Time to reflect on the Civil War

Ulysses S. Grant beckoned.

Gray beard, blue coat, brown cigar; it was him, all right. The late, great Union Army general welcomed a visitor to his tent and explained himself.

"I am just a specter in the shadow of time," Grant said.

Surely, the whiskey was somewhere close. Everyone knows that story. But, no. Grant denounced the accounts of his drinking as libelous drivel, the work of scribbling hacks. People should know the truth, he said.

The truth, then.

Fact: This year kicks off the 150th anniversary of the conflagration that recast the United States. At the least, it's an excuse to revisit some great adventures: the lost orders of Antietam, Gen. Pickett's doomed charge across open ground.

The Civil War sesquicentennial, too, is a time to reflect - on how the war came to be and what it wrought. Inevitably, it's a time when unresolved racial and political conflicts rebound. Ideally, it's a time to sift fact from fiction.

Fact: The real Ulysses S. Grant was never at Gettysburg during the pivotal July 1863 battle. He was elsewhere, still making his violent way along the Mississippi River.

And the "Grant" in this tent was actually a middle school science teacher from Charleston, W.Va., named Barry Meadows. Old battlefields are his other classroom.

"I hope people will learn about the past and the cruelty of war," Meadows said.

He joined other Civil War re-enactors at Gettysburg recently to commemorate that battle's 148th anniversary. He held court from his command tent, one of many uniformed men anachronistically arrayed. He also was one of more than 8,000 re-enactors who turned out over the weekend to commemorate the July 21, 1861, First Battle of Manassas, called Bull Run in the North.

Battle shocked civilians

All things considered, First Manassas was a modest affair, though it shocked civilian sensibilities. About 5,000 were killed, wounded or missing. By the Civil War's end, total casualties exceeded 1 million, including more than 600,000 who died from combat or disease.

"Until First Manassas, the country didn't really have an awareness of what it was in for," National Park Service spokesman Mike Litterst said. "It was a real eye-opener."

"I think the 150th anniversary is a great way to understand the Civil War," Richard Hill, 64, a Seton Hall University administrator and Civil War re-enactor, said while standing at attention under the debilitating Gettysburg sun. "It made us who we are today."

States take initiative

Virginia formed the first sesquicentennial commission in 2006, and it's sponsoring nifty efforts such as a campaign to digitally scan Civil War documents held by Virginia residents.

The South Carolina Legislature created its own sesquicentennial advisory board in 2008, after wrangling over the number of African-American members.

More recently, Missouri established its Civil War sesquicentennial commission in April 2010.

"This was a war that pitted states against one another, (and) it's the states that are taking the lead in commemorating the war," noted Jim Campi, the policy and communications director for the Civil War Trust.

The nonprofit organization is trying to raise $40 million to preserve 20,000 acres of Civil War battlefield from development.

On Capitol Hill, Congress hasn't done much. Bills to establish a Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission have been introduced without success since 2007. The 400th anniversary of Jamestown, Va., by contrast, got its own federal commission, as did Abraham Lincoln's bicentennial.

Litterst acknowledged that "it's certainly been suggested" that Congress fears stepping into controversy. Politically speaking, Civil War minefields do exist.

Can't please everyone

Last year, Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell issued a Confederate History Month proclamation that omitted any reference to slavery.

He got blasted.

The Republican conservative apologized and issued another proclamation that declared "the institution of slavery led to this war."

McDonnell then faced a volley from the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who attacked him for his backsliding.