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Civil War History: Historians' Forum

Historians’ Forum: Centennial vs. Sesquicentennial

Feb 29th, 2012

1) What are your impressions of the U.S. Civil War’s sesquicentennial?

JW: As I write this, we have not yet arrived at the anniversary of the war’s beginning. Even so, commemorations are well under way. The New York Times and the Washington Post, along with some local newspapers such as the Columbia (Missouri) Daily Tribune, are running regular features on the secession crisis. Towns are scheduling local events, Civil War Roundtables are gearing up, universities and museums are sponsoring conferences and talks, and professional organizations are putting together panels at their annual meetings.

DS: The sesquicentennial does not have the feel of a national commemoration, but one conducted at the state level with a variety of success. Yes, major newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post are hosting blogs, and a spate of new books about the topic are coming out, but states’ rights seem to have triumphed in this commemoration, leading to a scattered, uneven 150th anniversary.

RC: Judged from three thousand miles away, the sesquicentennial looks to be a relatively low-key affair—relative, certainly, to the over-hyped centennial of the 1960s. This is partly owing to the administration’s decision not to create a federal planning commission and the absence of congressional legislation to accomplish the same objective. Calls for a federal commission have emanated from a number of sources, mostly historical groups such as the American Association for State and Local History and leading figures in the heritage industry including Frank Smith of the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum in Washington, D.C., and S. Waite Rawls III, president of Richmond’s Museum of the Confederacy. Bills to create a central body were introduced in Congress in 2009 and 2010 respectively by Senator Mary Landrieu (D–La.) and Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. (D–Ill.), but neither measure emerged from committee. Primary responsibility for commemorating the Civil War has thus been delegated to the National Park Service (NPS) in its capacity as guardian of the battlefields and to state agencies such as the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission and the Georgia Humanities Council. Initiatives are also being planned by a plethora of local groups and institutions.

KN: In some ways, I do think the sesquicentennial at its dawning is superficially reminiscent of the centennial of fifty years ago. State and local tourism offices, for example, once again are energetically advertising Civil War sites in hopes of attracting visitors. Heritage groups are active as well. In Alabama, the Sons of Confederate Veterans marked the February presidential inauguration of Jefferson Davis with a parade to the old state house. Similar events abounded in 1961, and no doubt we will see other familiar scenes throughout the sesquicentennial. Not surprisingly, the national media and even historians eagerly pointed to those moments as “evidence” of a continuing North-South divide in American culture, a civil war that has yet to end.

DS: South Carolina has a major role to play in the commemoration, for reasons I don’t need to state here, and therefore is primed to attract national press coverage. As I write this, the most extensive national coverage given to the state was for the “Secession Ball” that was not a state-sponsored event. This skewed gala featured reenactors in bad clothes celebrating, yes celebrating, South Carolina’s role in being the first to secede. (No matter that decision brought ruin to the state—I wonder if the residents of fire-ravaged Columbia were “celebrating” that decision in 1865?—or that this event did not take the opinion of African Americans into question, when they in fact were the state’s majority population in 1865.) This ball got a lot of exposure on cable news outlets and Internet sites. Not exactly the type of desirable coverage to launch the sesquicentennial.

KN: What’s crucial, I think, is that the Charleston gala, notably, proceeded without state sanction or support while attracting national scrutiny, protests, and the ridicule of talk show hosts and television comedians. Hours before the ball, the mayor of Charleston himself marked the day by pointing to slavery as the direct cause of the war, drawing an angry response from exactly one person in the crowd. Meanwhile in Montgomery, no more than five hundred marchers paraded in anachronistic uniforms past Martin Luther King’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church to the steps of the old statehouse, where one speaker compared them to both Rosa Parks and Harry Potter. Both the press and the city of Montgomery largely ignored them. What is obvious is that the national context for Confederate celebration at least clearly has evolved dramatically in a half century. What was mainstream a half century ago is now increasingly marginalized; I am reminded of a phrase Gaines Foster used in his classic Ghosts of the Confederacy: “ghost dances.” That such events receive media play at all is in part because of the modern journalistic taste for Manichean controversy and sensationalism but also because obvious societal changes and the continuing economic recession have led thus far to a quieter, harder-to-film commemoration than that of a half century ago. As we’ve already noted there is no national Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission. At the state level, many cash-strapped and controversy-averse legislatures north and south have been reluctant to adequately support or even establish statewide commissions. Alabama, where I live, rolled its sesquicentennial observances into a wider “Becoming Alabama” initiative that also plans to cost-effectively mark the overlapping anniversaries of the Creek War and the Civil Rights movement. The official logo tellingly features a seemingly stunned Joseph Wheeler flanked by the Red Stick leader Menawa and Rosa Parks.

