Will There Be a Civil War Bicentennial?

One of the highlight of this weekend’s meeting of the Southern Historical Association was the annual dinner for the Society of Civil War Historians.  This year we awarded Professor Daniel Sutherland with the first Tom Watson Brown Book Prize, which came with a nice fat check of $50,000.  The prize was for his book, A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War (Civil War America), which is a must read.  A few years back I had the opportunity to work with Prof. Sutherland while he was a visiting instructor at the University of Richmond.  He gave generously of his time and offered to give one of my seminar essays on Confederate military executions a thorough review.  This award couldn’t have been given to a nicer guy.  In addition to the award itself, Prof. Sutherland was expected to give a talk, but rather than focus on guerrillas during the Civil War he chose to reflect on the Civil War Sesquicentennial.

Sutherland offered a rather gloomy view of the Sesquicentennial in comparison with the excitement that clearly animated him as a child during the Centennial.  Even with all of the media attention surrounding this commemoration I tend to share his skepticism, but our agreement ends with the assessment itself.  Sutherland seems to believe that the lack of- or waning interest in the Civil War can be attributed to a failure of our generation.  At one point he commented on the seeming lack of interest in history among our students as well as the increased distraction attributed to the Internet.  I cringe when I hear such uninformed analysis that adds to our tendency to blame everything on our kids.  Sutherland acknowledges that much of the early excitement during the Centennial was a function of the narrow focus on battlefield heroics and larger than life personalities that were completely cut off from any concern about broader issues of race and slavery.  At the same time, however, he seems to continue to grasp at the child whose imagination was spurred to action by American Heritage with its glossy maps and images.  At one point Sutherland asked whether whether the nation will take the time to commemorate the Civil War Bicentennial.

One of the first posts that I wrote on this blog was a brief reflection on the graying of our Civil War Roundtables, which flourished in the period following the Centennial.  It’s safe to say that their days are numbered.  The Centennial clearly had an influence on a generation of white Americans, but let’s not jump too quickly to a conclusion that sets them aside as some kind of “Greatest Generation.”  We would do well to understand the broader cultural and political forces that shaped the Centennial narrative and we should also remember their proximity to the war itself.  In the early 1960s there were plenty of people who had grown up listening to the stories of the veterans themselves.  That closeness matters.  We should also keep in mind the long-term consequences of the Vietnam War on our understanding of the nature of war and government.  Perhaps the excitement that Sutherland continues to recall about his childhood is a product of a unique moment in American history that is impossible to repeat.

I suspect that we won’t see the kind of resurgence of interest in the Civil War that we did in the 1960s and perhaps that’s a good thing.  Perhaps that kind of excitement wasn’t so good four our collective understanding of the war.  We should be thinking more critically about what the Civil War means to this generation and at this specific point in time.  And in 50 years I hope the nation does the same from its unique perspective and place in time.

29 responses... add one

So Kevin, I’m curious as to how you would explain the lack of historical understanding which seems to permeate our younger generation? My experience with kids who come into the bookstore and members of my own family would seem to bear out Professor Sutherland’s comments. My niece, who is well above average intelligence, had no idea who John Wilkes Booth is, nor Robert E. Lee. Her high school history teacher told her class that it wasn’t important to know about individuals and that they could get all the information on a topic just by reading their text book. Of course, that is anecdotal and could just be the result of a poorly-trained teacher. But I wonder if the excellent students you rightly brag about hasn’t skewed your perspective in a general sense? I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush, but I have to say I am in agreement with Professor Sutherland where many people are concerned.

Best
Rob

Hi Rob,

I can’t answer that question because I don’t agree with the premise. I’ve yet to see a statistical analysis of any kind that would demonstrate me that students today know less of their history compared with previous generations. The online world that Sutherland so easily dismisses may, in fact, tell us much more about the extent to which students today are connected to a world larger than themselves. You say you are in agreement, which is fine, but based on what do you draw your conclusions? Surely, it is not the example of your niece. Thanks for the comment, Rob.

