CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Like the country during the Civil War era it is meant to commemorate, the West Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission has become a house sharply divided -- with several commissioners resigning in protest over the panel's direction.
At issue is whether the commission should focus on educational efforts to expand the public's understanding of events leading up to the state's creation in 1863 - or emphasize tourist-friendly Civil War re-enactments, parades and festivals.
Shepherd University professor Mark Snell was vice chairman of the commission until he and other members resigned earlier this year over what they regard as the commission's misuse of $100,000 in state funds.
"The whole purpose of the commission was basically to educate, to organize events to educate the public about the founding of West Virginia, the causes of the war, and the conduct of the war," Snell said.
Instead, he said, state officials on the commission -- primarily Education and Arts Secretary Kay Goodwin, who serves as the commission's chairwoman, and Culture and History Commissioner Randall Reid-Smith -- turned it into a grant-awarding agency to fund re-enactments, parades and other Civil War-themed festivals around the state.
As a historian, Snell said he believes it's wrong to turn the 150th anniversary of America's bloodiest war - a war that killed more than 600,000 Americans - into a celebration.
Snell, director of Shepherd's George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War, said he envisioned the commission sponsoring at least one major educational event each year, leading up to the state's sesquicentennial, or 150th anniversary, in 2013. The events would have started with a symposium this summer, at Davis and Elkins College.
However, he said, that concept was shot down.
"Commissioner Reid-Smith was fighting that tooth and nail," Snell said. "He thought we shouldn't be doing academic stuff. We should be having pageants, fairs and parades."
Snell said the issue came to a head over a vote on whether to award a grant for a Civil War battle re-enactment. It came down to a tie vote, with Goodwin breaking the tie and voting to award the grant.
Four of the eight citizen members of the commission resigned after that: Snell, Shelia Coleman-Castells, president of Sangha Consulting Inc.; West Virginia University professor Connie Rice; and Beth White of Dunbar, president of the Kanawha Valley Civil War Roundtable. The commission, as named by then-Gov. Joe Manchin, includes four other citizens and five state officials, including Goodwin and Reid-Smith.