The presidential election of 1860 that sent Abraham Lincoln to the White House prompted many Southern states to secede from the Union, and civil war followed. Because November 2010 marks the 150th anniversary of the election that was the catalyst for what followed, this month saw the first of many events that will commemorate the sesquicentennial of America’s Civil War over the next five years. However, political concerns and the country’s current economic situation may diminish the size and number of those events.

A USA Today story on November 12 reported that the Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission Act to establish a national, federally funded committee is stalled in House and Senate committees. Some cash-strapped states are leaving planning and execution of events to volunteer groups. Other states, however, are providing significant funding in hopes of increasing tourism while commemorating a time when America redefined itself and two percent of its population died fighting for the conflicting causes in which they believed. Virginia, for example, has appropriated $2 million dollars for each of the next five years.

Tennessee, which was second only to Virginia in the number of battles fought on its soil during the war, has designated a Civil War Trail that includes information on side trips to other tourist destinations along the route. The state’s National Public Television stations are partnering with the private sector to create and broadcast documentaries over the next five years and to provide short films for use in schools. The Tennessee Civil War Preservation Association is selling T-shirts, mugs and other commemorative items to raise money for preservation and interpretation at the state’s many Civil War sites.

HistoryNet‘s senior Web editor, Gerald D. Swick, was present in Nashville when Tennessee kicked off its five-year Civil War Sesquicentennial observance on November 12–13. He provides the following report and photographs.

A Confederate reenactor teaches students the steps required to load a musket.
A Confederate reenactor teaches students the steps required to load a musket.
Young recruits stood in line as a Confederate sergeant drilled them in the steps required to load and fire a musket. On command, they lifted their weapons to ready for loading. The “weapons” were boards carved roughly into rifle shape and the young recruits were really young—elementary school children brought to Nashville’s commemorative Bicentennial Mall for a trip back to Civil War times.

Sixty busloads of students were expected on Friday, November 12, to witness musket and artillery demonstrations, hear such speakers as “Abraham Lincoln,” and visit encampments where living history volunteers explained such things as medical treatment, blacksmithing, and even Victorian mourning practices.

Donovan Caballero, a 5th-grade teacher from Nolensville Elementary School southeast of Nashville called the activities “Great. They (the living history volunteers) bring it down on the kids’ level so they’re not bored.”

Ten-year-old Aspen Talbot found the infirmary especially interesting and said she wants to learn more about the period. Her mother, Laura, said the family had recently moved to Tennessee from Alaska where “they taught the basics about the war, but nothing like this.”

Irene Whitley, a teacher from Akiva School in Nashville, said her 4th graders especially enjoyed hearing a presentation by a man in the role of Abraham Lincoln and learning how cavalrymen used their swords to greatest effect in battle.

Sixth graders from Dickson Academy in the small town of Burns west of Nashville were required to write reports on what they saw and learned. The school’s 7th graders had to interview one of the many living history volunteers, who ranged from women in period dress to people portraying famous historical figures, such as Union General Ulysses S. Grant.

“The children were bright-eyed,” said Dr. E. C. “Curt” Fields, Jr., who portrayed Grant. His fiancé, Lena Moody, was with him as Grant’s wife, Julia. ” You could tell by their countenance they were fascinated, absorbed in what they were seeing and hearing.”

Not all visitors were schoolchildren. Judy Evans said she drove 65 miles after working all night because she was hoping to find someone who could tell her how women’s sidesaddles were girded onto horses. She owns her great-grandmother’s sidesaddle, manufactured by Montgomery Company in Nashville between 1865 and 1867.

A couple of miles from the grassy Bicentennial Mall, David Martin of Whites Creek north of Nashville sat in the state’s War Memorial Auditorium listing to a series of historical talks and reading Civil War Times in-between speakers. He remembers the Civil War centennial from his childhood and said that, while he thinks the kickoff was great, “there’ll be a lot of activity, but I don’t think there’ll be the hoopla” that surrounded the 1960s events. “For one thing, we had people present then who were sons and daughters of people who lived during the war.”

Across the street, the Tennessee State Museum supplemented its extensive Civil War displays by allowing visitors into parts of the museum normally open only to staff. These special tours lifted attendance from the 100 visitors common on Saturdays to four or five times that many, one of the museum’s employees said. Among the rarely seen artifacts on the special tours were the bullet-holed saddle Confederate Brigadier General John Adams was riding when he was killed in the 1864 Battle of Franklin, Tennessee; an 1866 leg prostheses; and an unfinished Confederate cannon that was being manufactured in Nashville when Federal troops occupied the town in February 1862.

During the Civil War Centennial of the 1960s, focus fell almost exclusively on battles and famous personalities. Sesquicentennial events will likely encompass a much broader range of subjects, including civilian life, the roles of women and minorities, etc. Will the sesquicentennial events spark greater interest in the Civil War, as happened during the centennial? Only time will tell.

Asked if her family would be doing anything other than attending the kickoff events, Dawn Wilkerson of Nolensville replied, “Oh, yes. I have an 11-year-old son who is obsessed with history, so we’ll be doing family things together at Franklin.”

Click here to read a description of three homes that survived the Battle of Franklin and are now Civil War interpretive sites.

Information on sesquicentennial activities by many states, organizations, museums and other groups can be found on HistoryNet’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Partners page.