The Civil War in the U.S. ended 150 years ago this month. And the four-year commemoration of its many battles and significant historic moments will come to a close this month as well. It’s a bittersweet moment for College of Charleston English professor Simon Lewis, who has been at the epicenter of these happenings for nearly a decade.
Back in 2008, it was Lewis – a specialist in African literature – who helped orchestrate the nation’s most comprehensive commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the international slave trade. As the director of the College’s Program in the Carolina Lowcountry and the Atlantic World (CLAW), he immersed himself in planning for the Civil War sesquicentennial with a slew of partners, both local and national. Those proceedings kicked off with a major conference at the College in March 2011, which considered the Civil War in a global context.
Over the next two weeks of this month, a number of important events will play out in Charleston and elsewhere, beginning with today’s (April 9) commemoration of General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Across the country, the National Park Service is coordinating a commemorative ringing of bells, first at Appomattox at 3 p.m. and at many other sites 15 minutes later.
On Tuesday, April 14, the flag of the US will be re-raised at Fort Sumter. Though numerous other commemorative events are planned, three of the most significant, says Lewis, will occur on Sunday, April 19 in Charleston. That afternoon, there will be a memorial service at Hampton Park, honoring all of the dead from the war – 750,000 individuals – including not just Confederate and Union soldiers, but noncombatants as well. That evening, a dramatic light show at Fort Sumter will feature two beams pointing skyward that will be symbolically merged as one.
But perhaps the most significant event will be a recreation of Nat Fuller’s feast. A former slave, Fuller ran a restaurant – The Bachelor’s Retreat – that serviced white clientele until the end of the war. In April 1865, Fuller invited both freed slaves and white patrons to a sumptuous dinner celebrating the end of the war and the end of slavery.
“It was a remarkable gesture,” says Lewis, one he hopes our society will regard thoughtfully. “Though the Civil War ended 150 years ago, the effects of slavery remain with us, and you can see them in so many aspects of our daily lives, from real estate inequities to divisions in our houses of worship to education. We have to be cognizant of this. As a society, we still have not fully addressed the pain of slavery. My hope is that our commemorations will set the stage for these discussions and help spur them on.”