In the short time I researched this question, this report is just about the only thing I’ve found that shows statistical analysis, although it is for college seniors and not high schoolers.

http://www.eric.ed.gov/PDFS/ED441736.pdf

In 2001, the U.S. Department of Education showed that 57 percent of 12th graders performed at below basic on questions of American history, although the 2006 report card showed some improvement.

Admittedly, much of my position is based on anecdotal evidence, but I’m be curious to see any data which shows the opposite.

Best
Rob

Great post. First, I want to say that Dr. Sutherland is a great historian and a very nice guy. I was able to congratulate him on the book award he received at the Society of Civil War Historians Conference in RVA last summer. Dr. Sutherland was kind enough to talk to me for a few minutes at the opening night dinner. I find his comments about the Sesquicentennial interesting. Since this is a blog about memory, could it be that Dr. Sutherland is remembering the Centennial differently from how it really was? I’m sure many people had priorities other than commemorating the Civil War back in 1961, much as they do today. I was 15 when Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary first aired. I assure everyone that most of the people in my high school were not interested in Civil War history at the time. And I would assume the same was mostly true for Dr. Sutherland back in 1961. The older people get, the more they tend to sigh and say, “young people today, they don’t know as much as we did.” And I’m sure as I get older, I’ll tell people I had to walk uphill five miles, both ways, through deep snow to get my Civil War books.

I’ve read a number of books on the Civil War and have found most of them lacking on one way or another. In my opinion, the key to understanding the Civil War is that it was the second revolution in the United States. Before the Civil War slave owners were, in effect, in control of the government. That pro-slavery government was overthrown in the Civil War.

Capitalists in this country had reason to support the overthrow of the slaveocracy. Without the Civil War, the United States might have become a predominantly agricultural nation dominated by landowners. This was the history of much of Latin America. However, the overthrow of slavery was the last progressive act that capitalists and their political supporters will ever carry out in this country.

After the overthrow of Radical Reconstruction, Black people were disenfranchised in this country until they forced the government to give them some rights and overturn the system of Jim Crow. To this day, there is systematic discrimination against African Americans in the nation that claims to represent “liberty and justice for all.”

When we look at the progressive measures put in place by the Reconstruction Governments, it is clear that no US government since that time has even attempted to measure up to that standard.

Thanks for the comment. Your comment implies that the slaveholding South stood outside of a capitalist or pre-capitalist economy. The entire national economy was wrapped up in slaveholding from northern banks to the mills in New England.

Thanks, Kevin, for standing up for the young people. Too many people conjure up an imaginary past and then use it as a stick with which to beat the present. I strongly suspect that today’s kids are better informed about most things than we were at their age–though I too lack any hard evidence.

One of the issues about young people “remembering” the Civil War is that there has been another 50 years of history since the Centennial but the space and time allocated to history in schools remains the same, or eve, thanks to the current emphasis on testing, actually reduced.

You wrote “One of the first posts that I wrote on this blog was a brief reflection on the graying of our Civil War Roundtables, which flourished in the period following the Centennial,” but did not provide a link. As a “Roundtabler” I would be curious to see what you think.

Kevin,

Thanks! There is a lot of merit in that short piece! The Rocky Mountain CWRT does indeed have a handful of non-gray heads but most of us are well beyond Medicare! And while the members might not walk out over your presentation — the layout of the room makes that difficult! — as you point out, they would much prefer who went where in a battle to any unpleasant reminders that those lovely nice brothers had some reasons for their attempts to kill each other. And there are few women included and no non-Anglo whites.

Just watch Jay Walking on the Jay Leno Show Kevin I swear these people dropped out of school before the 6th grade. They can not ID a picture of Abe , JFK or even Carter. I had a recent grad tell me Slavery ended with the 1965 Civil rights act. When the 200 year anniversery comes around If I am still in my right mind and kicking I will be 95!.

