Lessons on the Sesquicentennial

Last weekend, the sesquicentennial commemoration of the end of the American Civil War continued with “A Just and Lasting Peace Amongst Ourselves”?: Lessons on the 150th Anniversary of the End of the American Civil War. Held in the historic Dock Street Theater in Charleston, South Carolina on April 18th, the event consisted of two panel discussions that featured a number of respected scholars and fostered some interesting discussions.

The 10:00 am session was focused on the impact of the Civil War on American history, which its three panelists discussed at length. The first to speak was Annette Gordon-Reed, the Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History at the Harvard School of Law, Professor of History in the History Department, and Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute. In her remarks she noted the importance of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, and how these amendments sought to achieve the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. After her came Eric Foner, the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University. Professor Foner spoke about Reconstruction as an inseparable part of Civil War history, and he pointed out that such concerns as black equality are still with us today. Last to speak in the first panel was Emory Thomas, Regents Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Georgia. Thomas focused on the Confederate experience and the different meanings the war had for southerners, and he illustrated the viewpoints using Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Late Encounter with the Enemy.” After the remarks, audience members were invited to ask questions and create discussion. The panelists fielded such questions as what Lincoln’s Reconstruction might have looked like and the importance of the Dred Scott case leading up to the Civil War before the panel concluded at noon.

At 1:30 the second session was held, this one focusing on public memory of the Civil War, particularly as it related to South Carolina. David Blight, The Class of 1954 Professor of History and Director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University, spoke first. His talk was concerned with the Civil War’s end and the war’s legacies that remain with us today, and he noted several examples such as the use of passages from the Confederate Constitution on some Tea Party websites. Blight was followed by Thomas Brown, Professor of History at the University of South Carolina. In his remarks Brown discussed some of the histories of Confederate memory in South Carolina, using case studies like the changing memory of the H.L. Hunley. The final panelists were Ethan Kytle and Blain Roberts, both Associate Professors of History at California State University, Fresno. Kytle and Roberts have collaborated in the study of memory in Charleston, SC, and thus they presented jointly on that topic. Kytle discussed the history of the John C. Calhoun monument that stands in Marion Square along with its conflicted history, while Roberts talked about the Denmark Vesey monument in Hampton Park as well as the effort to have it constructed and how it commemorates ideals very far from those of the Calhoun monument. As with the first session, this panel was concluded by questions from those in attendance. Audience members asked about the numbers of Civil War commemoration sites as well as whether or not the Calhoun monument should remain standing. To the latter question the panelists pointed out that such actions tend to draw enormous controversy and that the monument is an important piece of evidence for studying memory.

Thanks to the panelists and the many people who attended, the event proved to be an interesting and thought-provoking commemoration of America’s Civil War.

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