Virginia Civil War 150
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Virginia Gets Moving on War's 150th
Commission plans solemn remembrance statewide
for Civil War

Sunday, Sep 09, 2007


Soldiers in the first major land battle of the Civil War spilled their blood on Virginia soil at Manassas in July 1861. Richmond served as the Confederacy's capital. And the war essentially ended at Appomattox in 1865.

So as the 150th anniversary of the conflict approaches, historians and state lawmakers agree, it's only appropriate that Virginia has formed the nation's first commission to mark its observance.

. . .

House of Delegates Speaker William J. Howell walks past the stone wall Tuesday, August 28, 2007, that was part of the battle of Fredericksburg, VA. Howell is spearheading Virginia's Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Committee.

"It's absolutely natural that Virginia should take the lead," said James I. Robertson Jr., an acclaimed Civil War scholar and one of 15 members of the legislatively appointed commission.

"Here in Virginia, we can't escape it."

The Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission is preparing for what members describe as a solemn remembrance of the nation's bloodiest conflict.

Tentative plans call for traveling exhibits, developing an educational DVD, guided battlefield tours and a lecture series. The General Assembly has appropriated more than $2.1 million toward the observance, which ultimately will be financed with public and private money.

"This is a commemoration, not a celebration," said Robertson, who leads the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies at Virginia Tech and who served as executive director of the national centennial commission 50 years ago. "There's nothing to celebrate in the deaths of between 700,000 and 1 million American people."

Three out of every five battles during the war occurred in Virginia. Some of the Confederacy's top generals were Virginians. Virginia also holds the distinction of boasting the highest number of prisoner-of-war compounds and largest concentration of military hospitals.

Not surprisingly, Virginia claims the most Civil War sites.

Though the actual anniversary of the start of the Civil War remains four years away, the commission wanted ample time to plan for a multiyear commemoration that will span 2011 to 2015.

The commission could decide to highlight events that led to the war, such as marking the anniversary of abolitionist John Brown's raid in 1859 on Harper's Ferry -- in West Virginia now but part of Virginia then -- and the presidential election of 1860, which put Abraham Lincoln in the White House. But that hasn't been decided.

Plans for a national commission have stalled in Congress. In May, Spotsylvania County -- which saw significant fighting during the war -- became the first locality to form a planning committee for the 150th anniversary commemoration.

. . .

Preparations already are well under way on the state level.

Unlike the 100th anniversary of the war -- which took place around the time of the civil-rights struggle and the Cold War -- the 150th commemoration in Virginia is supposed to be inclusive. Its motto is "Understanding Our Past, Embracing Our Future."

Commissioners promise that events will include multiple perspectives -- Union, Confederate and African-American -- and will tell a balanced story of Virginia's involvement.

To African-Americans, the Civil War conjures images of pain, exclusion and slavery, said the chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus.

"But once I say that, it's part of history, and I think we've gotten to a place where we recognize that we cannot rewrite history," said Del. Dwight Clinton Jones, D-Richmond. "Therefore it's important to bring it to mind and to learn it and to learn from it."

It's important to educate people -- especially children -- about the Civil War, said an African-American member of the commission.

"While there are parts of it that none of us particularly like, it's still history, it's still part of our state," said Del. Algie T. Howell, D-Norfolk, who became the first black social studies teacher at Hampton High School in 1967. "It's important that people learn about this."

. . .

While this year's observance of the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown settlement drew international attention and visitors to Virginia, the years-long Civil War event has "the potential in a different sort of way to be as significant, even more so," said House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford, the commission's chairman.

The commission particularly wants to reach out to young people, as well as immigrants who may have endured civil strife in their home countries and aren't familiar with the American war that threatened to tear apart the young nation.

The commemoration will be statewide in scope and will involve all battlefields, museums, parks and other Civil War-related sites.

The commission will work with the Virginia Historical Society to develop what it describes as a major statewide traveling exhibition that would fall into two parts, battle front and home front.

It would open in Richmond in February 2011. Tentative plans call for it to travel to Roanoke, Abingdon, Lynchburg, Fredericksburg, Winchester, Manassas and Norfolk during the following three years.

The commission is looking into a "Civil War 150 History Mobile," a tractor-trailer exhibit that would visit every city and county in Virginia.

It's also considering sponsoring a three-hour DVD about the war, with Blue Ridge Public Television and Tech's Civil War center, which would be distributed free to every school, library, archive and historical society in the state.

. . .

The General Assembly unanimously approved the creation of the commission last year. The measure was sponsored by William J. Howell, whose district includes the Fredericksburg battlefield.

In addition to the commission, dozens of educators, historians, community leaders and others -- including representatives from such institutions as the Museum of the Confederacy and the National Slavery Museum -- serve on three work groups and an advisory council.

"Every part of Virginia was touched by some part of the war," said Howell, who remembers hearing cannon fire near his home in Centreville during the 1961 re-enactment of the First Battle of Manassas.

He called the upcoming commemoration an exciting opportunity to promote tourism and enhance education.

Commission members don't know what the final cost will be and recently hired a fundraiser. The bulk of the money given so far by the assembly for the commemoration was for a visitor center and museum that the group has decided against constructing. That money, however, likely will help fund the traveling exhibits and other planned projects.

"We don't need another museum," Howell said. "We've got great museums all across the commonwealth. What we need to do is find a way to encourage people to go visit all the ones we have."

Charles F. Bryan Jr., president and chief executive officer of the historical society, approached Howell about creating the commission.

"I think we have a great opportunity to do it and do it well," he said he told the House speaker. "It's something that should not be neglected or overlooked."

For instance, Bryan said, never in the history of modern warfare have two enemy capitals been so close. Less than 100 miles separate Richmond and Washington, accounting for the huge number of battles fought on the land in between.

When people drive along Interstate 95 and U.S. 1 there today, "you're driving up a corridor of blood and death for all the skirmishes and battles fought there," Bryan said.

Next to the Revolution, Bryan said, the Civil War "is the most important event in American history. . . . Despite the horrendous cost in lives, the United States came out in the long run a stronger nation."


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