Virginia’s Sesquicentennial to Begin at Harper’s Ferry

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.

7 thoughts on “Virginia’s Sesquicentennial to Begin at Harper’s Ferry

  1. Jack

    Kevin, this is an excellent question, one discussed at this week’s Michigan Commission meeting. Your comment about the close is well-taken; I’ve seen too many references to the “war’s end” in April ’65, as if Johnston were still not in the field, or that Mobile hadn’t fallen, or that the trans-Mississippi didn’t exist, or that Jeff Davis/Cabinet were still not on the run. Extending the event beyond 4/15 would serve both to rectify misunderstandings of the true ending of the war and to continue into the issue of Reconstruction.

    I continue to read your Sesqui posts with keen interest.

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  2. Kevin

    I am pleased to hear that these posts are helpful. Let me clarify, however, that while I agree that questioning the boundary between the Civil War and Reconstruction is useful I am not really that interested in events in North Carolina, the trans-Mississippi or the flight of Jefferson Davis. I tend to agree with Gary Gallagher that the surrender of Lee’s army at Appomattox signaled the end of the Confederacy in terms of its ability to wage war in a conventional sense. That said, I have no problem with wanting to remind people that armies operated elsewhere. Again, my focus is on the broader issues of the war years such as emancipation which extended into the second-half of the 1860s and beyond.

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  3. Chris Paysinger

    Kevin,

    I agree that this anniversary does provide a great opportunity for historians, and especially, for the average American to look beyond April 15th. Increasingly as of much interest to me as ’61-’65 is the “ideological” war that was waged. Especially after the war. As I’m working to the end of my MA thesis, I see that for many in the small town that I am looking at that the efforts to perpetuate and protect their “hierarchical” station in life continued for many years. I wholly believe that the post-war years were little different than those four that in actuality constituted the war. At least in many parts of the South.

    Keep us up to date on these efforts,

    Chris

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  4. Kevin

    Will do Chris. How about writing up a post-length overview of your thesis and I will feature it as a guest post. I think this would make for a nice blog feature. You can contact me via email if you have additional questions.

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  5. John Woodward

    I just happened to see your site and thought I had an interesting tidbit for your civil war ‘buffs’. My grandfather, his last name is Vogel, who lives near Philadelphia, Pa. is the last living survivor, of someone who fought in the civil war. His fathers picture hangs in one of the gettysburg museums. His father is one of ten soldiers who received a special medal and a letter from Lincoln, for saving his life at a battle outside of Washington DC.

    My grandfather still has his ‘wits’ about him, wo we get some interesting stories.

    thanks

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  6. Chris Paysinger

    Hey Kevin,

    Putting together a guest post sounds great. It would be great to get some insight from other posters. Should I just send it to you via a Word document? It may take a couple of days…feverishly retooling some of Ch. 2.

    Thanks,

    Chris

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  7. Kevin

    Glad to hear you are up to this little assignment. Send it as part of an email which will make it easier to post. Word’s formatting makes it very difficult to cut and past easily. Thanks and I look forward to reading it.

    Reply

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