DS: Virginia has done a stellar job of commemorating the Civil War and the Old Dominion’s role through a series of fine conferences and events, but Maryland is doing very little at the state level. How then, will the role of the Battle of Antietam and its impact on the Emancipation Proclamation be remembered?

RC: Inclusiveness appears to be the chief watchword of the sesquicentennial, certainly in its official guises. Both of the failed congressional bills called for appropriate recognition “of all people affected by the Civil War,” clearly intending to mandate respect for unionist, Confederate, and African American memories. Despite the bills’ failures, the signs are that official efforts to commemorate the war will embrace this goal. For evidence, look no further than the ambitious plans of the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission, which has received generous funding (around $17 million) from the state legislature. This body has already held successful public symposia on the causes of the Civil War and the African American experience and a third conference, on military strategy, will be held at Virginia Tech in May 2011. Park Service employees, moreover, will reach out to black visitors by placing their accounts of major battles in social and political context, thereby acknowledging the relevance of slavery and race to NPS sites like Antietam and Petersburg.

DS: South Carolina is an example of a different sort. The state does have a sesquicentennial commission, but a web search conducted in March 2011 turned up a confusing array of Internet sites. In fact, one site labeled as the home page for the commission was out of date, lamenting that a December 2010 event had been cancelled. Another site also claiming to be the home page for the commission did list an impressive amount of reenactments, seminars, and other events occurring throughout 2011, several of which involved major historians of the era. That is promising and positive, but it’s too bad anyone looking for information would have to weed through so much before arriving at the “real” site.

RC: The upcoming commemoration has received little attention on this side of the Atlantic. Although publication of Amanda Foreman’s new blockbuster, The World on Fire, may stimulate some interest in the event, most Britons and continental Europeans will not pay a great deal of attention to it. The American Civil War has never received much attention in schools, so grassroots knowledge of, and interest in, the conflict is limited. In all likelihood the European media will only notice the sesquicentennial if it triggers political friction and thereby discomforts the Obama administration.

JW: What troubles me most deeply about what I’ve seen so far is the persistence of the Lost Cause mythology and the unshakeable hold it has on many Americans. Professional academic historians can rarely give a talk without being challenged by a member of the audience about the “real” cause of the Civil War. Yet when we respond that the cause was slavery, the questioner generally scoffs and dismisses the answer. Part of what holds popular imagination on this point is familial pride: some ancestor was a brave soldier who was fighting for his home, or for states’ rights, not for slavery. But the adamant adherence to causation other than slavery is not solely the product of family lore. Texas’s education standards, for instance, require seventh-graders to “explain reasons for the involvement of Texas in the Civil War” as being the product of factors “such as states’ rights, slavery, sectionalism, and tariffs.”1 So young people are growing up being taught in school that slavery was a causative factor equal to, say, the tariff, or that that the Civil War was not about slavery at all. Professional historians know that this is nonsense, particularly in relation to the tariff. With many of the alternative explanations for the onset of the war, one only has to push one question further to discover that slavery was at the bottom of the strife: “Why did southerners want states’ rights?” To protect slavery. “Why were Americans arguing about the western territories?” To determine whether they would be Free Soil or slave territories. “If this was a bungling generation of politicians, on what question did they founder?” Again, slavery. The resistance to the notion that slavery was the cause of the war is not a problem limited to the South. I recently have had spirited conversations with friends who grew up in Ohio and New Jersey about whether slavery was at the root of secession and the war. Despite that I have known each of them for years, despite that they are well educated and reasonable, and despite my presenting them with various forms of evidence, they were still reluctant to concede that slavery had anything to do with the war. If we cannot persuade educated lay people—personal friends!—who had no ancestors who fought for the Confederacy that slavery is to blame for secession and the onset of war, what are we to do with people who fit none of these categories?

RC: We are already seeing some backlash on this point. The stress on inclusivity, to the extent that this means official recognition for the predominantly African American emancipationist memory of the Civil War, has already irked right-wingers in the South. Groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans plan to mark the 150th anniversary of secession in their own way—which means, in effect, actively celebrating the Rebels’ defiance of putative federal tyranny and denying slavery’s central role in Civil War causation. Whether the absence of a federal commission will make it harder or easier to combat this neo-Confederate agenda remains to be seen.

