April 1865 was a pivotal month in United States history — with an important part of that history unfolding in Danville.
The city hosted the Confederate government for a week before President Jefferson Davis and the rest of his cabinet fled further south.
On April 27, Danville’s mayor surrendered the town to Union troops — with no damage done to the town by those troops.
The Civil War was over and now, 150 years later, calendars in Southern cities are full of events commemorating the end of a long and costly battle.
Retired Danville Community College history professor Kinney Rorrer said the Union Army could have done major damage in Danville. Historical accounts mention citizens worried about retaliation for the town’s general prosperity (it was a major hub for cotton and tobacco), its warehouses full of supplies for the Confederate Army and prisons full of Yankee prisoners.
But the Union Army’s leaders chose not to.
“I think everyone was done with it [the war] and just wanted to go home,” Rorrer said.
Rorrer said Union Gen. Horatio Wright set up his headquarters across the street from the Sutherlin mansion and interaction with the Sutherlins and other town leaders was cordial, with Wright enjoying an occasional glass of lemonade with the Sutherlins.
Fascination with the Civil War continues around the world, Rorrer said, with Europeans arriving to take part in re-enactments of battles across the South, Rorrer said.
But, Rorrer said, just as the American Revolutionary War, the Great Depression and other periods in American history have failed to “pique the interest” of newer generations, the Civil War will attract less interest as time passes.
“We are a nation that values success, and the South did not win; it lost and was occupied militarily and saw tremendous destruction,” Rorrer said. “It burned into the psyche of Southerners that we’re different.”
Rorrer said the Civil War really wasn’t that long ago, just three or four generations, but American memories are fading over time.
“American society in general moves on …Young people are instead fascinated by technology; they’re looking more to the future than the past.”
Local historian Lawrence McFall — who wrote “Danville In the Civil War,” among other books — said that while he and many others take “great pride in our ancestors,” he is hard-pressed to think of something he would consider a Civil War legacy.
“There is little of Antebellum Danville left,” McFall said, noting that many of the town’s buildings of that time were torn down and replaced with new buildings as the town grew rapidly.
Today, McFall said, the “atmosphere” about the Civil War has changed.
“It has connotations of bad things of another era, and, hopefully, we’ll not see those things again,” McFall said. “There was a large loss of live on both sides; that’s nothing to celebrate … but it should be commemorated.”
Vernell Gwynn, president of the Anne Eliza Johns Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy — which is housed in the Sutherlin Mansion — said the group formed in 1896.
“Ladies in the area saw the importance of keeping records on veterans,” Grynn said. “They all had husbands, fathers or sons who fought.”
Gwynn said that while much has changed over time — Northerners live in the South and Southerners live in the North — remembering the struggle is important.
“We’ve come a long way,” Gwynn said, citing freedom of speech and religion and the abolishment of slavery.
“In some parts of the world, people are still fighting for that; I don’t think we ever will again,” Gwynn said. “I hope we’ve learned from the past.”
But remembering the past can reinforce the lessons learned, Gwynn said.
“We want to make people realize we have a lot of history here and we need to keep it alive,” Gwynn said.
Asked what he thought were lessons learned, the Rev. Avon Keen — president of the state Southern Christian Leadership Conference — said some of the sesquicentennial celebrations are more a sign of lessons not learned by people who still long for the days when blacks were slaves.
Keen said he does not understand or agree with events that exclude black citizens, and he feels many of the events held at the Danville Museum of Fine Arts & History, which has a Confederate flag on its lawn, and the Community Market, where a Southern ball with Civil War-era costumes and uniforms preferred, was held last weekend, do exactly that.
“When do you see blacks there [at the museum] … how many blacks were at that ball? I didn’t see any blacks in the photos,” Keen said. “They say they’re not comfortable going to those places.”
Keen said he thinks “commemorating” the Civil War is astonishing and insulting.
“When will they learn the Southern states were an enemy [of the U.S. government] … nowhere do we memorialize our enemies,” Keen said.
Keen said to include blacks in any memorial of the Civil War would mean including the “horrors of it,” including how some slaves were forced to fight for the South, without a promise of anything in return.
Keen said efforts to separate the slavery issue from the war and focus on economic issues are wrong.
“You can’t separate the economy and slaves or the South is broke,” Keen said. “Slaves were a key factor in the Southern economy; without them there would have been no one to pick cotton or pull tobacco.”
Keen also said he questions efforts to build the local economy on tourism focused on part of the history of the Civil War.
“We cannot build our economy on slave labor,” Keen said. “And that’s what they’re trying to do here.”
Danville Mayor Sherman Saunders said that the country’s history of slave labor remains a divisive issue that needs to be learned from.
“No history can be changed — good or not good. It can only serve as insight in to what transpired in a certain moment in time. The history of Danville’s involvement in the Civil War, and the outcome of that experience, will be determined by the reader [of various historical accounts],” Saunders said. “It remains a very divisive and emotional issue for our community.”
Saunders said it is “imperative” that people learn from the past so they can improve the future.
“The future of our city will be determined by everyone working together for the good of our city and for those who come behind us,” Saunders said.