Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Rediscovering Old Perspectives: North Carolina’s WBTS Sesquicentennial


North Carolina History Explorations (NCHE) in late November 2013 interviewed Bernhard Thuersam, Chairman of the North Carolina War Between the States Sesquicentennial Commission, and editor of the Commission’s official North Carolina War Between the States Sesquicentennial website: www.ncwbts150.com.  Mr. Thuersam’s remarks are below and are transcribed as spoken (BT):

NCHE:  With almost three years of the war’s observance behind us, what would you say the North Carolina Sesquicentennial Commission has accomplished to date?  

BT: “First, I need to thank the fine North Carolinians who volunteered to serve on the Commission and all those who have donated their time, research and ideas to help record the people, events and places of 150 years ago – without them all that we have done would not be possible as it is a voluntary endeavor and we receive no public funding.  Our Commission rightfully represented people from all over North Carolina, all interested in their heritage and history. 

By the way, you are using the Northern term for the war and I must correct you as gently as I can – ours is a North Carolinian view of that conflict and it was no civil war.  Many make this mistake, but of course this is one of the reasons the Sesquicentennial effort is so important – to offer an accurate view of the past.  The most common explanation of the use of “civil war” is its brevity – though “War Between the States” easily rolls off the tongue if one is willing to use it.  Small point, but important as we must use our language correctly.  

Our website is not a simple chronological listing of battles, generals and important dates, but an overview of the War as it affected North Carolinians including their heroism, valor and sacrifices – and very often in their own words.  Most importantly, we are rediscovering the old perspectives on the war as told by those who lived it – through their diaries, recollections and authors who were close to the experiences and used primary sources.  Authors we highlight bring much lost history and understanding to light today, and hopefully we make people think.

Unfortunately, many contemporary accounts of the war utilize perspectives and authors too far removed, who lack a sense of intellectual context with what and who they write about, and simply have a modern ideological bias built into their comments. One learns little or nothing of our shared history from this narrow point of view, and we wanted to offer a better source. 

My feeling too is that we have well-accomplished our goal of providing a proper observance of North Carolina’s role in that period, and related those people, places and events to those living today so that they can appreciate and honor those that fought for North Carolina’s independence a second time.  Our title “Unsurpassed Valor, Courage and Devotion to Liberty” says it all,” and we can better understand our history when viewed through a clear lens.”

NCHE:  Who are your Commission members and how are they appointed?

BT: “We simply began with a small group of historians interested in this effort and website project, led by Dr. Clyde Wilson who is an eminent historian, author and well-recognized authority on Southern history. Not to mention a native Tarheel as well.  We then invited, gathered and constructed the Commission as it stands today, virtually from Currituck to Cherokee and we wanted to properly represent as much of the State as possible.  

We are still adding to that today and I am very proud to announce that several prominent North Carolinians have recently joined the Commission to include past North Carolina Division SCV Commanders Bruce Tyson and Frank Powell.  Having the leadership of the North Carolina SCV on the Commission was very important to me as we are telling the story of their ancestors, and the ancestors of the many member they lead today across North Carolina.

Also joining the Commission is author Brenda Chambers McKean whose two-volume “Blood and War at My Doorstep” is a deeply-researched and timely look at the experiences of civilians during the War, and Kelly Atkins Hinson whose vivid living history portrayals of Mrs. Stonewall Jackson has brought the grief and human losses of the War to many in North Carolina.  I have witnessed her program several times and note nary a dry-eye in the audiences.  We appreciate them being part of this effort.”  

NCHE:  No public funding for such an impressive effort? Was this offered to the Commission?

BT:  “No public money or grants were pursued, and today I am not sure if we would accept any public funding due to the constraints it may entail.  We are free to determine our editorial direction, what research we include and do not include, and most importantly, we want to keep this a North Carolina-focused endeavor.  And quite frankly, I don’t think this is something public funds should be expended for as there is no official story of our history – it is a something handed down from past generations and much of it in written form.  Without this, the primary sources, we would have nothing to include on our website to tell this story.”

