Virginia’s Civil War Sesquicentennial is Less Than One Year Away

That's right, on April 29, 2009 the University of Richmond will host the first of a series of "Signature Conferences" which will take place through 2015.  Ed Ayers has organized this first gathering which has the tentative title, "America on the Eve of the Civil War."  Rather than a traditional conference setting Ayers is hoping to invite presenters who will play the roles of various characters in Virginia in 1859.  The idea would be for those individuals to respond to news on the ground in a way that would highlight the contingency or unknown as to how events might play out.  The details have yet to be worked out, but you can see how it neatly fits into Ayers's recent scholarship which attempts to present the history as unfolding within the context of an uncertain future.  It also points to his commitment to appeal to a wide range of people.  The event may also include a forum where issues of interpretation and memory can be discussed.  This event will be followed by a conference at Harper's Ferry on June 25-26. 

Virginians should be very proud of the hard work that has already been put into a broad range of events, which hopefully will appeal to a broad spectrum of the state's population.  Today's meeting of the Advisory Council to the Virginia Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission was a bit draining, but well worth the time. In the morning we listened to a series of reports and in the afternoon divided up into smaller groups to discuss a number of issues.  Andrew Talkov, who is the Exhibition Coordinator at the Virginia Historical Society updated us with the work his organization is doing to put together two separate exhibits which will tour the state throughout the sesquicentennial.  Edward D.C. Campbell, who is in charge of document digitization at the Library of Virginia, gave us an overview on their plans to uncover as many private collections as possible from around the state and have them digitized for research and educational purposes. 

The commission still seems to be a bit wary about its position on reenactments.  At this point the commission will not endorse or support the organization of reenactments, which was the initial recommendation of James I. Robertson.  As many of you know Robertson was a prominent figure during the Centennial celebrations and knows all too well the controversy that was generated as a result of reenactments.  I understand the position, but I wonder whether the commission is giving in too quickly.  After all, these reenactments are going to bring the most visitors to Virginia and the commission may be losing an opportunity to reach out to an entire segment of the Civil War community.  Reenactments are going to take place regardless of whether the commission endorses them or not, but they may run the risk of generating some bad press with certain interest groups if they feel they are being snubbed.  I don't know what the solution is, but I wonder whether all options have really been exhausted in trying to find ways of packaging these types of events in a way that steers clear of potential problems. 

The other issues that seems to be more of a stumbling block is the question of under what conditions other organizations can use the commission's logo.  This is an important question since the goal of the sesquicentennial is commemoration and not celebration and we can all imagine a number of nightmare scenarios.  One place where this has come up is in the creation of local sesquicentennial commissions.  The state commission is encouraging every county to form their own commission, and at this point 55 out of 134 localities have done so. The issue at hand is whether the state commission will be able to exercise control over the types of events or the make-up of individual commissions.  Should there be guidelines in terms of the kinds of people that can serve on a local commission and who on the state commission should have oversight of all of this? What is the line between appropriate and inappropriate events?

This connects to the broader issue of private funding.  The most interesting aspect of all of this is the politics of fundraising, which I know nothing about.  We all know that the Civil War is a divisive subject so it stands to reason that private businesses may be apprehensive about making donations and having their names attached to various events.  One very interesting suggestion was to focus on the fact that private funds would be used to support a wide range of institutions throughout Virginia.  This would keep the focus off of trying to package the sesquicentennial around some vaguely defined Whiggish interpretation of American history.  I just don't have much patience for Victorian notions of moral progress and American Exceptionalism.  I don't mean to impugn the United States, I just don't think that such views make much sense regardless of where they are applied. 

In the end, the important point is that Virginia's commission is far in the lead of any other state commission.  In fact, the people in charge of the commission spend time consulting with other state's who are working to organize their own commissions.  I couldn't be more encouraged by the progress that Virginia's commission has made thus far. 

4 comments… add one

  • Eric Wittenberg Jun 24, 2008

    Kevin,

    I hope you realize how fortunate you are to have a state that cares about history.

    This God-forsaken state (Ohio) has no intention to do anything at all to commemorate the sesquicentennial. In January, I wrote the governor a letter reminding him that time was short and asking what, if anything, the plan was to celebrate the event, and I never even got a response.

    Be grateful for what you’ve got there.

    Eric

  • Mannie Gentile Jun 24, 2008

    Kevin,

    A great post! It prompted my most recent:

    http://volunteersinparks.blogspot.com/2008/06/sesquicentennial-if-folks-could-see-me.html

    Was there any National Park Service representation at this conference?

    It will be very different for me to approach this event as an adult who sees the war as more than just a source of cool Civil War related toys and comics. When I was a kid it was all excitement and fun. Things were much simpler then…

    and much more interesting today.

    Best wishes,

    Mannie

  • Kevin Levin Jun 25, 2008

    Hi Mannie, — Don’t worry as the NPS is well represented on the Advisory Council: Ed Bearrs, John Hennessy, Ed. W. Clark, Robert E.L. Krick. Robert K. Krick, Dave Ruth, Russ Smith. How’s that?

    Eric, — I can imagine how frustrating it must be to live in a state that doesn’t care much for commemorating the sesquicentennial. Looks like Michigan is organizing as well as Pennsylvania. A group from the Pennsylvania commission held a little meeting at the Union League during the meeting of the Society of Civil War Historians. Here in Virginia, however, are problem is the city of Richmond. I should have mentioned this in the post, but alot of people are worried that the city is not going to contribute much of anything to all of this and the reasons are obvious. The Civil War is a hot potato and many local politicians don’t want to touch it. We will see.

  • Andrew Duppstadt Jun 26, 2008

    Kevin,
    Sounds like things are off and running! For updates and information on what’s happening in North Carolina check out http://www.nccivilwar150.com. While this is not an appointed government commission, it is the committee and academic advisory board that will oversee all events organized by the state’s Department of Cultural Resources (of which I am obviously an employee). I have forwarded your post above to some key members of our committee so they can see where our neighbors to north are at in the process. Thanks for the update!

    Andrew

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