ALBANY, Ga. -- On this date 150 years ago, the state of Georgia -- following the lead of South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida and Alabama -- signed an ordinance of secession by which it officially declared itself a free and independent state.
The action, taken by the Georgia Legislature because, as they wrote at the time, "The rulers whom the North offers us ... give sanctuary to thieves and incendiaries who assail it to the whole extent of their power ...; because their avowed purpose is to subvert our society and subject us not only to the loss of property but the destruction of ourselves, our wives and our children, and the desolation of our homes, our altars and our firesides," is one of the precursors to the American Civil War, which started slightly less than four months later, on April 12, 1861, at Fort Sumter in South Carolina.
In the century and a half since Georgia's secession, historians have argued the causes and effects of the Civil War and the events that led to the bloody conflict that claimed 620,000 American lives. And while all agree that the death and destruction were staggering blows to the still-young nation, arguments persist to this day over the causes of the devastating confrontation.
"There are some who say the Civil War was all about slavery, and there are others who say it was all about states' rights," said Tom Hiter, a retired professor who now serves as national chief of heritage defense for the Sons of Confederate Veterans organization. "It's just not that simple. There are huge, complicated factors that led to what was essentially the northern states' invasion of the South.
"Robert E. Lee said, 'Emancipation was a result of the war, not a cause,' and from my studies I've found that to be as accurate an assessment as there is. The North did not fight to free the slaves, and the South did not fight to keep the institution of slavery. It's much more complicated than that."
TRUTH 'IN MIDDLE'
South Carolina's Legislature passed that state's ordinance of secession Dec. 20, 1860, and Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana each followed suit during the next month. On Feb. 1 Texas became the seventh, and last, state to secede from the union before the onset of the war, but Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, Missouri and Kentucky joined them before 1861 had ended.
For four years, until April 9, 1865, the two sides fought fiercely before Lee's inevitable surrender to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Va.
And while that famous meeting ended the fighting and preserved the American Union, bitter rhetoric over that period of this country's history persists to this day.
"Like a bad marriage in which two incompatible individuals had been at odds and arguing for years, the South wanted a divorce," James King, commander of the local SCV camp, said. "The South was tired of the abuse.
"One can take certain statements, facts and quotes and present a perspective that the war and secession were totally over slavery, and one can take other statements, facts and quotes and present a perspective that slavery had nothing to do with the war and secession. The truth is somewhere in the middle."
The Sons of Confederate Veterans was organized in Richmond, Va., in 1896 as a means of preserving the heritage of Southern soldiers who fought during the Civil War. Its members say they constantly battle a stigma imposed by detractors who claim the organization perpetuates racial divide.
"It's like two boys on a playground: If one calls the other names, he's going to respond," Dan Coleman, a spokesman for the Georgia SCV division, said. "Unfortunately, there are people out there who profit from divisiveness, and race is an easy enough topic to stir people's passions.
"The main problem is with our education system. Until they go back and teach the true history of the Civil War rather than the revised history, there will be this perception that the 'benevolent North' fought to free suffering slaves and the South fought to keep them. And that's just not true. It's like Jefferson Davis said: 'Everything's negotiable but independence.' That's a Southern perspective that's not discussed."
Georgians will commemorate the sesquicentennial of the state's secession today in Milledgeville, the former state capital, with a Georgia SCV-sponsored re-enactment of speeches made by Alexander Stephens, Robert Toombs, Thomas Cobb, Eugenius Nisbett and Hershel Johnson during the state's 1861 convention. And while Coleman said he's heard "no adverse feedback" associated with the event, that hasn't been the case in other such celebrations.
The NAACP in South Carolina called for a protest of that state's "Secession Ball" held Dec. 20.
"The Sons of Confederate Veterans have become, by default, the focal point of people who oppose any celebration of Southern heritage," Hiter, who resides in western Kentucky, said. "And things have really picked up in the last five or six months as we've started talking about the sesquicentennial. There was a lot of noise about the (removal of the Confederate battle emblem from) state flags in Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina four or five years ago, but things quieted down.
"Now, as we celebrate an important date in our heritage, people who would attack our efforts see what we're doing as waving a red flag in front of them. That's not what we're about; this is no red flag. But the national media now seem to equate our group and the South in general with the Ku Klux Klan, and it puts us in an uncomfortable position."
Jimmy Shirley, the commander of a West Palm Beach SCV camp in south Florida who writes for a biweekly publication there, said he's come under personal attack for his affiliation with the SCV and, simply, for his Southerness.
"A young lady from New York made comments about me recently, and she talked about me being from the 'dirty South' and my lack of knowledge associated with my 'Rebel-ness'," Shirley said. "There seems to be a growing prejudice against the South associated with the Civil War, and groups like (the SCV) who try to point out errors passed off as historical fact are accused of presenting 'revisionist history.'
"But it's like kids working on a construction job. Plans get revised; there's nothing wrong with revision. The more we learn about the past, the more we need revision. There's this Yankee frame of mind where northerners won't listen to new historical data. You tell a Yankee the Civil War was not just about slavery, and they'll tell you you're wrong.
We could clear up a lot of problems (between Northerners and Southerners) in three little words: 'Yankee go home.' "
MORE DEBATE NEEDED
While such arguments rage on, stirring often heated debate, SCV officials insist their organization's purpose remains today what it has always been. And they say it will continue to concentrate on Southern heritage despite opposition from several fronts.
"We tried to run ads (about the sesquicentennial) on the History Channel, but they refused to air them, said they had a problem with the verbiage," Jack Bridwell, Georgia's SCV division commander, said. "I talked with a lady who told me, 'You can't say Lincoln invaded the South. You can't use the term invasion.' I don't know what she would call it.
"But that's the kind of thing we tend to run into. And that's one of the things that upsets me. You go to the trouble to find historical documentation, and people just turn you off."
That's why, Hiter says, there needs to be more debate on the topics of secession and the Civil War.
"I've seen the Confederate battle flag referred to in the media as the 'Confederate swastika,'" he said. "In other words, Confederate soldiers are being compared to Nazis. I am very proud of my ancestors' heritage. I don't like having that heritage impugned."