years?" he ventured.

East Tennessee: 'People have been dumbed down on history'
Personal stories are never far from the sweeping historical narrative of the Civil War.

Individuals come into focus again and again: in an act of rash courage that helps turn a battle, in wives' journals detailing homefront hardships, in the explanations soldiers give loved ones for fighting.

East Tennessee saw individualism play out in deep divisions over the war. The region rejected secession when it came to a vote and raised Union units who fought Tennessee Confederates.

The war's untidy complexities delight Steve Gipson.

He's a history buff, entertainer and dreamer, and awhile back he wrote a play to try to capture what happened in this corner of the Civil War. In it, a Union officer, camped not far from where he grew up, encounters his sister, who's on a mission to deliver medicine — to rebel troops. Gipson and his wife Allison perform the two-actor play, "Granddaddy's Watch," at their dinner theater near Chattanooga.

Their show — a cross between a he said/she said comedy routine and a lecture — somehow works as both entertainment and education.

"People have been dumbed down on history," Gipson said.

"We're not trying to restart the war or relive it. We're trying to understand."

Outside Atlanta: Ruin and renewal
From near Chattanooga, the Union army took aim at the rail and commercial hub of Atlanta, which Sherman would set alight in 1864.

Firsthand signs of actual destruction are rare now — but outside of Atlanta, you come to Sweetwater Creek and what remains of a five-story textile mill, which supplied cloth for Confederate forces. In July 1864, Sherman's troops burned the mill. Today, wind whispers through the forlorn brick ruins.

On a recent day, Betty Fugate, a native Georgian, brought out her grandsons, Caleb and Barrett Clark, on spring break from New Hampshire, for the learning experience — "Why it was destroyed — that it produced things that helped the Southern soldiers" — but also for exercise on a pretty day.

Ruin and renewal: If that's a theme of any reflection on the Civil War, then Atlanta manifests it as well as anywhere.

After Sherman's "march to the sea," after Reconstruction, after Jim Crow and the tragedies and triumphs of the civil rights movement, the burned city grew into an economic powerhouse and, among other things, a prime job destination nowadays for black college graduates.

When the Olympics came in 1996, Atlantans could laugh at a T-shirt caricaturing Sherman with the caption "The original torchbearer."

Appomattox, Va.: 'Where the healing had to begin'
Our trip through the war must end by looping back — to Appomattox, which we passed en route south and which was where, for practical purposes, the Civil War ended.

The surrender documents were signed in a handsome porticoed house, which was disassembled after the war. Rebuilding was delayed, and much of the original material rotted away. The foundation and some bricks were reused, but the painstakingly restored structure is something new, perhaps a bit like the nation that was restored here.

"Appomattox to me is not the end of something," said historian Robertson in an interview. "It's the beginning of modern America."

Now 80, Robertson was executive director of the national Civil War centennial commission 50 years ago and he's a member of Virginia's sesquicentennial commission now.

The centennial came at a time of peace and economic prosperity, he said, unlike the "negative age we're living in," with its wars, economic crises and partisan bickering. "As a historian, I don't think this nation has been as fractured since the 1850s."

We ought to learn from the war born of that earlier fracture, he said.

"Almost three-quarters of a million men died to give us the nation we have today. The sesquicentennial offers us a moment to remember that American democracy rests on one thing and one thing only — a spirit of compromise."

On the front steps of the rebuilt McLean House, visitors paused to reflect.

Megan Griffin, a graduate student from North Carolina, wondered how the war's survivors found "the strength to move forward after this day."

David Cummings stood with his friend and fellow Civil War devotee, Michael Overcash, at the end of a trip following the stages of Lee's last retreat, 26 stops in all. Both had Confederate ancestors — Cummings' forebear killed at Shiloh, Tenn., Overcash's captured at Fredericksburg, Va.

"This is where the healing had to begin, right here," Cummings said.

He mused about the outcome: "Homes destroyed, lives destroyed ... I don't think you're going to get rid of bigotry. I think we have a long way to go. And I think our country is still healing.

"But right here they said, 'It's over.'"