In this column, members of Georgia Humanities and their colleagues take turns discussing Georgia’s history and culture, and other topics that matter. Through different voices, we hear different stories.
This week guest contributor Laura McCarty, executive vice president of Georgia Humanities, considers the Civil War Sesquicentennial in our state.
By Laura T. McCarty
For the last five years, Georgians and groups across the state have been marking the Sesquicentennial, or 150th anniversary, of the Civil War. Historic sites, communities, and businesses have looked to the anniversaries of various events as opportunities for economic impact as well as appropriate times to look back and reflect on the meanings of the Civil War.
It will be awhile before we can fully assess the impact of the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War in Georgia. However, if we look back fifty years to the Centennial, we might find some lessons, as well as an important question to ask ourselves: what else was going on at the time?
Governor Ernest Vandiver Jr. appointed the Georgia Civil War Centennial Commission in 1959. The Commission encouraged local communities to conduct programs as well as to collect and preserve artifacts and stories related to the conflict.
The Georgia Commission and their official commemorations were entirely on the white side of the color line. Their publications and programs emphasized the military aspects of the war, downplayed slavery as a cause for the war, and upheld an idealized vision of antebellum leaders, all of which are characteristics of Lost Cause ideology.
Yet these commemorations were not the only ways that the meaning of the Civil War was playing out in Georgia during this era. People were on the streets and in the courts concerning the desegregation of schools, public spaces, and ballot boxes.
The fall of Atlanta in 1864 and Sherman’s March to the Sea in many ways marked the turning point of the war, which led to the events of April 1865 — the end of the War. The Georgia Civil War Centennial Commission did not really commemorate those events, although they did host the national gathering of state centennial commissions in Atlanta in June 1964, once they assured the national commission that they could access integrated lodging options. The program featured a lecture by Ralph McGill and tours of the Cyclorama and Stone Mountain, which was still in early development as a state historic site. The conference did not attract a large attendance of scholars or politicians, as many were in Washington, D.C., for the final debates about the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
So what was the finale for the Civil War Centennial in Georgia? It was held in Fitzgerald during “Blue & Gray Days,” a community festival celebrating the heritage of this Ben Hill County seat, about 200 miles south of Atlanta.
Founded by Philander Fitzgerald in 1896, the town of Fitzgerald was a “colony” for Civil War veterans. Philander Fitzgerald was an attorney in Indianapolis who had served as a drummer boy for the Union army. During a drought in the Midwest, Fitzgerald developed the idea for his veteran clients to resettle in the South. He advertised the availability of the new community in the wiregrass region of Georgia, near what had been a turpentine village called Swan, home to white and African American laborers, and a resettlement was on.
The advertisements promoted the area as a sparsely populated region, with opportunities for veterans as farmers and business proprietors. The establishment of the town of Fitzgerald is an example of New South economic development as well as the era’s reconciliation between white northerners and white southerners. Town patriarchs demonstrated their reconciliation by naming an equal number of streets after Confederate and Union notables. The town hotel was the Lee-Grant.
The 1890s were a complicated time in race relations, as Georgia and other southern states passed laws that mandated separation of the races and codified traditions of white supremacy. In 1896 the U.S. Supreme Court issued Plessy v. Ferguson, the decision that upheld the doctrine of “separate but equal” until the 1964 Civil Rights act.
Around the time of the Civil War Centennial, local historian Beth Davis and Fitzgerald politicians and chamber of commerce leaders determined to capitalize on this unique history. Davis wrote a play, Our Friends, the Enemy, about the town, and the town established the Blue & Gray Museum, which still exists today, although the current mission is to honor veterans of all American wars.
In Tony Horwitz’s book Confederates in the Attic, he recounted a visit to the Blue & Gray Museum and a meeting with Mrs. Davis. In Fitzgerald’s unique history, Horowitz found “a glimpse of an alternative strain of post-War Southern history, akin to the many instances of racial progress and cooperation in the late nineteenth century that had been erased from modern memory by Southerners’ demonization of Reconstruction, or by Northerners’ smug stereotypes of a Klan-driven, Jim Crow South.” While the Georgia Civil War Centennial Commission didn’t pursue the opportunity to expand the public memory of the Civil War by focusing on the war’s connection to African American freedom, perhaps they were onto something, without knowing it, through their selection of Fitzgerald as a wrap-up site.
Georgia has not had a Sesquicentennial of the Civil War Commission, though the Georgia Department of Economic Development has publicized opportunities for tourists.
A notable event for showing how Georgia has changed in 50 years was “The Civil War and the Forging of Character” symposium held at the Lovett School in Atlanta, featuring scholars Ed Ayers, David Blight, Gary Gallagher, and Joan Waugh, on the anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
Perhaps in 50 years it will be interesting to see what historians have to say about such commemorative events within the context of contemporary issues — particularly, the current debate over the Confederate flag.
Laura McCarty is the executive vice president of Georgia Humanities.
Kelly Caudle of Georgia Humanities provides editorial assistance for the “Jamil’s Georgia” columns.