Help us plan for sesquicentennial

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 2, 2010

At the end of this year, our nation will begin to commemorate the sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) of one of the bloodiest episodes of our history — the United States Civil War between the northern and southern states.

Even in today’s contentious political environment, it is inconceivable to us that Americans took up weapons against other Americans and slaughtered one another. More than 600,000 Americans died during the Civil War — a larger number than those who died in all other American wars from the American Revolution through Vietnam combined.

The military battles started with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor in April 1861 and lasted until after Robert E. Lee’s surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia in April 1865.

The causes of war were complex. Southern states seceded from the union to protect their political rights and preserve a way of life that included an economy based on an enslaved African work force. Southern soldiers fought to protect their home states. Northern soldiers fought to preserve the united nation and protect a free work force. Emancipated slaves in the South joined the Union forces to ensure their freedom.

At that point in history, the United States of America was not the unified nation with a strong central government that we live with today. The nation was still spreading across the continent, and the federal power to tax, or the legality of spreading slavery into new territories, were still unresolved questions.

In the mid-1800s, the issue of whether a state could withdraw from the union was not yet settled.

In the mid-1800s, the issue of whether people could own one another as property was not yet decided.

The American Civil War answered these questions, and many Civil War sites have become national parks, such as the Vicksburg battlefield. Others are state historic sites, like the Grand Gulf military park. This area from Vicksburg southward played a vital role in the fight for control of the lower Mississippi River.

The Natchez area has its own rich and complicated stories to tell — of Union allegiance and Confederate sacrifice and formerly enslaved people seeking freedom.

The sesquicentennial commemoration provides an opportunity for Americans and others to wrestle once again with these historical questions and what light they shed on the world we live in today.

Anyone interested in history or involved with the tourism industry is invited to participate in a meeting to begin discussing region-wide plans for the 150th commemoration at 2 p.m. Thursday afternoon, in the conference room of the Historic Natchez Foundation at 108 South Commerce St. For directions, call 601-442-2500.

If you are unable to attend the meeting but would like to be included in the process, please e-mail kathleen_jenkins@nps.gov. For more information, call me at 601-442-7049, extension 13.

Spread the word!

Kathleen Jenkins is the superintendent of Natchez National Historical Park.