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A Necessary Conflict

And an opportunity for re-examination

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With our cover story in this issue about the bombardment of Fort Sumter by Confederate artillery, we begin our coverage of the Civil War’s sesquicentennial. Over the next four years, we plan to examine the major battles, pivotal moments and social currents that so divided our country—and shaped its future—a century and a half ago.

In April 1861, the people of Charleston, South Carolina, were in a celebratory mood. The state had just seceded, which most residents felt was a victory in itself, and no one was anticipating four long years of bloodshed and 620,000 dead. “When you walk through Charleston or stand at Fort Sumter,” says Fergus M. Bordewich, author of “Opening Salvo,” “you can place yourself there and see the future they didn’t see. It’s quite dramatic.”

Bordewich, who has written three books on slavery and the antebellum period, sees these events more clearly than most. He grew up in Yonkers, New York, listening to Civil War stories told by his grandmother, herself the child of a Civil War veteran. For this article, he interviewed a wide gamut of people, from African-American scholars to members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who still feel, intensely, the rightness of the Confederate cause. He spent days at the South Carolina Historical Society reading period letters, memoirs and diaries. He talked to scholars in New York, South Carolina, Georgia and Washington, D.C. and he read deeply in the accounts of members of the Fort Sumter garrison during the bombardment. “They were choking on smoke,” he says. “The fort was on fire. They were in cramped, almost airless brick compartments, being fired on from different directions. They were essentially in a trap.”

Bordewich believes that Fort Sumter—or some other flash point—was virtually inevitable. “I think it was an unavoidable conflict, a necessary conflict,” he says. “The people of 1861 were finally paying the unpaid dues left by the founders of the Republic and their successors for their failure to find a political solution to the problem of slavery. It finally had to be solved with guns. Make no mistake, the war was about slavery. It was not about legalistic arguments. It was not about economics. It was not about tariffs. It was fundamentally about slavery: one part of the United States, which was wedded to slavery and did not want to exist without it, versus another, which rejected the expansion of slavery. I think the memorializing of the war during the sesquicentennial is an opportunity to examine that—along with the great military drama of the war itself. It’s an opportunity to come to grips with the fact that war over slavery was inescapable.”

About Carey Winfrey
Carey Winfrey

Carey Winfrey was Smithsonian magazine's editor in chief for ten years, from 2001 to 2011.

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