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Civil War History: Historians' Forum

Historians’ Forum: Centennial vs. Sesquicentennial

Feb 29th, 2012

2) How would you compare the centennial to the sesquicentennial?


RC: The Civil War Centennial was intended to be a national pageant, a much grander event than the sesquicentennial. Elites in the mid-1950s interpreted the conflict as a dramatic white brothers’ war that had finally reunited the nation. They saw the centennial as a useful mobilizing tool in the midst of the Cold War—a vehicle for teaching ordinary Americans about their forefathers’ military courage, patriotic devotion, and commitment to sincerely held ideals. Under pressure from historians, archivists, amateur enthusiasts, and the domestic tourist industry, Congress created a federal commission to oversee planning in September 1957. The agency’s driving force was Karl S. Betts, a public relations specialist who also happened to be an old high school friend of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Determined to promote a genuinely popular commemoration, Betts fostered corporate support for the centennial and gave state agencies across the United States a virtual free rein to mark the event as they saw fit. When the South’s Jim Crow regimes began planning a Confederate heritage bonanza, Betts made no attempt to stop them. A conservative Republican, he got on well with the segregationists who dominated the South’s centennial establishment, notably ex-Virginia governor William Tuck, an influential member of the federal commission. While Betts was willing for blacks to plan their own commemorative exercises, he had no intention of making race a central theme of the centennial. When asked by a mischievous reporter from the Nation how his agency was going to handle emancipation, he retorted that black regiments had fought for the Confederacy and that “a lot of fine Negro people loved life as it was in the Old South.”3 As the Civil Rights Movement gathered pace, rendering Jim Crow a national embarrassment in the Cold War, Betts’s lilywhite pageant looked to be a train crash waiting to happen. In March 1961, the U.S. Centennial Commission held its annual meeting in Charleston, South Carolina, to coincide with a reenactment of the Rebel attack on Fort Sumter. Unhappily for the commission, New Jersey’s state centennial agency, dominated by liberal Democrats, demanded that one of its delegates, a black woman named Madeline Williams, be accommodated in the same downtown hotel as the commission’s other guests. Charleston was a racially segregated town, and predictably the hotel could find no space for her. Sensing that the New Jerseyans were trying to undermine the centennial, Betts and Tuck insisted they had no control over a state’s racial customs. The story hit the front pages of the nation’s press, forcing the new president, John F. Kennedy, to criticize the agency publicly. Wiser heads on the commission finally prevailed and the delegates reconvened at Charleston’s desegregated U.S. Navy base. But the damage was done. The Civil War Centennial was a national embarrassment before the event had even begun. “Just where in the first place the idea of the Civil War Centennial came from we don’t know,” mused the journalist Cleveland Amory, “but we suspect the Russians.”4 An over-commercialized reenactment of First Bull Run in July 1961 prompted more adverse media coverage and Betts was soon ousted from the commission. President Kennedy then appointed two level-headed professional historians, Allan Nevins and James I. “Bud” Robertson, to run the embattled agency. Both men helped steer the centennial into safer waters, primarily by emphasizing education and commemoration over spectacle and commerce and by taking some steps to incorporate African American memories of slavery, emancipation, and wartime service into the proceedings without unduly antagonizing white southern organizers. By the time the event drew to a close in the spring of 1965, most Americans were no longer aware of its existence.

JW: The centennial got off to a bad start when, as Robert Cook notes, an African American delegate to the U.S. Civil War Centennial Commission was denied a room at the Charleston hotel where the organization was having its first event. It was an inauspicious beginning. The national effort splintered. Coming amid the civil rights movement, the centennial gave white supremacists an unfortunate platform from which to spread their message and highlighted the continuing hostility of the South toward the North. It was a national embarrassment that served mostly to highlight how deep the sectional and racial scars remained a hundred years after the war. Mercifully, this anniversary appears far less contentious to date. To be sure, we have already had some observances that range from bad taste to the outright offensive—the Nathan Bedford Forrest license plate springs to mind—and more are sure to come. But the responses to these have been heartening. Even conservative white southern politicians have rejected the most obnoxious and racially divisive efforts at commemoration. Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, a white Republican, has said that he will not sign any bill putting Forrest on a Mississippi plate. In Alabama, no state officials turned up in February for the reenactment of Jefferson Davis’s inauguration on the steps of the State Capitol.5

RC: While black-white relations may be in a better state now than fifty years ago, the possibility for racial friction during the sesquicentennial remains high. The chief difference between 1961 and 2011 is that the intervention of the civil rights movement (now generating a powerful memory of its own) has left African Americans in a much stronger position to contest attempts by neo-Confederates to peddle their politically charged narrative of the Civil War. Although most blacks probably have more pressing matters to attend to than debating conflicting interpretations of the country’s most damaging conflict, civil rights organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have spent many years campaigning against official recognition of the Confederate battle flag in the South. They will vigorously oppose any attempt by Confederate apologists to impose their own agenda on the sesquicentennial.

