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AMERICAN MOSAIC - The American Civil War: Who Should Memorials Honor?

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Civil War memorial trees
Civil War memorial trees

Welcome to AMERICAN MOSAIC.

I'm June Simms.

On the show today, we hear music from some of the performers at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas.

We talk about efforts to remember the many Americans killed in the nation's Civil War in the 1860s. And we tell about efforts against some of the Civil War memorials that already exist.

Civil War Trees

The Civil War was the bloodiest war in the history of the United States. From 1861 to 1865, at least 620,000 soldiers died in the fighting. It began after several southern states broke away from the North, mainly over the issue of slavery. The southern states declared independence and set up the Confederate States of America, also known as the Confederacy.

Now, 150 years later, a living memorial is being created to honor the war dead. Jim Tedder has more on the project.

The non-profit group Journey through Hallowed Ground is leading the effort. It plans to plant a tree, or recognize an existing tree, for each soldier killed in the war. The memorial will come to life along an almost 300 hundred kilometer road that passes through four states. It will start in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where the most famous Civil War battle took place. It will end at the Charlottesville, Virginia, home of Thomas Jefferson, America's third president.

Beth Erickson is with Journey through Hallowed Ground.

"As you see these trees, one after another, it will truly make an impact."

Oatlands Historic Home and Gardens in Leesburg, Virginia
Oatlands Historic Home and Gardens in Leesburg, Virginia

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The first trees were planted in November on the grounds of a large, old Virginia home and farm called Oatlands. An historic trust now owns the former plantation. Andrea McGimsey is the Executive Director of Oatlands. She says the former plantation was a good place to start.

"Oatlands has some very old trees and they were here during the civil war time. Many of them are actually going to be adopted as part of the project."

She adds that Oatlands is a part of Civil War history.

"Oatlands had 128 slaves in 1860, right before the Civil War started. And also the family who lived here had two sons who joined the Confederate Army."

Richard Williams is a member of the last family to live at Oatlands. His family still owns property next to the home. And they are involved in planting the trees.

"We're hoping that as private landowners we can also show it's a great success and encourage some other private landowners."

Private donations are expected to pay for the 65 million dollar tree planting project. The cost of an individual tree donation is 100 dollars.

The trees will be especially interesting for Smart Phone users. Special markings on the trees can connect users with the stories of individual Civil War soldiers.

Beth Erickson explains.

"These trees will be able to have a number associated with a person. They can use GPS technology to be able to find out who these people were."

Eleanor Adams has donated a tree in honor of her ancestor Joseph McGowan. He was from Alabama and fought for the South. He was 23 when he was shot and killed. Eleanor Adams says the young soldier wrote letters to his family about life on the battlefield.

"He talks about sickness, the heat in the summertime, the bad food – really a tough time being a soldier in those days."

She says she hopes other family members will join her in planting trees for other McGowans who died in the Civil War.

Civil War Parks in the South

Other memorials to Civil War forces are currently a subject of dispute. Like parks named after Confederate soldiers.

Nathan Bedford Forrest was a famous fighter for the Confederacy. A park in the city of Memphis, Tennessee, has a statue of him sitting on a horse. The park is named in honor of Forrest, whom many southerners have praised for his defense of the South in the Civil War. Others have criticized his slave-trading past and ties to the secretive Ku Klux Klan.

Nathan Bedford Forrest Park in Memphis Tennesee
Nathan Bedford Forrest Park in Memphis Tennesee

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Earlier this week, the Memphis City Council voted to remove Forrest's name from the park and call it Health Sciences Park. Council members also voted to rename Confederate Park as Memphis Park, and Jefferson Davis Park as Mississippi River Park. The latter was named for a leader of the Confederacy.

The changes have won praise from those who said the Old South is gone. But critics have likened the Council's actions to rewriting history.

Kenneth Van Buren is a local African-American civil rights activist. He agrees with changing park names tied to the Confederacy. In his words, "how can we have unity in the nation when we have one city, right here in Memphis, which fails to be unified?"

Most of the emotion over the council's action has involved Nathan Bedford Forrest. Many of his defenders are white. They note his successes as a government official, businessman and military leader. But his critics, white and black, say honoring Forrest celebrates his days as a slave trader and membership in the Ku Klux Klan.

Katherine Blaylock lives in Memphis and opposes the name changes. She says the city has always been racially divided. She accuses city officials of wanting to rewrite history.

Forrest lived in Memphis before the Civil War. He worked as a cotton farmer and slave trader. He lacked traditional military training, but rose to the position of lieutenant general in the Confederate Army. He became famous for fast horseback raids that broke the Union's supply line and communications.

Forrest later joined the Ku Klux Klan, which threatened southern blacks. His level of involvement in the Klan is a source of argument. He is believed to have helped break the earliest version of the group in 1869.

Supporters praise him for offering to free 45 of his own slaves if they would serve in the Confederacy. They also say he was unwilling to divide families when he bought slaves.

Forrest died in 1877. His body was moved to Forrest Park in the early 1900s. The park is filled with trees and about the size of a city street. It is just a short distance from the old Lorraine Hotel, where civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in 1968.

This is not the first time Forrest Park has led to a heated debate. Memphis officials rejected an effort to rename it in 2005.

SXSW Fest

The Austin, Texas based music and media festival, South by Southwest opened a few hours ago. The ten-day long festival brings hundreds of artists, entertainers and media interests to town. Christopher Cruise plays music from some of this year's guests.

That is the band Green Day performing "Oh, Love" from last year's hit album "Uno." Green Day is performing at South by Southwest for the first time ever.

Green Day performing in Las Vegas, Nevada
Green Day performing in Las Vegas, Nevada

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Billie Joe Armstrong and Mike Dirnt formed the band in 1987. They were 15-year-old Californians at the time. Now, the band has eleven albums, five Grammy awards, and three American Music Awards. Their albums have sold millions and millions of copies.

Also performing at South by Southwest this year is the very popular musical team Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. Their song "Thrift Shop" is currently number two on Billboard magazine's Hot One Hundred singles list.

The American rock band Yeah Yeah Yeahs will also play at the festival this year. Their third and most recent album, "It's Blitz!" was released in 2009. However, they are expected to release another called "Mosquito" next month. We leave you with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs performing, "Runaway," from "It's Blitz."

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