And if Jay Leno walked the streets at any other time I suspect he would have run into the same people.

It’s depressing that there often seems not to be a happy medium when it comes to the importance placed on history. On one side you have people like Americans, who treat anything that didn’t happen just yesterday as irrelevant and basically forgotten (I’m obviously generalizing here), on the other you have the people of places like Bosnia, Northern Ireland and Israel/Palestine, who basically live in the past and nourish resentment over every injustice (real or perceived) they’ve ever suffered. For example, in “Confederates In The Attic,” Tony Horwitz (who worked as a foreign correspondent) notes that “Serbs spoke bitterly of their defeat by Muslim armies at Kosovo as though the battle had occurred yesterday, not in 1389.” People should not have to either forget history or let it rule their lives in the present and decide their future.

I think the belief that people are getting dumber with each passing generation–with accompanying moral decline–is a cynical idea that is probably as old as civilization itself.

Yes, capitalism existed north and south before the Civil War. My point was that the system of slavery and the system of capitalism have their own independent dynamics. Ultimately the system of chattel slavery is in conflict with capitalism. Capitalism needs skilled workers who will work in factories. In the slave system it was against the law to teach the slaves to read. Ultimately the primary goal of the slave is to be free. Therefore learning skills is counterproductive to the slave system.

The system of slavery came about in the western hemisphere because this was the only way of getting labor to generate profits at that time. As the system of slavery developed the demands of slavery came into conflict more and more with capitalists in the United States. This was one of the reasons for the Civil War.

I guess I don’t see such a sharp conflict. Slaveholders were able to find a wide spectrum of uses of slave labor in urban settings that helped to generate huge profits. I guess it depends of capitalism during the antebellum period.

I think Kevin hints at some significant issues about the presentation of history in schools and society generally, but then doesn’t follow up. Kevin suggests that Prof. Sutherland as a boy was attracted to the pageantry of the Civil War: waving flags, uniforms, charges, Brady photos, and likely Catton’s narrative prose. Prof. Prokopowicz questions his guests about the source of their interest on his Civil War radio show and it seems that most academics have a simlar story to explain their interest, or maybe some direct family link. Similarly, I believe that almost all of us who maintain some adult connection with the Civil War, whether through taking battlefield tours, re-enacting, battlefield preservation, or just joining internet discussions, can find the roots of our interest in the same childhood enthusiasms: I remembering pouring over the American Heritage maps, and playing with Civil War toy soldiers. My point: there appears to be strong anecdotal link between childhood attraction to Civil War military glory/stories and Civil War knowledge and interest as an adult.

It doesn’t take a survey to notice that history, post-Vietnam, as taught in American schools and presented in society does not pay attention to military tactics or glorify on military heraldry. Quite the opposite. For example, I was born in 1967 and do not remember learning about any military conflicts in any “social studies” classes, whether in public schools or even in an ivy league college where the very well-known professor was not comfortable talking about the “war” part of the Civil War. I’m not bemoaning such changes: in some ways they reflect a maturing and more nuanced society.
But there are consequences: as a parent, I do not observe any such similar historical passions or roleplay among my young children or their friends for the Civil War. (BTW, maybe an xbox Call of Duty Antietam may rectify this?). I sincerely doubt that my children or any or their peers will grow up to have the same Civil War passion that many of us reading this blog share. Kevin’s bright students are very well informed (they have a great teacher) and live in Virginia where Civil War awareness should be at its peak in our country. But outside of one or two who may go into academics, does Kevin really anticipate that any of his many students will join the Civil War Preservation Trust, read Civil War blogs, or do other such things in a decade? Of course, none of these things may matter, and it may be better for our nation if young people today are more interested in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s than the Civil War of the 1860s. I hope they are.

