The events include a multitude of battle re-enactments, lecture series, readings, concerts and plays that will be held on the battle fields tended to by the Park Service and in private estates from the shores of the Gulf of Mexico to New York.
But the slate of commemorations is also fraught with political peril. Deep divisions over why the war was fought persist, especially in the South. The debate still roils over slavery's role as the principle cause of the war. The first commemoration, a private "secession gala" organized by the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Charleston on Dec. 20, did not signal an auspicious start to the upcoming calendar of events.
The date marked the 150th anniversary of the day South Carolina became the first of 11 states to secede. Inside the ballroom, elected officials and others in period costume celebrated the courage of their fore-bearers to stand up for their state's right to leave the Union. Outside, on the sidewalk, the NAACP led 100 demonstrators who viewed the event as a celebration of a treasonous act against the federal government in order to protect the institution of slavery.
"They called their parents patriots," said Lonnie Randolph, president of the state branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "Was Timothy McVeigh a patriot? He disagreed with America."
Mark Simpson, the commander of South Carolina's division of Sons of Confederate Veterans, defended the gala, saying it was not about denying slavery as "an issue" in the war, but honoring South Carolina's rights.
"We recognize and stated in all the media interviews that slavery was an issue in the war," Simpson said. "But this would be like taking a book that has 10 or 15 chapters and tearing all the chapters out except one. While slavery was an issue, it was by no means what brought about the war."
Robert Sutton, the Park Service historian, just sighs. He watched the states' rights-versus-slavery debate rage in the dozen years he spent as superintendent of the Manassas National Battlefield Park. He doesn't see any sign that anyone's going to change their mind.
"One hundred and fifty years later, it is hard to come to grips with the fact that we had four million people enslaved," he said. "They have a difficult time accepting that their ancestors were fighting to protect the institution of slavery. Yes, there were social factors. Yes, there were economic factors. Yes, there were political factors. But when you boil it all down, slavery was the major factor."
Most of the events scheduled for the next four years are educational, such as the roster of historians who will speak in July at a ceremony in Manassas, scene of the first big battle of the war. Or, the event in Washington in September, where volunteers will gather with candles to represent the forts set up to protect the Washington Monument.
Some states are looking to attract tourists instead of controversy. Virginia, where 60 percent of the civil war battles were fought, is busy promoting "civil war history hotel packages" in hopes of making up for drop in tourism dollars during the recession. (Although Virginia Gov. Bob McConnell found himself in hot water last spring after he issued a proclamation designating April as Confederate History Month that did not mention slavery. He rewrote it, both condemning slavery and spelling out that it had prompted the war.)
But two developments could give the commemoration a bumpy roll out. One, the 150th anniversary approached as the tea party movement drove the recent elections, and states' rights gained new luster.
"Look at the way the elections have just gone," said Simpson. "There were two dozen states that passed sovereignty resolutions. South Carolina passed it, and it stems from an unconstitutional mandate from Congress over the health care bill. There's been a lot of change. I'm not a secessionist, but I'm asking a question: What does it mean? It means something."
The other factor that may affect the remembrances is that for the first time, African Americans are involved with a major Civil War anniversary on more equal footing. The centennial of the Civil War in 1961 occurred as the civil rights movement gained momentum. But segregation still dominated the South. Many events – including the 1961 secessionist gala – were held in segregated hotels, where blacks were not allowed to stay.
"At the 100th, the African Americans who did come were not allowed to participate," Randolph said.
Elsewhere, NAACP leaders also have expressed unhappiness with other upcoming events they say would glorify the Confederacy and all that it stood for. That includes plans by a private group in Montgomery, Ala. to stage a mock swearing in ceremony of Jefferson Davis as president of the Confederacy.
"From a free speech point of view, I understand their right to put that on," said Benard Simelton, president of the Alabama NAACP. "But the only thing it's going to do is incite divisiveness among people and there are much better things to spend money on than to re-enact the Civil War."
Even the Park Service may find itself targeted over its plan to commemorate the first shot fired in the war on April 12, 1861 at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Randolph said he plans to contact Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar over plans for a ceremony in which a lone blank mortar round will be fired at the fort on April 12.
"It recreates a terrorist act," Randolph said. "I can't imagine the Park Service being involved in that."
That event, said the Fort Sumter National Monument historian Rick Hatcher, also involves a dramatic star burst propelled into the sky that splits in two, symbolizing the nation divided.
Bob Reynolds, a Park Service spokesman said he will reserve comment until after Randolph's complaint is received.
For most historians, the question of what caused the war was settled long ago. The United States had the largest slave population in the world. By 1860, 60 percent of South Carolina's population were slaves.
"Historians don't fight this battle anymore about what caused the war. It's slavery," said James Marten, president of the Society of Civil War Historians and chairman of the history department at Marquette University in Wisconsin.
"The constitutional issues would not have caused the Civil War unless slavery had been attached to those debates," he continued. "It was an extraordinarily important institution economically, historically, and politically. Without slavery, you wouldn't have had a civil war. Maybe we've done a bad job of communicating this."
Marten sees the 150th anniversary as a teaching moment, but laments he sees "no grand narrative" about the war and its legacy that's been drawn up a national scale.
"It's become so localized and so politicized. Given whom the president is, and what just happened in the election, with the tea party and the debate over health care, I don't think much will change in how we understand the Civil War as a country," he said. "That's the nature of popular history and memory versus history. Memory is something that is really hard to change."