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“Historical Perspectives Guide North Carolina’s War Between the States Commemoration”
The Sesquicentennial of the War Between the States (WBTS) and North Carolina’s role in that tragic conflict, began with observances across the State on May 20, 1861, the 150th anniversary of North Carolina’s withdrawal from political union with the Northern States.
To accurately and honestly present the State’s participation in that war, the North Carolina War Between the States Sesquicentennial Commission was founded last year by interested citizens, historians and academics from across the State, who developed the goals of maintaining a website of history and information, gathering public input, and telling the story from a “North Carolinian perspective.” The banner atop the opening page of the website dedicates the website to the “Unsurpassed Valor, Courage, and Devotion to Liberty” of the North Carolinians of that period.
Bernhard Thuersam, Chairman of
Wilmington historian Bernhard Thuersam serves as chairman of the Commission and leads the effort to present the role of this State in an accurate light which leans primarily on solid primary and secondary source research, historical accuracy, and especially the words and recollections of North Carolinians who experienced the conflict in battle and at home. Thuersam said the selection process for the Commission “was guided by merit, ability, competency and experience, and most importantly earning the respect and confidence of the public. We wanted the best people on board.”
Thuersam notes that “we gained tremendous credibility as a source of historical accuracy when Thomas Smith, Jr., Commander of the North Carolina Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), generously agreed to serve as our Commission vice chair. We are very, very fortunate to have him with us.” Organized in 1896, the SCV is charged with maintaining the heritage and honor of the Confederate soldier, and ensuring that the history of the War be accurately and responsibly related to later generations of Americans.
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Mr. Thuersam adds that “the Commission is a great group of dedicated people to work with on the Sesquicentennial project and all help make this a very rewarding experience – making history easily accessible for young people today and preserving this information for future generations. What better sense of satisfaction could be achieved?”
The Commission also sees the Sesquicentennial observance as a compelling learning experience in today’s unique political environment – a time of renewed interest in Constitutional issues, the original and historic role of federal and State governments in the American political process – and how political questions were viewed by North Carolinians of that time. “This gives us incredible insight into their thoughts and understanding of the world they lived in,” said Thuersam.
Some of the most salient questions the website poses include why North Carolinians debated a departure from the Union, what reasons and rationale motivated them in this idea, how did they see this in relation to the United States Constitution, and how should we view their actions today? The pages of the Commission’s website run the gamut from the actual name of the conflict to early North Carolina political history and the lead up to actual war; Northern opposition to war; regiments being raised in defense of the State; selected battles and North Carolinian heroism; treason against the State, and memorials to those who fought and died, to name a few topics. One of the most compelling pages “Patriots of ’61,” is an illustrated compendium of North Carolinians, mostly farmers, who enlisted in defense of their country, and many of whom did not return.
The “At War: Battlegrounds and the Homefront” page not only presents the personal sacrifices and bravery in battle, but also the often destitute conditions at home, where wives and children had to maintain life with the men off to war.
“The website is not an all-inclusive register of battles and numbers of men engaged in various battles, but a comprehensive collection of short stories that present the conflict in understandable and very personal terms,” said Thuersam.
The Sesquicentennial Commission’s website is primarily a collection of pertinent quotes and excerpts from many primary sources that include diaries and letters, as well as books and periodicals written after the close of war which offer accurate period descriptions of the time and experiences. This is the approach, Thuersam says, which best informs the reader of history. “Through this method we can best understand what motivated the people of that time, why they acted in the manner that they did, and ultimately comprehend the effect that time has had upon our own time. This helps us “connect the dots,” so to speak, to our own time.”
Thuersam said that the Commission obviously could not do its work without the
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The authors of works cited on the Commission’s website span the 20th century and before, with authors like Daniel H. Hill and his son D.H., Jr., Walter Clark, Joseph de Roulhac Hamilton, RDW Conner, Archibald Henderson, Hugh Talmage Lefler, William Powell, Daniel Barefoot, Archie K. Davis, Mark A. Smith, Chris Fonvielle, Dawson Carr, Rod Gragg, Craig Chapman, Brenda McKean, Michael C. Hardy, and Neil Raiford, to name just a few. Thuersam holds that “all North Carolinians owe a debt of gratitude to them for their great work in remembering North Carolina’s past, and our project would not be possible without their labors.”
Though dependent upon private-funding in these hard economic times, the Commission has sponsored many events across the State and sought public input on the observances. “I am always impressed,” Thuersam adds, “by the public turnout at our events and the many people who remember their own ancestors, the North Carolina regiments they served in, and the battles they fought in.” He noted a time recently when a lady introduced herself at an event as the descendant of Col. William Lamb of Fort Fisher fame, “and thanked us for our work in remembering her ancestor and the brave men who fought with him.” She left a donation.
Asked of another sesquicentennial website online, Thuersam responded: “First of all, I think the more Sesquicentennial websites that present accurate North Carolina history to the public, so much the better! There is one online that does a good job of presenting the historical timeline and chronological order of battles and such, certainly a valuable resource in that vein.”
Thuersam is concerned though about history being driven more by political considerations than being dedicated to the North Carolina people who sacrificed, fought, bled and died in that war. “If the historian is more concerned about imposing current social and political attitudes on the past, then historical accuracy is sacrificed to satisfy political expediency, pressure groups, and issues that have no bearing on the period we are relating. One must avoid “presentism,” and judging the past by today’s beliefs.”
Asked about the claim of “new interpretations” coming from some social historians, Thuersam stated that “the experiences of North Carolinians then, interpretations of the time, if you will, are already in existence and easily found. These are the only interpretations that are valid, and the historian of today who claims to know the minds of our ancestors better than they, is being rather disingenuous.”
He added, “When historians today talk of “new perspectives” on the past, what they are really saying is that they wish to project modern political thought and prejudices into our view of the past, and distort the meaning of our traditions, culture, and understanding of past generations of North Carolinians.”
In reply to the assertion that the Commission’s website is a “Confederate-side” of the story, Thuersam said that “that is an interesting comment – but this is the North Carolina side of the story; the story of the men, women and children, young and old, black and white, who experienced the war and its destructive effects. How else do you relate our history to later generations than through the eyes and ears of those who lived through it? The North Carolinians of that time did indeed join the American Confederacy, and did nothing wrong in their own eyes; they were motivated by self-preservation, political independence and Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration. This is an American viewpoint, not “Confederate.”
Asked if anything would help make their effort more successful, Thuersam reflectively noted that “money is always an issue with private historical endeavors – we have been fortunate to have received some generous private donations for research and maintaining the website,” and he noted that much source material is provided by several large private libraries. “We could always use more funds and anyone can contact me with questions.”
The most rewarding aspect of this large project for a privately-funded historical group, Thuersam maintains, “is the positive effect we are having on the public, and especially young people, and this is proven by the many, many, positive comments received from all over the State, and beyond.” As the Sesquicentennial is upon us and we will not be here for the Bicentennial, “we are leaving a good foundation and legacy for the next observance.”
Historical Perspectives Guide NC WBTS Commemoration