Yesterday I expressed some concern about how our Civil War will be remembered during the upcoming Sesquicentennial celebrations. Perhaps there are reasons to be optimistic. Read H.R. 687: “To establish a commission to commemorate the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War.” The National Park Service has already constructed a website devoted to the event and the language is encouraging:
In preparation for the Sesquicentennial, the National Park Service-through the collective efforts of the superintendents at Civil War-related
parks-proposes to undertake a multi-faceted, multi-year, integrated program that will simultaneously transform and improve interpretation of the Civil War in our national parks while providing a national forum for the observance of the Sesquicentennial of America’s greatest national crisis.
During the preparatory period (2005-2011), this web site will present information on the events leading up to the Civil War, so that the
Sesquicentennial can be experienced as the 150th anniversary of major military events, but also of social, political, economic and cultural transformations that have changed the nation forever.
The American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar is set to open its doors on October 7. Back in 2002 I took part in a conference at the University of Richmond and attended an evening session at Tredegar for a preview of their plans for the exhibits. It’s nice to see it come to fruition. Here is a brief description of the center’s permanent exhibit:
The Center’s permanent exhibit, In the Cause of Liberty, will be housed in the 1861 Gun Foundry, will open on Saturday, October 7, 2006. Visitors will begin their tour with Causes of the Civil War, move into the War years, and finish with Legacies.
The exhibit will present the story of the Civil War, its causes, and its legacies from the viewpoints of Unionists, Confederates, and African Americans — the war’s three main participant groups. The Center’s interpretive approach comes from a Foundation-sponsored symposium
in which Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson was asked why the Confederates fought. “The central tragedy, the great irony of the war,” he observed, “is that all three groups were fighting for the legacy of the American Revolution, but they profoundly disagreed about what that legacy was.” The war was a matter of honor and principle for all three as each acted to uphold its own vision of America. Each remembered the war differently as well, and to this day the war means different things to different people.
Our interpretation will trace all three stories and show how each group played a different role in the nation’s central drama. The presentation will weave battles and leaders, guns and saddles into the larger drama of how the war affected Northerners and Southerners, men and women, and blacks and whites. The dynamic interplay of three peoples at war changed America forever and created a vastly different country from the one that existed before the war. The exhibit will show how the war produced the basic structure and character of the United States we know today.
It’s safe to say that the majority of visitors throughout the sesquicentennial will travel to one of the many Civil War battlefields and/or museum sites. It is encouraging that both of these institutions are taking the initiative to present a sophisticated, educational, and entertaining interpretation of the war and its legacy.