CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - At dawn on Tuesday, re-enactors dressed and armed as Confederate soldiers will fire cannons toward Fort Sumter, commemorating the first shots of the Civil War 150 years ago.
Fired on April 12, 1861, the original shots launched the four-year conflict that divided the country, claimed 620,000 American lives and freed the slaves.
Visitors are expected to arrive in the historic port city of Charleston, South Carolina, for the commemorative and education sesquicentennial events starting this weekend.
Organizers have spent two years crafting the occasion as a solemn nod to the past, inclusive of all those whose lives were affected by the war.
“Whatever we do, it can’t look like 1961,” said Michael Allen, education specialist with the National Parks Service.
In 1961 in the deeply segregated South, the city’s 100th anniversary of the start of the Civil War looked like a party. It included a fireworks show, a parade of marching bands, costumed Southern belles and rebel soldiers, and waving of Confederate flags.
“No visitor in town could have doubted he was in Dixie,” the (Charleston) News and Courier reported at the time.
The next year, the Confederate battle flag was raised over the statehouse dome in the capital city of Columbia, where it remained until protests brought it down just a decade ago.
The 150th anniversary events in Charleston will set a different tone, officials said. The National Parks Service’s theme for the sesquicentennial is “Civil War to Civil Rights,” and Allen said he has reached out to the NAACP as well as the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
“It’s not a celebratory time,” said Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr.
South Carolina in 1860 was the first state to secede from the Union in order to protect the institution of slavery, then the cornerstone of the South’s agrarian economy.
“We are at a place where historic events happened,” Riley said. “We are prepared to begin to relive these events and to learn from them. It will be instructive and beneficial, and it will be moving.”
But not everyone is on the same page. On Thursday, Charleston Democratic state Senator Robert Ford upset fellow black leaders when he took the podium in the statehouse with a Confederate flag in his hand.
Ford urged African Americans to celebrate the sesquicentennial, saying the start of the Civil War signaled the end of slavery. The head of Charleston’s NAACP called Ford’s remarks “ludicrous.”
The coming week will feature outdoor concerts, lectures by historians, films, theater, art exhibits, ceremonies and encampments of Union and Confederate re-enactors.
An outdoor concert on Monday night will include spiritual ensembles, Civil War tunes and a symphony performance of Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln’s Portrait.”
Other states that were part of Civil War history — from Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia to Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey — also have plans to remember the war.
“But the start of the war means that the eyes of the entire country and perhaps the world are going to be on us,” said Perrin Lawson, deputy director of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The budget stalemate in Congress could put a kink in the sesquicentennial plans. A federal government partial shutdown would close the Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie national monuments to visitors.
Tour boats to Fort Sumter, which sits in the middle of the Charleston Harbor, would not be able to land, said Chip Campsen, owner of Fort Sumter Tours and a Republican state senator from Charleston.
“It is the most inopportune time (for a shutdown),” Campsen said. “The 150th anniversary only comes around once. But we need to deal with our federal budget mess.”
A shutdown would also mean hundreds of Civil War re-enactors could not camp at the forts or recreate the surrender of Fort Sumter by Union Major Robert Anderson to Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, Anderson’s former artillery student at West Point.
“We need to do those soldiers justice on both sides, because both of them were fighting for a cause they believed in,” said Randy Burbage, a veteran Confederate re-enactor.
Re-enactors can still carry out plans to fire blanks from two dozen historic cannons throughout Tuesday. They will fire the cannons from Patriots Point, a World War II memorial across the river in Mount Pleasant.
The spot is historically inaccurate, Burbage said, but “it was the only place we could get permission.”
Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Jerry Norton