Letter from Charleston

Posted on May 4, 2011

An expanded version of a Letter to the Editor written by CLAW Associate Director Simon Lewis for the Guardian Weekly:

It’s a beautiful sight. The sun is just coming up behind Fort Sumter in front of us, and behind us, across the harbor, the gracious steeple-punctuated skyline of Charleston is coming more clearly into view. A squadron of improbably graceful pelicans skims across the surface, their wingtips centimeters above the calm surface; terns are diving, plovers are keening.

I am here at this site, however, not for its outstanding beauty but for an awkward anniversary, the commemoration of the first shot of the American Civil War, fired from this very spot exactly 150 years ago.

The crowd around me is almost entirely white, some sporting t-shirts adorned with the Confederate battle flag, a few official re-enactors in Confederate grey, a young man holding a red South Carolina banner, and a few recognizable local politicians.

The ceremony draws out the contradictions of claiming and celebrating both Southern and American identity at the same time. The program opens with everyone reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, asserting the indivisibility of the American Republic. It continues with an unabashedly Christian prayer from a local pastor.

As we get closer to the Big Bang—the firing of an original 1847 Seacoast mortar—the sourest note of the proceedings points to the way the Civil War divides the contemporary US not so much (or not only) on regional lines, but on political ones. The event’s m.c., tells us that the mortar has been obtained through the good offices of a band of brothers in Wisconsin. “While you’re about it,” they had joshed, “why don’t you fire off a real shell at Fort Sumter?”

Sure enough, the firing of the shell is greeted by a tall dude with a long black beard (in another context he might have been mistaken for a hippy—or a member of the Taliban) yelling, “The South shall rise again.” Still, at least it’s only one dude, and he gets some lip from a presumed “Yankee” woman nearby who snarls, “Get over it—y’all lost.”

The keynote speaker is the conservative Charleston state senator, Glenn McConnell, a devoted Civil War buff. McConnell’s speech attempts to reconcile some of the event’s contradictions, defending South Carolina’s right to secede in 1860, but celebrating the eradication of slavery. He talks up the shared culture of Southern blacks and whites, with no reference to the hundred years between the end of the Civil War and the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

The contradictions cannot comfortably be contained in the commemoration of the rebel bombardment of Fort Sumter. They will surely dog the remaining four years of the Civil War sesquicentennial, especially in the South. I look forward to 2015 when we can maybe all just mourn the dead—the failure of politics, and the folly of war.

Simon Lewis