Perhaps this seems like an odd question to ask given my interest in the Civil War, teaching, and limited role as an adviser to Virginia’s Sesquicentennial Commission, but I think it is useful to ask the tough questions if only to clarify its purpose and intent. Why should we commemorate the Civil War Sesquicentennial? Organizers on the state level here in Virginia have already come to some agreement on the broad answer to how the Sesquicentennial will be remembered and are working to ensure that the activities and programs reflect these broad principles. James I. Robertson, Charles Bryan and others have already spoken eloquently about the need to commemorate rather than celebrate the Civil War era. Advisor’s to the Commission are committed to making education. along with the tough questions of race and slavery, central components within the various forms of remembrance and commemoration. This stands in sharp contrast to the approach that organizers of the Civil War Centennial took back in the early 1960s and in part explains its failure. While I support the work of the Commission I think we have to admit that we still do not have an answer to the question of whether the Civil War should be commemorated on such a scale beginning in 2011.
I say this because I also wonder whether the Civil War should have been celebrated in the 1960s. The Centennial was marked by a great deal of controversy between those who viewed it as a way to simply attract tourists and their dollars/entertainment and those who hoped to bring a more scholarly bent to the various events. The big boogey man in the room was race/memory of slavery and few could agree on how to address the fact that ongoing protests and marches were reflective of the distorted legacy of the war. The upshot was an entire segment of the population that felt alienated by or failed to identify with a historical narrative devoid of any mention of slavery and race. Perhaps the entertainment wrought by reenactments, rebel yells, Lincoln impersonators did not trump the continued damage done by a nation that was unwilling to deal with the tough questions. In short the Civil War Centennial was planned by and for white Americans.
This time around the various Sesquicentennial Committees include women, black Americans, and other ethnicities, and this expansion of the base has already led to fruitful discussions and ideas. The question I have is whether the general public is ready or even interested in this Civil War. Of course, the question should not be framed as an all or nothing proposition, but the form that the Sesquicentennial takes must approach the expectations of the general public or at least that segment of the general public that is likely to be interested. After all, the programs included will be funded by the state’s taxpayers. Fundamental challenges include the selling of the Sesquicentennial to groups that have been excluded from public memory of the war, particularly black Americans, along with the acknowledgment that most people’s understanding of the war has not evolved beyond the broad outlines of the war that were featured during the Centennial.
I’ve said before that my hopes for the Sesquicentennial are quite modest. I am looking forward to the various educational initiatives that will benefit both historians and classrooms. I have very little interest in being entertained and absolutely no interest in celebrating the war. You will not find me toasting Lee and Grant or Lincoln and Davis. If you happen to see me doing so please feel free to put a bullet in my head.
So, back to the initial question of whether we should commemorate the Civil War. Let me put it this way, if I discovered tomorrow that all plans were off I would not lose one moment of sleep.