The Civil War began 150 year ago at 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861 with an attack on the Union base at Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C. The first part of this video is an excerpt from Ken Burns' Civil War documentary.
While historians agree that the root cause of the Civil War was slavery, a recent survey by the Pew Research Center shows that the American public is sharply divided on this historical point. The poll revealed that 48 percent said the Civil War was mainly about states' rights, 38 percent said mainly about slavery and nine percent said both.
A panel of historians discussed this with Judy Woodruff including Edna Medford of Howard University who commented, "I think Americans, unfortunately, don't know our own history, first of all. And, at some point, of course, after the war, the nation sort of came together and decided that it was going to forget what the real cause was, because it was too painful to remember that slavery was what divided the nation."
Walter Edgar from the University of South Carolina remarked, "I think, among white Southerners, there is -- there's disagreement. Some would say states' rights. Some would say slavery. I have even heard the tariff mentioned. Very few people talk as much about the election of Lincoln, although that was a defining factor in South Carolina's decision to secede." Despite the disagreement on the root causes on the Civil War, some of the wounds of the bloodiest war in U.S. history have yet to heal.
Despite some controversy during the centennial commemoration that occurred at the height of the Civil Rights movement, many historians and Southerners are aiming to move forward commemorating the events without celebrating the painful memories of chattel slavery.
"But I think Americans, unfortunately, don't know our own history, first of all. And, at some point, of course, after the war, the nation sort of came together and decided that it was going to forget what the real cause was, because it was too painful to remember that slavery was what divided the nation." Edna Medford, Howard University
"Well, we had a critical moment in the understanding of the Civil War and the nature of engagement with the Civil War that happened around the time of the centennial, 50 years ago, when the centennial and the civil rights movement were occurring pretty much simultaneously." Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard University
"Well, clearly, the nation -- the Civil War was a crucial dilemma, crucial point in American history. And it changed us. And it made us one nation. In a little state like South Carolina, over 30 percent of the eligible white male population died in the war. That's twice the figure that the European nations lost in World War I, where they supposedly all lost a generation." Walter Edgar, University of South Carolina
1. What caused the American Civil War?
2. Why is slavery important to the history of the United States?
3. How has the United States changed since 1861? 1911? Since 1961?
1. What is the best way to commemorate controversial events in American History such as the Civil War? How can people who see the Civil War's legacy differently listen and learn from each other?
2. When did you first learn about the history of slavery in the United States? How did it make you feel?
3. If you were in charge of teaching the Civil War in your school, how would you do it?
4. According to the Pew Research Center poll 48 percent of Americans believe the Civil War began because of states’ rights while 38 percent believe it began because of slavery. What do you think about these results? Why do you think the American public is divided on this historical fact?