By Sean CW Korsgaard
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – It was the night they drove old Dixie down, and the American Civil War came to a close.
After four years of bloody fighting, the war that had torn apart the United States and Virginia finally reached its conclusion in the commonwealth. In one of the most eventful and fateful months in American history, April 1865 would see the fall of Richmond to Union troops, Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and the end of the Confederacy, the Civil War and slavery.
Now, 150 years later, the sesquicentennial commemoration of the Civil War is reaching its own closing days in Richmond and across the state. Virginians are once more reflecting on the end of the war and how it shaped the state’s history and culture even to this day.
Not surprisingly, Richmond, as both Virginia’s capital and the former capital of the Confederacy, finds itself at the center of many of the commemorative events.
“Richmond was more than the capital of the Confederacy – it was where both United States and Confederate soldiers fought throughout the entire war,” said Edward L. Ayers, president of the University of Richmond and a historian of the American South.
“Think of Richmond as the Normandy of the United States, for over 40 percent of the men who died in the Civil War died within 150 miles of Richmond.”
This week, Richmond has been hosting a series of events commemorating the fall of the city to U.S. troops – and the liberation of African Americans from slavery.
For example, a “Living History Public Theatre” was held Thursday at various sites in downtown Richmond. The event was called “A Scene of Indescribable Confusion.” Small teams of living history interpreters appeared at various sites in the city depicting what was happening in that place 150 years earlier. The interpreters represented evacuating Confederates, civilians caught in the turmoil and slaves hopeful for emancipation.
On Thursday night, the buildings in downtown Richmond were illuminated with projected images to represent the evacuation fires. Lantern tours took visitors through the heart of the burned district; along the way, living historians shared the stories of individuals who experienced the fires first-hand.
More events were scheduled on Friday and Saturday. (They are listed at http://richmondsjourney.org.) Participating groups range from the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the White House of the Confederacy, to the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia, the Elegba Folklore Society and the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project.
Other participants include the American Civil War Museum at Historic Tredegar, the Library of Virginia, the National Park Service, the Valentine Richmond History Center, the Virginia Historical Society and Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
On Saturday at the state Capitol, Gov. Terry McAuliffe and others “will join together to remember the sacrifices of those who came before us and to recognize our own responsibility to protect and foster freedom, opportunity, and equality in our own time.”
More events are planned April 8-12 in Appomattox, about 90 miles west of Richmond, to commemorate the surrender of Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. The American Civil War Museum is sponsoring those events, which are listed at www.tredegar.org.
“We’ve gone to great detail to ensure the surrender is depicted as close to it actually would have happened as possible,” said Sam Craghead, the museum’s public relations manager. “In terms of even the Civil War re-enactment community, there’s been a scale of attention to detail that’s never been done before that makes the events at Appomattox of particular interest.”
Other commemorative events are being held across the state:
¶ Events in Petersburg and Hopewell, just south of Richmond, will focus on the end of slavery, including Juneteenth celebrations on June 19. Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day, marks the date when slaves were belatedly told that Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation and that they were free.
¶ Exhibits in Danville, near the North Carolina line about 150 miles southwest of Richmond, will highlight that city’s role as the last capital of the Confederacy.
¶ Re-enactments and demonstrations will be held at several national and state parks through October.
The Civil War Sesquicentennial commemoration will come to an official close with the Sesquicentennial Finale Concert at the Virginia Capitol in Richmond on Memorial Day (May 25). The event will be free to the public, with a performance by the Roanoke Symphony and narration by historian James I. Robertson Jr.
Beginning in 2011, the sesquicentennial commemoration has been a boost not just for history but also for tourism in states such as Virginia. Craghead said the American Civil War Museum estimates that Virginia’s Civil War sites have experienced an average increase in visitors of more than 30 percent.
Nobody knows whether those tourism numbers will hold as the sesquicentennial itself fades into memory. But Craghead believes the commemoration has served a far more important purpose.
“The sesquicentennial, just like the centennial did, has ensured another generation remembers this critical chapter of American history – the good parts and the bad parts both,” Craghead said. He then quoted an Italian historian who wrote insightfully about the U.S.:
“Raimondo Luraghi perhaps said it best when he said, ‘If you don’t understand its Civil War, then you don’t understand anything else about America.’”
More on the Web
Here are websites that list events relating to the Civil War Sesquicentennial.
Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission: www.virginiacivilwar.org
The American Civil War Center at Tredegar: http://www.tredegar.org/
Richmond’s Journey from the End of Slavery and Civil War to Today: http://richmondsjourney.org
Here are key events open to the public:
April 1-4, Richmond – Commemorations around the city, including walking tours and exhibits
April 4, 11 a.m., Capitol Square, Richmond – Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s speech on the end of the Civil War and slavery
April 8-12, Museum of the Confederacy, Appomattox – Lectures, exhibits and re-enactments of the surrender
May 25, 6:30 p.m., Capitol Square, Richmond – Sesquicentennial Finale Concert
June 20, 10 a.m.-2 p.m., Grant’s Headquarters at City Point, 1001 Pecan Ave., Hopewell – Juneteenth celebration