Tourism will win this time
In January, 146 years after the fall of Fort Fisher — the earth-and-sand citadel the Confederacy had hoped would keep open its last, vital seaport at Wilmington — reenactors manned their cannon. Unlike the real battle, in which nearly 2,000 Confederate and Union troops were killed or wounded, there were no casualties, but at the end of the day, more than 5,500 visitors were tallied. “This was in the middle of winter,” says Jim Steele, manager of the state historic site. “It set a record for a single-day event here.”
The South lost the war, but in the four years starting in April, Tar Heel tourism boosters hope to win big by marking its 150th anniversary. “The Civil War is good business,” says Keith Hardison, director of state historic sites in Raleigh. Very good.
A reenactment last spring at Bentonville, where Union troops under William Tecumseh Sherman battled Joseph Johnston’s Confederate forces for three days in March 1865, attracted 54,000. “We were blown away by that number,” says Jeffrey Crow, deputy secretary of the state Office of Archives & History. “We were expecting 30,000.” Hardison says the visitors spent $6 million on lodging, food and other necessities.
Beneath the high hopes for Civil War 150, as the state calls its upcoming commemoration, and the impact it holds for Eastern North Carolina — scene of most of the military action that took place in the state throughout the war — lie economic assumptions based on the ability of heritage tourism to open wallets. Maryanne Friend, an assistant secretary in the state’s Department of Cultural Resources, says cultural and heritage travelers average five trips a year, compared with four for others, and spend more per trip — $994, compared with $611.
Connie Nelson, communications director of the Wilmington/Cape Fear Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, adds that heritage tourism has boomed since the terrorist attacks of 2001, as Americans apparently feel a need to get closer to their roots. North Carolina, however, is not relying on just the basic attraction of heritage tourism. State officials say Civil War 150 will quietly focus marketing on a broad mix of ethnicities and incomes, including overseas visitors. “There are Civil War 150 tours already arranged in London, Liverpool and Glasgow, Scotland,” Hardison says. “There’s worldwide fascination with this.”
The state plans about 150 events, many keyed to important dates in the Civil War, between now and April 2015. It will also boost publicity about its Civil War Trail sites, some 250 locations that are part of what amounts to a self-guided tour in the Southeast. Though state officials are reluctant to make revenue projections, most expect the impact to substantially exceed that of the Revolutionary War-related bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence in 1976.
They don’t pinpoint any blockbuster events, but expect Bentonville — the biggest and bloodiest battle in North Carolina — to attract 50,000 to 100,000 in March 2015, its 150th anniversary. Another major draw may be the scene of what happened in its aftermath. Johnston, against the orders of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, surrendered about 90,000 troops at Bennett Place in Durham, the largest capitulation of the war. That was on April 26, 1865 — 17 days after Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House, Va. “The war didn’t end at Appomattox,” Hardison says. “What happened at Bennett Place insured that what happened at Appomattox would stick.”