JW: This is one potential downside of the sesquicentennial. It gives the ill-informed the opportunity to continue to spread misinformation. Another is that it has the potential to inflame racial tensions. The most egregious example to date on this count is the effort by Sons of Confederate Veterans in Mississippi to put the image of Nathan Bedford Forrest on license plates commemorating the 150th anniversary of the war. Forrest was a self-made millionaire through his slave-trading business. He was the Confederate commander at Fort Pillow, where about three hundred black prisoners of war were killed, quite probably in cold blood. And after the war he went on to serve as the Ku Klux Klan’s first grand dragon.

KN: Yet it simply is too soon to pronounce the sesquicentennial dead on arrival, as some essentially have, because it lacks national direction, a cohesive scholarly narrative, legislative largess, or widespread popular folderol like the beard-growing contests of 1961. It is happening. Universities, museums, libraries, historical societies, and Civil War Round Tables quietly continue to plan and host all sorts of local events to mark the anniversary of the war, as does the National Park Service. The initial responses should provide hope; one gathering in Fredericksburg, sponsored by the park service, drew more than six hundred people to a day of lectures on secession. Moreover, we also now live squarely in a digital age. Like it or not, the sesquicentennial is taking place virtually all over on the Internet, right now. There are at least four separate websites, for example, that are marking the war day by day. As already mentioned, the New York Times and the Washington Post inaugurated regular sites on the war. Meanwhile, bloggers and commentators provide a daily dialectic on a myriad of Facebook pages as well as dozens of weblogs. At their worst, these discussions admittedly generate more heat than light. Anger, name-calling, and the partisan misinformation to which Robert Cook refers abound at many web addresses, places where imaginary brigades of African Americans fought willingly for Stonewall Jackson, diatribes about the allegedly socialist Abraham Lincoln blend seamlessly into attacks on the current occupant of the White House, and Internet trolling is rampant. The sight can be discouraging, if not occasionally frightening. Yet at their best, at sites such as Kevin Levin’s Civil War Memory [], web offerings offer challenging posts and thoughtful conversations about the war and its legacies for a generation attuned to forming opinions at their keyboards.

JW: Clearly, the 150th anniversary of the Civil War is on the national radar, and this is good news. Members of the public who are interested in the war do not have to look far to find opportunities to learn something new. This is a wonderful learning moment for them and a wonderful teaching moment for us, and I hope we are all able to maximize this opportunity. I am delighted to see some organizations, such as the Library of Virginia, use the moment as a way to reach out to the public and ask them to submit family documents for scanning. Over the coming years, these are certain to help researchers advance our understanding of the war, particularly since the library, in this instance, is requesting in particular “global and pacifist perspectives and the viewpoints of individual African Americans and women.”2

DS: A national Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission, appointed by the federal government, would certainly help give this momentous anniversary national direction and purpose. A model already exists, the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial commission, which worked reasonably well. Established at minimal cost to the taxpayer, the Lincoln commission helped guide state organizations  and gave endorsement to larger-scale commemorations, in fact functioning similarly to the national Civil War Centennial Commission that proved so invaluable in the 1960s.

RC: While I concur that the federal centennial commission provided a certain amount of direction for the 1960s commemoration, it had significant failings. It is unclear whether the relatively low-key and inclusive nature of the sesquicentennial will help ensure that it does not become a political embarrassment in the same way as its precursor. Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, who has on several occasions identified himself with the memory of Abraham Lincoln, has already made clear his desire to honor both sides in the Civil War, first, by maintaining the Memorial Day tradition of sending a wreath to the Confederate monument in Arlington National Cemetery and, second, by publicly criticizing Governor Robert F. McDonnell in April 2010 for failing to reference slavery when he revived Virginia’s observance of Confederate History Month. The fierce criticism of McDonnell’s action from several quarters, however, highlighted the Civil War’s continuing capacity to fuel hostility between liberals and conservatives. The highly polarized nature of political debate in modern America may indicate the wisdom of a consensual and inclusive approach to the sesquicentennial, but that very fractiousness will make the avoidance of controversy virtually impossible.

KN: The sesquicentennial looks to be less print-driven, more electronic, more grass-roots oriented, more balkanized and polarized, and less bureaucratic than its predecessor. It will not result in a top-down, synthesized national meta-narrative. If one defines success as an upswing in interest in the war, we must wait and see. At this point, I am not willing to pronounce it a failure and consign it to the dustbin. We still may end up pleasantly surprised by what a more subdued national commemoration can achieve.

JW: It is too early to judge the sesquicentennial. My hope is that it keeps not only the Civil War at the front of the public mind, but that it pushes Americans to continue to think about, and work toward resolving, the war and its consequences.


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