150th anniversary of Civil War begins Tuesday with Philly-area events

Confederate reenactors fire their rifles during a display at Fort Moultrie in Charleston, S.C. The 150th anniversary of the first shot fired in the Civil War, at Fort Sumter in South Carolina, takes place Tuesday.
Confederate reenactors fire their rifles during a display at Fort Moultrie in Charleston, S.C. The 150th anniversary of the first shot fired in the Civil War, at Fort Sumter in South Carolina, takes place Tuesday.
Posted: April 12, 2011

One hundred and fifty years ago Tuesday, Philadelphia was feeling edgy. Residents picked up their newspapers that morning to find grim reports of impending war between North and South.

Then came news - the same day - that hit the city like a bombshell: The rebels had opened fire on federal troops at Fort Sumter, S.C.

Anxious crowds gathered outside newspaper offices near Chestnut and Third Streets to read the headlines posted on bulletin boards and wait for papers to come off the presses.

"There was an electricity in the air," said Anthony Waskie, a Temple University professor, Civil War historian, and author of a new book, Philadelphia and the Civil War: Arsenal of the Union.

"People stayed up late that night," he said. "They were frustrated and angry. Mobs demanded everybody show the flag."

Across Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and the nation, Tuesday marks the beginning of four years of sesquicentennial exhibits, commemorations, parades, and battle reenactments recalling the key events of the Civil War.

"We need to know our history," said John Meko Jr., chairman of the Civil War History Consortium of Greater Philadelphia, a nonprofit group made up of dozens of history-related groups and institutions involved in coming events.

"Next to the American Revolution, the Civil War is the single most important moment in our history," he said. "Things could have happened a lot different for the United States if the war had not happened."

A free exhibit focusing on the 150th anniversary will open at 6 p.m. Tuesday and run from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily at Laurel Hill Cemetery, where dozens of Civil War generals are buried.

Also Tuesday, the National Constitution Center will open its Civil War panel exhibition on the constitutional crisis facing President Abraham Lincoln. It will be followed at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday by a program presented by the historian Adam Goodheart, author of the new book 1861: The Civil War Awakening.

At the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, important Civil War documents - including a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation and letters written to and from Confederate and Union Gens. George G. Meade, Ulysses S. Grant, and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson - will be displayed from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday only.

In Camden, historians and legal scholars will examine the constitutional issues raised by the conflict during a free conference from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday at Rutgers University's School of Law.

And in Harrisburg, Gov. Corbett, a host of other state officials, and reenactors will gather at 10 a.m. Tuesday at the Capitol Rotunda for an event outlining the state's program of Civil War commemorations.

One of the projects involves a traveling interactive exhibit - in an expandable 53-foot tractor-trailer - that will make stops in all 67 counties. It will visit Franklin Square from July 1 to 4.

This weekend, the bombardment of Fort Sumter will be re-created when Civil War reenactors - taking the role of rebels - fire cannon from the 19th-century Fort Mott in Salem County, N.J., toward Fort Delaware, a former Union fort on Pea Patch Island.

Visitors will see reenactors at Mott from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The firing will take place at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

"We're looking forward to it," said Mike Bonaccorsi, a state visitor service assistant at Mott. "This is something we haven't done before."

One hundred and fifty years ago this month, hundreds of military volunteers marched through the city to board a train for Washington - and their mustering and parade will be re-created Saturday by at least 500 Civil War reenactors.

Blue-clad troops - including African American reenactors and bands - will gather at the National Constitution Center and march south at 10 a.m. on Sixth Street past the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and Washington Square. They will stop for ceremonies at the Union League on Broad Street, then head to Washington Avenue, where they will stage demonstrations at the place where soldiers once boarded trains for the national capital.

The Saturday event will be followed at 6 p.m. by a Civil War Commemoration Ball at the Union League, formed in 1862 to counter Southern sympathies in the city. Many participants will be dressed in period attire. The ball costs $85 per person.

On April 22 and 23, ceremonies, living history demonstrations, and skirmishes will be held at Fairfield, near Gettysburg, where Union Pvt. George Crawford Platt, of Philadelphia's Grays Ferry section, prevented his regimental flag from falling into the hands of the enemy on July 3, 1863, and later received a Medal of Honor for his heroism.

Platt rose to the rank of sergeant, and his great-great-grandson Lawrence Platt worked to have the Penrose Avenue Bridge renamed the George C. Platt Memorial Bridge in 1979.

"I worshiped the ground my great-great-grandfather walked on," said Lawrence Platt, 60, of Norwood, Delaware County. "I'm dedicated to him. With my brushy eyebrows and goatee, I even look like him."

Civil War buffs will gather at 1 p.m. April 23 at Palmer Cemetery in the Fishtown section to mark the installation of a memorial to George Leisenring, a German immigrant who was the first Union volunteer from Philadelphia to die in the war.

Some of the largest Civil War events are yet to come. The Battles of Bolivar Heights and Ball's Bluff in 1861 and encampments will be re-created April 29 and 30 and May 1 at Neshaminy State Park in Bensalem.

"We need to learn more about our Civil War history because it was just as transformative as the Revolutionary War," said Laura Blanchard, executive director of the Civil War History Consortium. "We had to confront our divided nature.

"A lot of the challenges and inherent conflict and the way we coped with them came from the Civil War and are still unfinished."

Contact staff writer Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com.