Virginia’s Civil War Centennial Commission

I spent part of the day in Special Collections at the University of Virginia looking at a few pamphlets published by the Virginia Civil War Commission.  As I mentioned the other day I am working on the final chapter of my Crater manuscript which explores more recent interpretive challenges.  I wasn’t surprised by what I found in the pamphlets.  Nowhere did I find any mention of slavery as a cause of the war or as a central issue of the war itself.  Here are a few excerpts that I jotted down.

Virginia’s Opportunity: The
Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965 [published by the Virginia Civil War
Commission, Richmond,Va, 1960] Manual was prepared for Civil War centennial committees and
teachers “who are trying to interpret the meaning of this momentous era to the
youth of Virginia.”

But the Centennial is no time for finding fault or placing
blame or fighting the issues all over again. Americans from every section produced the divisions which led to
war. These divisions grew out of hate,
greed and fear, ignorance and apathy, selfishness and emotionalism—evils from
which this generation is not free….This is the time to recognize these divisive forces; but this is also the
time to honor dedication and devotion, courage and honor, integrity and
faith—qualities plentifully demonstrated in the War of 1861 to 1865—and needed
for our survival in the years to come. (from the Foreward)

The chief purpose of the Centennial is to strengthen the
unity of the country through mutual understanding—an understanding derived from
the realization that there was dedication and devotion on both sides. North and South, there were those who gave
all they had in support of what they sincerely believed was right…. In the Centennial the spotlight will be on
character in men—for war is the ultimate test of character. The stories of the Civil War are full of
lessons for present-day living. By these
examples we can teach children and adults the moral values so needed in America today.
(p. 8)

Section title: “See That The Historical Events That Happened
In Your Locality Are Properly Explained” (p. 19)

The Centennial Program In Schools (chapter)

1. The importance, the fascination and the drama of history.

The students do not want a dry-bones recital of the dates
and events. They want to know the human
story of the war. They want to feel what
the soldier on the battlefield experienced. They want to know why people acted the way they did; what choices they
had. Our goal is the present history as
exciting, moving and relevant.

2. Heroes and Patriotism.

There is an opportunity in the Centennial for our young people to learn the respect for patriotism and great men which used to be such a large part of the fabric of American life. To do this we must make our heroes understandable and present their lives and principles in present day terms. Lee’s words should have as much meaning to Virginians today as they did in reconstruction times. “You can work for Virginia, to build her up again, to make her great again. You can teach your children to love and cherish her." (p. 21)

3. Understanding.

The student can be led to see that dissensions between people are caused by ordinary human emotions and desires, by selfishness, hate and pride, that the divisions that led to this awful war were created by people in all parts of the country and that the diseases of mistrust, hatred and war can be cured only by uniting behind a bigger idea or a bigger goal than the ones that divide us. (pp. 21-22)

Chairman of the Virginia Civil War Commission: Charles T. Moses

The Civil War Centennial is a commemorative
effort of great magnitude than any ever before undertaken by the Commonwealth of Virginia. The Virginia Civil War Commission’s plans are
designed to interpret and explain this cataclysmic period of history to our own
people and those who visit us and to call attention to the heroism, the
idealism and the devotion to principle displayed during the War. The Commission hopes that a theme of moral
and spiritual regeneration will run through all of its activities. Virginia
has an opportunity to attract millions of out-of-state visitors through an
exciting Centennial program. But Virginia has an even
greater opportunity to inspire these people to be as dedicated to great ideals
in a time of peace as our forbears were in a time of war. This is the time for Virginia to emphasize the victory of
character won by Lee and others in rising above the horrors of war and the
shame of defeat.

I find the language to be strikingly safe and neutral.  I wonder to what extent the references to a loss of moral character is a response to the changes taking place in response to Brown v. Board of Ed. and the heating up of the Civil Rights Movement. 

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