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Freedom's Gateway kicks off plans for marking Civil War sesquicentennial

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 14, 2011 - Barbara Hamm of Chesterfield donned a frilly pink Civil War-era gown to hear the announcement Monday morning of how St. Louis is planning to note the 150th anniversary of the nation's bloodiest conflict.

She and husband Edward, who wore the uniform of a Confederate cavalry general, joined a small group of local re-enactors at the Missouri History Museum for the launch of a new website by Freedom's Gateway, a partnership of historic sites, historians and re-enactors that formed in March 2008 to plan for the sesquicentennial.

"Just because you didn't win doesn't mean you don't ever talk about it again,'' said Hamm, who re-enacts the role of a "party girl from the South."

Her husband -- who boasts an ancestor who was a "bushwacker" in southern Missouri -- says the value of re-enacting the Civil War is in learning from the past.

"It shows that people can get along. The wounds have healed," he said, as he headed across the auditorium to greet a Union re-enactor.

The kick-off was announced at a news conference by Robert Archibald, president of the Missouri History Museum, and Kathleen "Kitty" Ratcliffe, president of the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission.

A new website offers a go-to source for Civil War historical and educational material, information on the "signature events'' to be held every spring through 2015 and details on sesquicentennial exhibits at historic sites in St. Louis and throughout the state.

Historical tidbits from the website:

* St. Louis played a pivotal role in keeping Missouri in the Union during the Civil War, but the city was bitterly divided, as were some families.

* Most St. Louis residents served in the Union Army, but an estimated 5,000 sided with the Confederates.

* The state produced food for the soldiers, as well as lead and iron for making bullets and cannonballs.

* Missouri hosted the nation's lines of western communication, including the Pony Express, and was the start of the California, Oregon and Santa Fe trails.

This year's signature event notes the city's "Camp Jackson Affair" -- the capture of the U.S. arsenal from the secessionist Missouri Volunteer Militia by Union troops in May 1861. The skirmish and the riots that followed signaled to St. Louisans that the Civil War had reached their backyards. At Jefferson Barracks County Park April 29-May 1.

Archibald said the sesquicentennial offers an opportunity for Americans to ponder the issues that their ancestors fought for and against. Uppermost among them: slavery in America.

"The founders of this nation were remiss when they failed to deal with the enslaved people who were a part of the colonies' bid for freedom," Archibald said. "We must ask hard and painful questions about the decisions they made, the effect of those choices on their time and on ours, and how we can use both the burdens and legacies of this period.''

St. Louis was a divided city before, during and after the war, as was the state of Missouri. The History Museum will study the impact of the war -- and the role of the city and state -- in a major exhibit to open in November, Archibald said.

Ratcliffe expects interest in the Civil War to surge. While she acknowledged that St. Louis isn't the first place Civil War buffs think of, she believes the website will publicize the fact that St. Louis' historic sites have an important story to tell -- from the Dred Scott case at the Old Courthouse to Bellefontaine Cemetery, where Civil War notables are buried.

"It's proven that visitors are interested in the history of a community, and when they come they bring money to that destination,'' she said. "St. Louis Civil War-related events will attract those travelers to our neighborhoods and attractions."

Ratcliffe said she has no projections on how many visitors the five-year commemoration might draw, but expects it to be "a pretty significant number."

So-called "heritage travelers" spend about one-third more than other travelers, she added.

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