Nation gears up for Civil War sesquicentennial: reenactments, exhibitions mark the 150th anniversary of America’s bloodiest conflict

Civil War, civil warA hundred and fifty years ago, the United States descended into a bloody Civil War. Young men on both sides eagerly signed up for what they thought would be a short and glorious conflict. A typical example is this private from the Fourth Michigan Infantry, pictured here courtesy of the Library of Congress. He poses, way too young and unconvincingly cocky, in the early days of the war in 1861. It’s so early, in fact, that he hasn’t been issued a uniform.

All across the United States, museums, historic sites, and reenactment groups are preparing for a series of events to mark the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War.

South Carolina was the first to secede on 20 December 1860, so the anniversaries have already started. Actual fighting, however, didn’t begin until the famous attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. Rebel artillery opened fire on 12 April 1861 in what are generally considered the first shots of the war.

Fort Sumter is now a national monument and the National Park Service is planning special exhibitions this year for the anticipated flood of visitors. Yet this isn’t the only anniversary in 2011. After Fort Sumter the war flared up all over the country.

The Missouri Civil War Sesquicentennial lists events for almost every week this year. Abe Lincoln will give speeches, reenactors will show off their weapons and uniforms, and museums across the state are setting up exhibitions on different aspects of the conflict. Missouri had one of the first battles of the war at the Missouri River port of Boonville on June 17. A Union force routed a group of secessionist Sate Guard troops in less than 20 minutes. The rebels retreated so quickly that both sides dubbed the fight “The Boonville Races”. While the battle was short, it opened up the Missouri River to Union steamboats, cutting the state in half and making it much easier for Union troops to control Missouri for the rest of the war. On June 17-19 the battle will be refought and this forgotten skirmish will get the credit it’s due.

%Gallery-116977%The first epic battle was at Bull Run, Virginia, on July 21. The battle is called First Manassas by the Confederates. Many Civil War battles are known by two names. It was a huge victory for the South and sent the Union army scampering back to Washington, DC. Historic Manassas Inc. is planning a four-day series of events that will include reenactments, concerts of Civil War music, and even a Civil War baseball tournament. One of the less-anticipated outcomes of the war was the popularization of baseball, which was played by soldiers of both armies. The idea of the game spread with them as they marched.

Besides the big sites and state-sponsored events, smaller organizations will be remembering the war too. The Echoes Through Time Learning Center and Civil War Museum will have a series of events over the next four years. Set up by a group of reenactors and amateur historians in a shopping mall in Williamsville, New York, this museum epitomizes how regular people are involved in Civil War research and education. These folks gather in Civil War Round Tables in almost every state and are always ready to welcome new members.

Even states that didn’t have any battles are marking the occasion. Maine’s Civil War Sesquicentennial will commemorate the men from Maine who fought and died. Their website has an interesting daily series of newspaper articles from Democrat and Republican papers from Portland. The political spin, name calling, and anger could be straight out of 21st century television news.

This is one of the things the Civil War can teach us. When Americans start thinking of other Americans who think differently as “the enemy”, the whole country can fall apart. The Civil War killed more than 600,000 soldiers and and more than 50,000 civilians. In an excellent op-ed in the Richmond Times, Charles F. Bryan, Jr., says he cringes when he hears people talking about “celebrating” the anniversary. He feels there’s nothing to celebrate about a war brought on partly by “grandstanding extremists and blundering politicians” that cared more about short-term political gain than helping the nation they claimed to have loved.