One of the questions discussed at the August meeting of the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission was which event to use as the beginning of the commemorations. If I remember correctly, the Centennial celebrations were kicked off with the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1961; this reflected both a traditional interpretation of the war which framed the conflict in terms of military affairs, but also made it possible to ignore anything that reminded Americans of the sectional debates over slavery. A number of commission members suggested beginning Virginia’s commemoration of the war with John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry. The reasons should be obvious. Any understanding of the Civil War must be understood in connection with slavery and the 1859 raid contributed to white Virginians and others in the South viewing the 1860 presidential election as a referendum on the future of the Union. As an adviser to the Virginia Commission I am pleased to report that a tour and tentative lecture of Harper’s Ferry are planned for June 25-26, 2009.
While I applaud this move I hope that the same amount of attention is given to the Sesquicentennial’s close. During the August meeting I suggested that the commission look beyond the neat textbook-style distinctions between Civil War and Reconstruction. The more I read about the postwar period the more I am impressed by those who argue that the war did not really end in April 1865, but instead took on a different dynamic. Perhaps a tour of the Freedman’s Village at Arlington along with a lecture (in addition to other events) would make it possible to address lingering questions about black civil rights, reunion, and the legacy of the war. Given the make-up of the commission I am confident that the issue will be taken seriously.
I have little doubt that most Americans will be attracted by events involving military topics, but we cannot afford to ignore the causes and consequences of the war as was done in the 1960s. The decision to begin the commemoration of the war in 2009 at Harper’s Ferry is a sign that this will not happen in Virginia.