Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Long Shadow of Fort Sumter

didn't visit Fort Sumter until I was an adult, but I'd heard stories of the little-fort-that-could most of my life from my Dad, a Civil War buff.  In 1961, the Civil War Centennial year, Dad apparently sneaked time from his job as a traveling salesman to attend commemoration events in Charleston, S.C., where this week a chock-full calendar of 150th anniversary activities has attracted thousands of visitors and the attention of the world.  

My father, Ed Welborn, placed this commemorative
envelope in my hands in 1961, during the Civil War
Centennial.  The postmark bears the words "First Day of
Issue."  The envelope is signed by Ernest F. "Fritz"  Hollings,
 then the 106th governor of
South Carolina, and postmaster  Roland F. Wooten.
Hollings later represented South Carolina in the U.S. Senate. 
Fifty years ago, the war's centennial celebration unfolded against the turbulent backdrop of the Civil Rights movement. Commemoration events reflected the times; they were largely white only and had a decidedly pro-Confederate feel. This time, things clearly are different.  (For more about the anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter, go to www.civilwar.org.)

On a Friday evening back in '61, Dad returned to our small North Carolina town, surrounded by Civil War battlefields, smack in the path of Union General Sherman's march, and dotted with Confederate graves.  (He usually left home on Monday mornings and returned from his sales travels on Fridays.)  Into my little-girl hands, he placed a gray envelope he had purchased in Charleston.  Dad bought the first day cover for my stamp collection, but I tucked the envelope away, discovering its hiding place only recently as I began research for my latest book.

I still remember Dad's stories of the Confederate forces that began shelling the Union-held Fort Sumter at 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861. For 34 hours, rebels hurled more than 3,000 artillery and mortar shells at the diminutive garrison.  Union troops surrendered the fort on April 14; Confederate troops held it throughout the war. During the Union siege that began on April 7, 1863, the little fort endured another 44,000 projectiles, about 7 million pounds of ordnance.  (For more, go to Fort Sumter Numbers.) Fort Sumter became a symbol of the Confederate defiance and Union resolve that stretched the Civil War to four grueling years.
The history-altering events that exploded at Fort Sumter 150 years ago cast a long shadow, still fueling debate, uncovering truths, and teaching lessons.  At best, we should commemorate the Civil War anniversary not as just part of our history, but as a sobering reminder of its high cost.  

As I do so, I'm also going to remember my father and the first day cover that never made it to my stamp album.   
From my book-in-progress, Dear Father I Am Sorry To Tell You:

Many nights I’d find Dad studying his Civil War books at the fold-down desk-and-shelf unit he had never finished in his and Mamma’s bedroom. He sat in a folding chair, cigar smoke swirling around his horned rim glasses and settling into his dark, Brylcreemed hair.  With a big magnifying glass, he examined the books’ battlefield maps, charts and tables. I dared not disturb him.
As a young man, being the oldest child, Dad quit college to help support his mother, brothers and sisters after his father, my grandfather George Grant Welborn, fell mysteriously ill.  But Dad’s love of books and his curiosity about nearly everything didn’t fade. He thought his kids should learn about the Civil War, so he took us for picnics at nearby Averasboro and Bentonville battlegrounds, where Confederates fought Sherman’s troops. 
After our picnic lunch, we’d roam the hallowed grounds looking for spent Minié balls and belt buckles and gaze reverently at fallen heroes’ graves.  I bowed my head at the tombstones as instructed, but I didn’t understand Dad’s interest in war’s suffering and death.  I didn’t get his fascination for Saturday afternoon wrestling on the television, either. 

For more on my Fort Sumter visit, go to  PHOTOS page. 
RESOURCES: Washington, Wayne. “S.C. To Mark Start of Momentous, Tragic War," The State. Dec. 19, 2011.