Confederate forces took over Fort Sumter, S.C., on April 12, 1861. Today the island fortress is maintained by the National Park Service, which is planning commemorative events April 9-17. (GANNETT)
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A half-century ago, Charleston, S.C., marked the opening salvos of the Civil War with a Miss Confederacy contest, a 15-float parade and a local hotel's refusal to host a black delegate at a meeting of the national Civil War Centennial Commission. Now, as the city prepares for the 150th anniversary of the April 12, 1861, bombardment and takeover of federal-held Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, the civic mood is far less self-congratulatory.
In the wealthy port town that served as the entry point for three out of four enslaved Africans during the 18th century and where slaves were in the majority before the Civil War, the sesquicentennial observance is "emotionally charged," says Robert Rosen, president of Charleston's Fort Sumter-Fort Moultrie Historical Trust.
Perhaps the best place to plumb the city's sesquicentennial state of mind is at Fort Sumter itself — the national monument and symbol of Confederate resistance that, notes the National Park Service's Michael Allen, remains "near and dear to the hearts of many Southerners."
"We're trying to mark one of the most important and tragic moments in American history," says Rosen, whose nonprofit consortium is sponsoring a four-year series of events incorporating Northern, Southern and African-American viewpoints on the war. "We've used ‘commemorate,' which says we're acknowledging that this happened and we want to learn from it," he says. "But I think some people don't even like that word."
The island fortress' capture after 34 hours of shelling prompted a declaration of war in Washington. Fort Sumter stayed in Confederate hands for nearly four years. Today, it attracts about 275,000 visitors a year via tour boats from downtown Charleston and nearby Mount Pleasant and is the focal point of the anniversary. Union and Confederate re-enactors with historically accurate uniforms and weapons will hold living-history programs at the fort in the days surrounding the anniversary of the April 12 dawn attack. They'll portray the military units that held the fort at the time, E and H companies, 1st U.S. Artillery Regiment, replaced early the morning of April 12 by members of B Company, South Carolina Artillery Battalion and the South Carolina Infantry Regiment's Palmetto Guard. Two spotlights pointed skyward will form a single beam until the anniversary of the moment the fort fell. They'll be extinguished for a short time before reappearing as two lights, symbolizing the nation's divide.
"If both sides had known what they were getting themselves into that day, maybe things would have gone differently," Ranger Jennifer Zoebelein tells tourists gathered at the fort's crumbled remains.
Officials expect what old-guard Charlestonians called "The Late Unpleasantness" to be a "big draw from a tourist standpoint," Rosen says.
Special sesquicentennial dinner cruises will include period music and three-course, Southern-style meals. More living history will be exhibited at Fort Moultrie on the mainland and at Liberty Square, one of two departure points for the Fort Sumter ferries.
National Park Service officials say the boats that ferry visitors to one-hour tours of Fort Sumter during the April 9-17 observance will probably fill up, but visitors will be able to pre-order tickets, and some are always reserved for walk-ups.
— Gannett and The Associated Press, with Military Times research