Politics, Race, and the Civil War Sesquicentennial

LSU Press was kind enough to send me an advanced copy of Robert Cook’s new book, Troubled Commemoration: The Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965.  This is the first book-length study of the Centennial and it provides an important framework for which to think about the upcoming Sesquicentennial which begins in 2011.  The book situates the Centennial within the politics and culture of the Cold War and explores the challenges that the Civil Rights Movement posed for organizers and participants who wished to celebrate a history that was constructed out of consensus building rather than an attempt to deal with the more divisive issues of race and class.  The narrative of the Centennial had changed little since the turn of the twentieth century; it highlighted shared values between North and South, white supremacy, and ignored or downplayed the more divisive issues of race and emancipation.

While I’ve read a number of Cook’s articles on the Centennial I am only about 20 pages into the book.  I did come across, however, a short section on the role that grassroots organizations such as Civil War Roundtables played in pushing the federal government to form a national Centennial commission.  Given the political and racial profile of members along with the profile of legislatures on the state and national levels throughout the country it is difficult to ignore the symbiotic relationship between the two.  The vision of grassroots organizations mirrored the interests of government.  More on this in a minute.

The first Civil War Roundtable was formed in Chicago in 1940.  Notable members included Avery O. Craven, Carl Sandburg, Douglass Southall Freeman, and Frank E. Vandiver.  Meetings were held monthly and attracted people from all over the country.  By 1958 there were roughly 40 groups, most of them in the South and Midwest.  The rank-and-file, according to Cook, “were predominantly urban and proved especially attractive to white male professionals, many of whom had served recently in the U.S. armed forces.” (p. 18)  The increase in Roundtables reflected a growing interest in the Civil War.  The North-South Skirmish Association was formed in 1950 and five years later Ralph Newman started the Civil War Book Club.  Within one year the club had grown to 2,142 members.  The formation of the Civil War Centennial Association in 1953 grew directly out of this increased fervor for the past.

Given the cultural and political demands of the Cold War along with the racial profile of these organizations and the “face of government” in the 1950s it is not difficult to anticipate the overall themes that would be highlighted by the start of Centennial in 1961.  In short, the discussions about what and how to remember the Civil War would be relatively easy between both private and civil organizations.  Indeed, members of federal, state, and more local Centennial Commissions would be recruited from some of the more active Roundtables.  Such a relationship worked well as politicians could use the Centennial as another weapon in the propaganda war against the Soviets and Americans more generally could remember a war of battlefield heroics and reconciliation.

Jump ahead fifty years and we see a very different dynamic between grassroots Civil War organizations and government.  Government on all levels more closely reflects a broader racial and cultural constituency while popular interest in the Civil War is still mainly confined to white Americans.  There is bound to be tension as the profiles of both sectors of society work to shape competing visions of remembrance.  The crucial component in all of this is whether various interest groups will be willing to engage in serious dialog.  Given the recent trend of slavery apologies that has recently attracted the attention of state legislatures in Alabama and Tennessee and the ensuing debates such a dialog is unlikely.  We are going to need to get beyond the overly emotional language of revisionism and racism in order to fashion something that reflects a narrative that is honest to the past and which proves attractive to large numbers of Americans from various backgrounds.  Many states have already formed Sesquicentennial Commission and have taken the initiative to staff them with individuals with a wide range of backgrounds.  Whether they can convince the politicians to support specific programs, especially given the overly sensitive way in which all things Confederate are treated will be interesting to watch.

Robert E. Lee’s bicentennial is a case in point.  While Virginia and other states have issued formal proclamations recognizing Lee’s 200th birthday as far as I can tell there has been little in terms of formal programs that require taxpayer dollars.  [Back in January there was even protest over taxpayer dollars being used to refurbish the Lee stature on Monument Avenue in Richmond.]  Overall, it has been a fairly quiet birthday bash thus far with most of the programming being handled by universities with a direct connection such as Washington and Lee or the SCV.  In addition, there has been only one serious study of Lee published thus far this year with nothing on the burner.

Positive signs can already be seen within the National Park Service, which is of course a government agency.  The way in which individual battlefield parks gear up for the Sesquicentennial will no doubt be determined by the competence and commitment of those on the ground rather than based on any directives from the top-down – at least that’s what John Hennessy’s comments in his recent Civil War Talk Radio interview suggest. As an educator my primary concern and hope is that we use the Sesquicentennial as a teaching opportunity.  Organizations – both public and private – from around the historical landscape should use the Sesquicentennial as an opportunity to raise much-needed funds, but I will be looking for programs that utilize the best of historical scholarship.  There need be no inherent conflict between these two goals.

Before worrying about anything along these lines I think it is safe to assume that we will not see the same level of interest as the country observed at the beginning of the Centennnial before the Civil Rights Movement and the war in Vietnam took center stage.  I don’t know how I feel about that since we are now one generation further removed from the war.  My wife pointed out to me the other day that plenty of people in the mid-1950s could still claim a personal connection to the Civil War through direct acquaintance.  The generation that attended Roundtables and bought books about the Civil War grew up listening to stories from the veterans themselves.  A lack of participation this time around may tell us little about our interest in the Civil War or American history more generally.  We may simply be preoccupied with other legitimate interests.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

Purchase your copy today!

1 comment… add one
  • matthew mckeon Jun 3, 2007 @ 15:18

    NPR had a story yesterday about the “rebel yell” and they had a 1935 recording of a CSA vet giving an example, a weird, falsetto, animal-like yi yi yi, which the radio people looped repeatedly to try to give the impression of hundreds of men yelling. They interviewed the vet’s grandson, still living, who remembered the old man giving the yell when he was a kid. It’s an example of a actual connection, much more prevalent in the early 1960s than now, which you(or rather your wife) noted in your entry above.

    By the way, my parents got me the Gettysburg game pictured above, noting an unhealthy interest even in my tender years.

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