The debate that still divides a nation – 150 years on

David Usborne reports from Charleston, South Carolina, where a ball to mark the anniversary of the American Civil War has been mired in accusations of racism

The pantomime season only lasted a day in Charleston, South Carolina this year, but no one can say the amateur dramatics – and the audience participation – did not have a special intensity about them. The American Civil War wasn't about slavery, honestly. Oh, yes it was! Oh, no it wasn't! Oh, yes it was!

This was the scene, more or less, at the city's municipal auditorium on Monday night, 150 years to the day after the signing of the declaration of secession from the Union by South Carolina, an act of mutiny that sowed the seeds of Confederacy and set in motion a conflict that killed roughly 620,000 Americans.

Inside the hall, 200-odd guests, all white and some in period costume, gathered to see a re-enactment of the signing of the secession document. When it was over, they instinctively joined the cast in singing the anthem of the South, "Dixie", before repairing to an adjoining hall for dinner and dancing.

Outside, a racially mixed crowd of about 100 held electric candles aloft at dusk to begin a protest march through downtown Charleston, singing the songs of Selma and Montgomery, including "We Shall Overcome". Each camp thus indulged in their forms of theatre before taking to their beds.

But the US is only at the beginning of a four-year stretch of events to commemorate the Civil War, which will peak with the anniversary in November 2013 of Abraham Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address". The mostly polite battle in Charleston will be played out throughout the intervening period - and it may not always be so controlled. If the Civil War was about the South protecting and eventually losing its right to practise slavery, what place has this nostalgia?

"The South lost the war but they really won it, because they continue to say the war was not about slavery, which is not true of course," argued Blain Roberts, an assistant professor of history at California State University, who attended Monday night's South Carolina Secession Gala to conduct research for a book. "They won the memory of the war, at least."

Also in the hall to observe rather than participate – you could tell because she was not in the hooped skirt costume of Gone with the Wind – was Cynthia Cowan, a Masters student at Houston University, who was more blunt. Those who had bought the $100 (£65) tickets for the evening were "wilfully ignorant or proudly nonchalant" of the offence they would inevitably cause, she said.

If the organisers of the Secession Gala felt the heat of inquiring reporters and noisy protesters, for the guests, the atmosphere, fuelled by mint julep cocktails and bowls of shrimp and grits, was more delirious than defensive. Never mind the breeze-block walls and lino-tile floor, or that the furniture for the re-enactment was more 1970s office than 1860s ceremonial.

Proud is how most seemed to feel. Donna Simpson was so because her fifth great-grandfather was the uncle of Robert E Lee, the legendary Confederate General. Her husband, Mark, is the commander, South Carolina, of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a charity organisation. "We celebrate life," he said, responding to the claims that the event was feting slavery. "We are glad that slavery came to an end."

To the music of a band aptly called Un-Reconstructed, the Simpsons and other couples in their finery joined the Grand March, entering the hall in pairs with as much Scarlett O'Hara pomp as they could muster, and bowing before their hosts – the national commander-in-chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Michael Givens, and his wife – beneath the stage. The subsequent hours of dancing were interrupted only once when a plastic oak tree draped with fake Spanish moss toppled over after being sideswiped by a damsel who had briefly forgotten how impractical those old-fashioned skirts really were.

Mr Givens found all the questions about slavery pesky. "We are not celebrating that and this is not malicious," he said. "It's about honouring our forefathers for their tenacity. It's about the bravery and courage of our ancestors." Exasperated by the focus on slavery, he then asked: "Can you not be selective about what you are nostalgic about?"

On hand to galvanise the protesters was a local clergyman, the Rev Nelson Rivers. "If Japanese Americans chose to celebrate Pearl Harbour this way it would be outrageous and would not be allowed to occur and that is what is happening here tonight," he said into a megaphone.

Tangee Rice, 57, an African American woman, drove 120 miles to the march and was wearing the same hat her grandfather had worn marching with Martin Luther King. "The Confederacy is not something to celebrate," she said. "It's just not right." About those re-enacting the start of the Civil War, she said: "They still haven't grown out of it, and it's really sad."

Argument about what sparked the War – Mr Givens and Mr Simpson will tell you it was about tariffs and taxes imposed by the North – will never end. But the harder issue, which Ms Rice raises, is this: Yes, America is a much different place now, but does the nostalgia conceal a lingering racism, even a yearning for history to be rewound?

"I am a proud American and I wouldn't want our country to go through that again," Bill Norris, 60, a maker of banking machinery and gala guest, said. Yet, he wonders, what if the Confederacy had won? "A part of me does regret it didn't happen," he said. "I believe at some point in dividing the country. We would be better able to govern ourselves in smaller groups. Why should New Yorkers be able to influence government in South Carolina?"

The cord between today and the old conflict remains for some in the South.

Charleston factfile

* In 1860 the population was 58 per cent white and 42 per cent black (a few years earlier, black slaves outnumbered whites). Today it is 45 per cent white and 43.6 per cent black with small Asian-American and Hispanic groups.

* In 1860 the economy was based on manufacturing though in decline as new railroads diverted trade. Half the city's wealth was held by 155 leading citizens. Modern Charleston has a thriving tourist industry and several large IT businesses.

* In 1859, the population was 40,522. It was the 22nd largest US city. Now, despite tripling in size, it ranks 246.

* South Carolina is the fifth poorest state in the US. In 1860 it was the third wealthiest state.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living