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.

Arts and Entertainment
TVShow's twee, safe facade smashed by ice cream melting scandal
News
newsVideo for No campaign was meant to get women voting
News
A photo of Charles Belk being detained by police on Friday 22 August
news
News
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
Arts and Entertainment
Amis: 'The racial situation in the US is as bad as it’s been since the Civil War'
booksAuthor says he might come back across Atlantic after all
Extras
indybest
Life and Style
Google Doodle celebrates the 200th birthday of Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Sustainability Assessor

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Sustainability Assessor...

Year 5 Teacher

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Would you like to wo...

Cover Supervisor for School in Bradford

£50 - £70 per day + Mileage and Expenses: Randstad Education Leeds: School Cla...

Supply Teacher - Chelmsford

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: We urgently require Primar...

Day In a Page

Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?