Shopping cart

Civil War History: Historians' Forum

Historians’ Forum: Centennial vs. Sesquicentennial

Feb 29th, 2012

Postscript: “Our Messy Sesquicentennial”


Daniel E. Sutherland

Samuel Eliot Morison observed that America was discovered accidentally by someone looking for something else and named for someone who never saw the place. “History is like that,” Morison concluded, “very chancy.”

           The same may be said of commemorations, and certainly of this sesquicentennial observance of our Civil War. I am glad to see, though, based on the foregoing forum, that my comments at last November’s Southern Historical Association meeting may have been unduly pessimistic. I had worried that the nation seemed in danger of sleeping through the sesquicentennial, but this spirited exchange among Dana, Robert, Jenny, and Ken gives me hope. They have confirmed my sense that the commemoration has been scattered and piecemeal, but there is at least a public awareness, expressed in print, on the Internet, and through reenactments, that something rather important happened 150 years ago.

            I disagree with the forum’s participants on only one point. All seem to lament the bickering, protests, and quarrels that have accompanied the commemoration, but I see the squabbles as healthy, not to say inevitable. I never expected a national consensus on the war, not on its causes, not on its conduct, not on its consequences. Crikey. Nothing could be more dreary. It is the clash of opinions that keeps the war alive—and keeps historians humble. Given the relatively few issues on which scholars agree, and our relatively small audience, the diversity of opinions among the public is hardly surprising. Accept it. We are on a darkling plain, and ignorant armies will always clash by night.

            A review of Robert Redford’s new film, Conspirator, about the trial of Mary Surratt, quotes the director as saying, “What’s fascinating is it’s a story nobody knows about.” And later, “I didn’t know this story.”10 Now, I take Redford to be an educated man, but if he had not even heard of Surratt, well, there you have it. And there is this: Not having seen the film, I know not the accuracy of Redford’s story, but I suspect it is different from the one told by Elizabeth Leonard, Kate Larson, and other scholars. Clio has always been the most abused muse.

           No matter. Shoulders square, eyes front, and soldier on. History is not only chancy, but also messy, and I love it.


Works Cited

Blight, David. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001.

Cook, Robert. Troubled Commemoration: The American Civil War Centennial, 1961–1965. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007.

Creighton, Margaret. The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History: Immigrants, Women, and African Americans in the Civil War’s Defining Battle. New York: Basic Books, 2005.

Escott, Paul. “What Shall We Do with the Negro?” Lincoln, White Racism, and Civil War America. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009.

Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.

Foster, Gaines. Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South, 1865–1913. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Larson, Kate Clifford. The Assassin’s Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln. New York: Basic Books, 2008.

Leonard, Elizabeth. Lincoln’s Avengers: Justice, Revenge, and Reunion after the Civil War. New York: Norton, 2005.

Nolan, Alan. Lee Considered: General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Pauldan, Phillip Shaw. A People’s Contest: The Union and Civil War, 1861–1865. New York: Harper & Row: 1988.

Warren, Robert Penn. The Legacy of the Civil War: Meditations on the Centennial. New York: Random House, 1961.

Wilson, Charles Reagan. Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865–1920. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980.



            1. Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for Social Studies, Subchapter B., Middle School, §113.19 (b)(5)(A),, accessed Feb. 28, 2011.

            2. “Civil War 150 Legacy Project,” Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission,, accessed Feb. 28, 2011.

            3. Dan Wakefield, “Civil War Centennial: Bull Run with Popcorn.” Nation, Jan. 30, 1959, 97.

            4. Cleveland Amory, “First of the Month,” Saturday Review, Apr. 1, 1961, 5.

            5. “A Union Divided: South Split on U.S. Civil War Legacy,” Time,, accessed Mar. 4, 2011.

            6. Ibid.

            7. “Slave Auction Re-enacted in St. Louis to commemorate 150th Anniversary of Civil War,” MSNBC Photoblog,, accessed Mar. 4, 2011.

            8. Robert Penn Warren, The Legacy of the Civil War: Meditations on the Centennial (New York: Random House, 1961), 3.

            9. Samuel Eliot Morison, Oxford History of the American People (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1965), 2:23.

            10. Quoted in Maria Puente, “Redford’s ‘Conspirator’ Lets Mary Surratt Testify,” USA Today, Apr. 14, 2011,, accessed June 21, 2011.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6