JW: African Americans are participating in this anniversary in high profile and sometimes very interesting ways. The NAACP in December protested the “Secession Ball” in Charleston.6 And in St. Louis, reenactors who wanted to push back against the states’ rights argument staged a slave auction in January at the Old Courthouse.7 I hope we see more involvement by African Americans in the sesquicentennial, because blacks had so much at stake during the Civil War. The war marks not only the end of slavery in this country but the beginning of a concerted effort to push for social and political rights for all African Americans. More than anything, the contrast between this anniversary and the last spotlights the lasting achievements of the civil rights movement. The country has made huge strides in terms of race relations in the past fifty years. Progress in many ways has felt slow, and true equality remains a goal rather than an established fact. However, legally segregated schools, bathrooms, hotels, and restaurants no longer exist. As of 2000, the U.S. Census allows people to check multiple racial and ethnic categories, because so many Americans now belong to more than one. We have not achieved a postracial society, but more interracial marriages and the increased exposure Americans of all races and ethnicities have to one another at work and at school have put us well on the path. Most notably, I hardly need mention, is that the United States has its first black president—something that many of us did not think we would see in our lifetimes. Given that the Civil War was brought on by slavery, how fitting that Barack Obama should be in the White House at this time.

KN: I freely admit to warm memories of the centennial. No visit to Mill Mountain Zoo in Roanoke, Virginia, was complete without wheedling the purchase of a Confederate kepi or hat. I also fondly remember a family trip to the Manassas battlefield, where I crawled all over the field pieces, bought my first Civil War books, and marveled at the vista from atop the Stonewall Jackson statue. I was not alone, either. Eight years ago, I served on a panel with four other scholars of my generation. An audience member asked us how we first became interested in the Civil War. While the details differed, all of us pointed to the centennial as the genesis of our interest. Given its importance in our own lives and careers, that fond memory of books purchased and battlefields tramped, it is small wonder that so many of my colleagues worry that the sesquicentennial pales in comparison, and that indeed we stand in danger of losing a generation that already has shown declining interest in the war since the heyday that followed the first airing of Ken Burns’s monumental public television series The Civil War.

DS: I was born in 1962, so I don’t remember the centennial proper, but I certainly remember its afterglow. In 1968, my parents bought my cousin a copy of the American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War, and before they could give it to him, I found it and became entranced by it. My folks saw my interest and bought me my own copy. I was hooked, and here I am today.

KN: With all respect to my peers and our cherished memories, they are just that, after all, the fond recollections of children. Robert Cook and Jennifer Weber have already pointed to the ugly underside of the centennial that we missed: the hucksterism, the infighting, the political posturing, and the blatant racism that nearly wrecked the entire affair. All of those battle flags on sale at the Christiansburg dime store, for example, were they available because of the centennial, or because 1965 was the year Montgomery County, Virginia, finally integrated its public schools? Should we fondly remember the centennial celebrations at Gettysburg and ignore the fact that the leading spokesman for the South at that event was George Wallace, who used the occasion to link the Confederacy’s cause to his? Frankly, I am unconvinced that it is the one model that we must follow. Indeed I think we would do well to remind ourselves what we have learned about the seductive power of selective memory over the years and to be hesitant to turn an often tortured moment into a golden age against which we measure a necessarily disappointing present.

DS: There is a point to this sentimental journey. The centennial, by all accounts, was a flawed exercise that celebrated the white culture of the Civil War and focused on the glory and drama of battles and heroic figures. It was a male-dominated exercise that allowed nurses, camp followers and female spies a sliver of participation. But, despite all those issues, the centennial produced a bumper crop of people interested in the Civil War. Some of those people went on to become professors, authors, or museum and archival professionals. Those that didn’t go into history as a profession bought books and magazines about the conflict, took a history course or two along the line, or spent a few days here and there helping the local economy of places like Vicksburg or Sharpsburg.

RC: This is very true. For all his faults, Karl Betts realized the importance of staging a genuinely popular commemoration that would excite Americans of all ages about the Civil War. The trick is to combine excitement with instruction, and it’s not always an easy one to pull off.

DS: If you take a look around Civil War events that are open to the public—relic and collector shows, reenactments or conferences or battlefield tours—you’ll notice one thing in common: a lot of gray hair. The audience generated by the centennial is aging. It’s important, therefore, that the 150th anniversary capture the imaginations of another generation. The problem is, I’m not sure that is going to happen. I don’t think the 150th has a national “oomph” behind it like the 100th did. The irony is that as we all have studied the conflict, it has become apparent that it was a far more complex event than it was often portrayed to be in the 1960s. For me, it’s still a bit too early in the game to determine how the sesquicentennial will turn out, and compare it to the events of fifty years ago. I just hope the complexity of the era doesn’t cause inertia among organizers who may avoid Civil War events because of controversy. We have a great chance to make a new generation aware of perhaps the most pivotal portion of our history, and we can’t blow it.


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