- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 14, 2008

WILLIAMSBURG | It’s not much of a war between the states - Virginia is clearly winning.

The Old Dominion was the first to start planning for the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, and it continues to lead as Congress holds back, wary of a misstep in commemorating a war that still touches such raw emotions.

“The whole country is looking to us to see what we’ll do. North Carolina has just created a commission, and West Virginia is working with us, but we’re moving and shifting gears. We’re rounding first and heading for second,” said James Robertson, historian and head of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies at Virginia Tech.

It’s not much of a stretch. The war crisscrossed the state, and many re-enactors still trace the footsteps of the troops. Virginia had the first major battle of the war, hosted the capital of the Confederate States of America and witnessed the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army. More than 60 percent of all the battles in the war were fought in Virginia.

Kicking up the intensity of Civil War events already held each year in Virginia shouldn’t be too hard. But is there a risk that the 150th events will cement a stereotype that Dakotans or Californians hold of Virginia - that the Old Dominion is still fixated on “the Lost Cause?”

“This is not about getting into that debate of whether the war was about slavery or about states’ rights,” said state Sen. Mamie Locke, Hampton Democrat, who sits on the commission.

“We can’t say that it didn’t happen. We can just say we will look at every aspect. It’s not just the battles. It’s about the people. We’re going to look at it from a real human perspective, because it’s also about the people who stayed home to protect their families.”

John Quarstein, historian for the city of Hampton and a consultant to Newport News, said: “It’s going to be marketed differently. It’s the story of a war about freedom. We’re not waving the same old flag.”

The six years of anniversary events begin in April with a free conference in Richmond to describe America in 1859. In June, John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry will be remembered. From there it becomes a marathon of memorials to the battles and skirmishes that affected every locality in Virginia.

“When you say ‘Civil War,’ we can put you in 30 different sites in just Hampton and Newport News,” Mr. Quarstein said.

That geographic scope and the length of the anniversary make this a different undertaking from last year’s commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Jamestown. There were local committees and events tied to the Jamestown marketing, but those were hampered by a scarcity of 1607 touchstones.

“Jamestown’s commemoration was instructive, but it’s not exactly the same,” said William J. Howell, speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates and chairman of the 150th committee.

“Not to downgrade the significance of the 400th, but it was one point in time in one place in Virginia. The Civil War was four years and covered almost every point in Virginia.”

The Civil War remains in the soil here. Virginia has more than 400 Civil War sites linked by the signage of a Civil War Trails program. Already, 79 cities and counties in the state have formed sesquicentennial committees to plan events.

Those committees will be the engine driving the 150th. Whereas the local events for Jamestown hung off of centralized planning and marketing of Peninsula museums, there is no one Civil War museum that will be the focus of Virginia’s efforts.

“For example, on May 5 we will do something about the Battle of Williamsburg. The extent of it is going to depend on the local committee and what they want to do,” Mr. Quarstein said.

“We need to get organized and market what we already have. Every year, I celebrate the Battle of the Ironclads and the Battle of Big Bethel, but now the glare of the spotlight will be on us. It gives us a chance to do more.”

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