NCHE:  Any surprises or unique developments so far?

BT:  “Not really, but the unexpected outpouring of support from not just North Carolina, but the entire country and from as far away as Europe has surprised me in a way.  But not really, as we on the Commission sensed that there was a hunger for the information we have placed on the website to date.  

Also, the generous financial support many have provided to this Sesquicentennial website effort has been surprising; this has enabled us to hire a part-time transcriptionist who assists me in the daily research and updating on the website.  It must be remembered that ours is an all-volunteer effort and we receive no State of federal funding – it is all privately supported and “grassroots” you might say.  As to developments, I can say that we have developed an interesting following across the globe and this make it a rewarding experience when we receive kind and supportive emails and donations. 

NCHE:  What new information since the last update several months ago?

BT: “We have added two significant web pages of information, one entitled “Running the Blockade,” and just added recently is “The Confederate Framers and Their Constitution.” The former includes wonderful and insightful passages regarding the need for foreign supplies to the Confederacy, the amount of success of the blockade-running, and the individual efforts, courage and heroism of the blockade-running captains and crews.  We of course focus mostly on Wilmington as it was a major, if not most important, port of entry and export.  

The “Confederate Constitution” page recently added we thought was needed to better explain something little mentioned in our history books – what was this new constitution -- actually the fourth if you count the Continental Congress, Articles of Confederation and Union of 1787 – that North Carolina ratified and joined in 1861?  We have used Professor Marshall DeRosa’s excellent “Confederate Constitution of 1861” (University of Missouri, 1991) for dispassionate and clearly analyzed commentary on how the Confederate framers altered the US Constitution as the basis of their new nation, and why certain changes were made after the experiences of 1787 through 1860.
Of course North Carolina joined the American Confederacy after this was adopted, but it was the “law of the land” in this State until 1865 and needed to be part of our narrative.  There is no question too that Dr. DeRosa’s fine book on this topic should be required reading in our educational institutions. 

NCHE:  Any public outreach programs regarding North Carolina’s Sesquicentennial?

BT:  Actually, quite often – I have addressed groups all over the State about our Sesquicentennial efforts and website information, including South Carolina and most recently, Savannah, Georgia.  Usually this includes a Powerpoint overview of our website content and individual webpages, and how we tell the story of the War and how it affected North Carolinians – men, women and children.  My schedule of talks will take me to Wake, Duplin Forsyth and Hoke counties soon, and often address Lee-Jackson and Memorial Day audiences across the State.  Every stop is an opportunity to talk about the Sesquicentennial and distribute our handouts to all – especially young people hungry for a sense of people, place and history.”

NCHE:  What programs are planned for 2014?

BT:  “We will continue to research, transcribe and add appropriate pages and content which continue to tell the story through the eyes of North Carolinians, that is our charge.  I can state now that we will have an interesting program in late 2014 with a unique living history featuring portrayals of Generals William H.C. Whiting, Robert F. Hoke, Johnson Hagood, William J. Hardee, and Colonel William Lamb.  Our plans include several programs featuring these men and their roles in the Fort Fisher through Bentonville Campaign.  The details and locations are being worked out, watch for further information.”

NCHE:  A final question – this effort must be time consuming and you have a full-time design practice that commands your attention? 

BT:  “Indeed, very time-consuming but very rewarding.  I am busy daily working for a living but what motivates me most as an historian is two things: one, the Sesquicentennial will occur only once in my lifetime; and two, the Sesquicentennial will be over in early 2015 – and not much time is left.  The Commission anticipated, and anticipated correctly, that the North Carolina’s War Between the States participation would be compromised and revised by our public institutions and decided upon this path to give our citizens a more comprehensive and North Carolina-focused source for information, research and suggested further reading.  I think we made the right decision.
The Commission is blessed to have many dedicated historians aboard who have helped provide direction, support and ideas for telling this story.  I am truly fortunate to work with these fine people and appreciate all that they have done to help make this effort a reality. Time-consuming, yes, rewarding, very much so.  I know we’ll all be able to look back at the efforts and smile contentedly.”

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