South Carolina remembers start of Civil War 150 years later

Cannons boomed at dawn around Charleston Harbor, recreating the bombardment of Fort Sumter that plunged the nation into the Civil War on April 12, 1861. / WCIV

COLUMBIA (WPDE, WACH, AP) -- Perhaps no other event in U.S. history continues to fascinate Americans as much as the Civil War.

Today marks 150 years since the first shots were fired in the American Civil War. Cannons boomed at dawn around Charleston Harbor, recreating the bombardment of Fort Sumter that plunged the nation into the Civil War on April 12, 1861.

Around 4 a.m. Tuesday, a single beam of light was aimed skyward from Fort Sumter. Then about a half-hour later, around the time of the first shots of the war, the beam split into two beams, signifying a nation torn in two.

The war resulted in more than 600,000 deaths, although during the bombardment of Sumter only a Confederate officer's horse was killed.

The South Carolina ceremony Tuesday begins the four-year national commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the nation's bloodiest war that still divides people today.

The war still sparks strong emotions among some South Carolina natives, including the debate over what it should be named.

"It always was known as the War Between the States and only because it became a racial issue did it change its name to the Civil War. But it was really the War Between the States," said Lyda Greene of Conway.

A Conway man who claims a Northern heritage believes he knows why native Southerners take the war more personally.

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"Where I lived, my great grandparents and grandparents probably talked about it, but didn't pay much attention to it, whereas here, you lived it," said Ray Binis.

"It's a big part of our Southern history and heritage," said Angel Jolley of Carolina Forest.

"I think everyone needs needs to look at this anniversary in a sober fashion, in an informed fashion where all parties come to the table in meaningful dialogue," said John Sherrer of the Historic Columbia Foundation.

According to a new CNN/Opinion Research poll, 54-percent of all Americans think the leaders of the Confederacy seceded to keep slavery legal in their states. However, 42 percent do not think slavery was the main reason why those states broke away.

The results of the poll show there are still racial, political, and geographic divisions over the Civil War. Most non-whites think the main reason for the Civil War was slavery, while whites are split, and most white Southerners believe the war was fought for other reasons.

The Civil War debate also turns up various reasons in political circles. Democrats think the southern states seceded over slavery, while most Republicans polled believe slavery was not the main reason that the Confederate states left the Union. Independents are split.

The poll of 824 Americans was taken by phone on April 9th and 10th.

Rod Gragg, a Civil War historian and director of the Center for Military and Veterans studies at Coastal Carolina University, says native Southerners have more of a feeling and awareness of the war than other Americans.

"There's never been another section of the nation that suffered the destruction and the loss that the South did and that's something that has effected the South for generations, for more than a century."

Gragg says Civil War buffs from the South may enjoy debating the war, but the issues that led to the conflict have been long settled and Southerners have no interest in re-fighting it.

"There are collectors of artifacts, of stamps, of uniforms, re-enactors. All kind of folks are interested in the Civil War and in that sense, there is interest in continuing to fight the Civil War, but I think that's as far as it goes."

Gragg says the war continues to fascinate all Americans because it was the first modern war fought on U.S. soil, a war of innovation.

"The first battle between ironclad warships, the first instant coffee, the first national income tax."

Gragg says each new generation rediscovers the unique history of the Civil War and he doubts that will ever change.

"It was an era of drama, of terrible tragedy, of great courage and sacrifice. For Southerners, it was family history. For everyone else, it's fascinating history."

What do you think was the cause of the Civil War? Was it slavery, states' rights or something else? Vote in our web poll below and leave a comment.

(The Associated Press, WPDE and contributed to this story)