I was in the fifth grade when the Civil War centennial began back in 1961. For a kid growing up in Georgia, it was a lot of fun to read about the old battles and the men who fought them.
It didn't occur to me then that I might be around for another anniversary 50 years later, the Civil War sesquicentennial, but here it is and here we are. It has now been 150 years since America was torn apart by a war that dramatically reshaped the country and still defines it today.
When does the anniversary observance actually begin? There are several dates that might qualify.
You could argue that the start of the Civil War can be dated to Nov. 6, 1860. That was when Abraham Lincoln was elected president, the long-anticipated event that triggered the secession of the southern states.
You could choose Dec. 20, 1860 as the critical date. That was when South Carolina adopted an ordinance of secession and became the first state to officially break away from the United States.
Another pivotal date is Jan. 9, 1861, when a steamship named "Star of the West" tried to bring supplies and reinforcements to federal troops stationed at Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. A group of cadets from the Citadel fired on the ship and forced it to turn back before reaching the fort.
The war itself began after Confederate batteries fired on Fort Sumter in the early morning hours of April 12, 1861. Pick your date — there is historical significance to all of them.
It is interesting that many people observing the anniversary of the Civil War don't want to talk about the war's fundamental cause: slavery. They want to celebrate the traditions of the Confederacy without noting that the breakaway government was committed to the enslavement of black people.
During an observance in Charleston last week of the state's vote for secession, Mayor Joe Riley remarked in a speech: "That the cause of this disastrous secession was an expressed need to protect the inhumane and immoral institution of slavery is undeniable."
He was interrupted by a person in the audience who yelled, "You're a liar!"
I have received emails from acquaintances who argue that it is a "myth" perpetrated by Yankee historians that slavery was ever a cause of the late unpleasantness.
They are distorting history when they make those kinds of assertions. States' rights and the desire to preserve the union were all issues caught up in the struggle, but the truth is that without the institution of slavery, the southern states would not have seceded and there would not have been a Civil War.
I will cite the words of Alexander H. Stephens, a sickly but eloquent man from Crawfordville who was the vice president of the Confederate States of America and later served as Georgia's governor. In a speech he delivered in Savannah on March 21, 1861, Stephens explained that slavery was the "cornerstone" of the Confederate government and the direct cause of the split between North and South.
Here is what he said:
"The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution — African slavery as it exists amongst us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast had anticipated this as the ‘rock upon which the old Union would split.' He was right ..."
Stephens added these words about the "new government" of the South: "Its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and moral condition.
This, our new government, is the first in the history of the world based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth."
I don't think it can be stated more clearly than that.
For better and for worse, America is the country it is today because of the Civil War. It is a conflict worthy of our study and reflection.
However Georgians choose to observe that event, they should do so with an accurate understanding of the war's underlying cause.
Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact's Georgia Report, an Internet news service that covers government and politics in Georgia. His column appears Wednesdays.