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beaufort highlighting its reconstruction role

BEAUFORT - Only 209 days after the Civil War began up the coast at Fort Sumter, the Union Army and Navy captured Port Royal Sound and the first stirrings of Reconstruction took root as the United States government decided how to handle freed slaves.

The 4-year-long war's fighting has been written about in depth, and many of its major battlefields are now national parks and monuments, but the history of the dozen years that followed has been relatively ignored.

This effort has been under way for a decade, and it got a shot in the arm earlier this month.

The National Endowment for Humanities gave University of South Carolina-Beaufort history professor Brent Morris a $200,000 grant to create a special program here next summer to teach school teachers about this overlooked period of the nation's history.

The institute will take place next summer, and Keyserling hopes that more developments fall into place by then.

"I'm delighted that he (Morris) has got the grant," he said, "but I think that's just a piece of the momentum that we now have moving forward."

Morris has identified at least 49 separate sites in Beaufort County that tell part of the larger story of Reconstruction.

The city has been pushing for the National Park Service to create a series of Reconstruction monuments here that would highlight the most prominent of them.

They include the U.S. Naval Hospital site, where the Emancipation Proclamation was read to hundreds of freed slaves in January 1863, to Mitchelville on Hilton Head Island, a refugee camp that became one of the South's first freedmen towns.

The city tried to get the Park Service to build a monument more than a decade ago, but the effort got bogged down in opposition from the Sons of Confederate Veterans. "The partnership that was going after it didn't make an inclusive request," Keyserling said, "and so those who have a different view than some of us on Reconstruction felt left out and they felt bullied."

Randy Burbage of the Sons of Confederate Veterans remembers the 2003 controversy, saying, "We felt like it was something that the people of South Carolina really wouldn't want to have because it was such a terrible time in our history."

Whether a new Reconstruction monument effort would be welcomed today would depend on its content, he added.

"If it's inclusive, if it includes the horrible part as well - as far as what happened to the Confederate soldiers and their families, as well as the progressive things that happened to blacks - I think it would be accepted," he said.

Keyserling said he is optimistic that the next effort ultimately will succeed. "The question is how we take the next step forward," he said. "I think it will happen. When it will happen is hard to tell."

What definitely will happen is that next summer, 30 K-12 teachers will arrive here for a three-week institute entitled, "America's Reconstruction: The Untold Story."

The effort will bring together the university's Beaufort campus with the city, the Beaufort Museum, Penn Center and the University of South Carolina's College of Education.

Morris will direct the project, which will involve historians Lawrence Roland, Stephen Wise and Eric Foner of Columbia University and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning history, "The Fiery Trail: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery."

"We're expecting hundreds of applications (for the 30 slots), and it will be an intensive process," he said. "We're hoping for a lot of diversity, and we hope for a lot of applications from the Lowcountry where this history unfolded."

The group will visit significant sites, such as Penn Center on St. Helena Island, Sapelo Island, Ga. and Mitchelville.

Morris called Mitchelville "the first place where African-Americans were really able to govern themselves. A lot of people were really skeptical of that ... (but) the Mitchelville settlement really did prove a lot of outsiders that, given the opportunity, African-Americans can function and govern themselves like other people can."

Keyserling said he hopes the content of next summer's institute will be published or somehow made available to other teachers and history buffs. "What they say should be in the public domain," he said. "I have to work out the details."

In the big picture, Morris said most people don't know much about the nation's history between the end of the Civil War and the start of World War I.

"Reconstruction is when the United States really did pick up the pieces of the Civil War and literally tried to reconstruct the nation," Morris said. "This was the time period where the United States had to change the way of thinking of an entire region."

While Reconstruction's goals fell short, Morris noted it still was a deeply significant era, one that led to the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments abolishing slavery, clarifying that African-Americans were full citizens and granting men of all races their voting rights.

"It was a foundational period of American history because it set the groundwork for the modern day Civil Rights movement," Morris said. "A lot of scholars would say the ideas of Reconstruction still haven't been fully accomplished."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.

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