Update on Virginia’s Civil War Sesquicentennial

A few weeks ago I attended a meeting of the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission in Richmond as part of an advisory council.  This was my first meeting.  The meeting included the members of Workgroup 2 which is in charge of "signature events" and "activities."  Members include a number of prominent historians, among them James I. Robertson, Ted Delaney, Gary Gallagher, Ervin Jordan and Brian Wills.  I did a great deal of listening and have to say that I am very impressed with the work that has already been done for the sesquicentennial.  It is clear that at this point Virginia is in the lead in preparing for this important commemoration.  If I am not mistaken only Arkansas has passed legislation which allows for the organization of a committee.  The federal government has yet to pass legislation and there is a good chance that given the political controversy that accompanies anything related to the Civil War it won’t.

I was particularly impressed with Robertson who gave a brief talk on the "lessons learned" in the Civil War Centennial.  Robertson mentioned a number of things that are worth passing on.  First, the commission will meet around the state during the sesquicentennial.  In addition, there will be no central headquarters; the commission is going to bring the Civil War to the people of Virginia rather than ask them to travel to Richmond.  As an educator I was especially pleased to here that "young people" will not be overlooked this time around.  According to Robertson, this was the most significant mistake made back in the 1960s.  Robertson is already working on a multi-volume DVD geared specifically for classroom use.  Two mobile trailers will travel the state during the sesquicentennial; one will focus on the war and the other on the home front.  One of two trailers will have visited every town in the state by 2015.  A series of conferences and tours are also being planned.  Again, these events will take place in different parts of the state. 

Robertson was also adamant that the sesquicentennial should not focus on celebrating the Civil War, but rather is should engage in commemoration.  I understand this to mean that all events will be rooted in solid history rather than personal bias or long-standing myths of which there are many when it comes to the war. 

One of the more difficult issues will be the sanctioning of events on a local level.  The state commission is encouraging counties and cities to form local commissions that will organize activities which address a given locales Civil War history.  No doubt numerous civic and private groups of various stripes will organize activities.  Robertson urged the commission to protect their seal and not allow just any group to appropriate it for purposes that are historically suspect.  This is going to be an issue if the commission publishes a monthly newsletter of events taking place around the state.  Unless all events are included a decision will have to be made as to what is deemed appropriate given the goals of the commission.

I will, of course, keep you updated.  A number of the participants submitted written proposals outlining their vision for the sesquicentennial.  Ervin Jordan’s submission was very thoughtful and I plan to comment on it in the near future.

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