Dan,

Thanks for the comment, but I am not sure what you want me to follow up with. You said: “But outside of one or two who may go into academics, does Kevin really anticipate that any of his many students will join the Civil War Preservation Trust, read Civil War blogs, or do other such things in a decade?” No, I don’t and I will not lose any sleep over it. I am not training them to do any of these things, though I hope they will continue to appreciate the extent to which their lives are shaped by the past.

That while our view of the past may be more nuanced, there will be consequences. If you concede your own motivated students probably won’t maintain interest in the Civil War in the future, who do you expect will teach the subject responsibly in another generation? For example, in a couple of decades will anyone be educated or care enough to counter the SCV message (or maybe there will be no SCV around for the Bicentenniel) ? Who in the next generation will bother to contradict the black Confederate proponents? Do you think none of this matters? I’m not sure.

Of course I believe that education matters. I haven’t said anything but that throughout the life of this blog. What I am trying to suggest is that in the future we may not feel a need to engage in the kind of full scale commemoration that was done in the 1960s or even today. There isn’t anything necessarily wrong with this and it does not exhaust the myriad ways in which society’s can engage and come to terms with their collective pasts. I hope that is sufficiently clear.

“At one point he commented on the seeming lack of interest in history among our students as well as the increased distraction attributed to the Internet.”

I, for one, can link my interest in the Civil War directly to the internet. I found your blog (this is great by the way) from TNC’s site, where Andy Hall hypes you up on the regular. I’m in my late twenties, and up until recently I have had very little interest in the American Civil War. I grew up with a Civil War “buff” father, living minutes from battlefields in the mid-atlantic, and with a wealth of knowledge at my finger tips. For whatever reason, my high school interests were elsewhere (girls, wrestling, the Argentine Disappearance). And yet here I am, fast on my way to being a full-on Civil War nerd.

In high school I was generally taught facts. I suppose that was important, but it could only achieve so much. It’s the old adage of teaching a man to fish, I guess. If facts are number one in the classroom, you are only giving the kid a fish for a few semesters. But if you can light that curiosity fire in him, well, consider him intellectually fed for a lifetime. And with the internet and a little guidance, there is really nothing you can’t investigate.

Very thought-provoking post. I do some volunteer work at a Civil War museum and we have been hoping the sesquicentennial will create added interest in the war and our museum, but this post is a different perspective and one that I have already emailed to my colleagues for consideration.

Thanks for posting those thoughts.

Until five years ago I didn’t know that I had a Civil War ancestor. Most of what I know about that ancestor I learned on my own by way of the internet. I spent the first five decades of my life blissfully ignorant of the myriad ways in which that conflict shaped my life. I don’t remember anything about the Centennial celebration. I lived on the west coast from 1961 until 1965 and beyond in a state that didn’t become a state until fifteen years after the war had ended. The Civil War was simply not relevant to me. Then in 1970 I moved to Houston before my senior year in high school.

I was born in Lawrence, Kansas, and started school in Topeka, five years after the Supreme Court ruled on Brown v. Topeka, Board of Education. There weren’t any black kids in the schools I attended. The only black kid I ever met in Topeka was named George. His father worked with my dad at the V.A. hospital. We lived in a barracks called Sunnyside on the hospital grounds. My first memory of Halloween was trick or treating with George in the barracks. We both dressed as pirates.

During kindergarten and first grade in Topeka I learned about Jayhawks. They were these funny looking birds that had a big yellow beak, big yellow claws, a red head and a blue body. We were given crayons so we could color inside the lines. It was supposed to have something to do with the Civil War.

I had forgotten all about those Jayhawks when I started my senior year in Galveston. Only one black family lived in my school district, the Bookmans. They had been sharecroppers in Friendswood when the Quakers arrived in 1898. Pat was in my class. Her brother, Ermus, had graduated the year before I got there. He owned the state record for the 100 yard dash, 9.7 seconds flat. Pat was an all-state volleyball player.

When I started college at the University of Houston a year later a substantial portion of the student body was black. Most of the black students were pledged to fraternities or sororities that required membership in the Black Student Union, Many of them lived within walking distance of campus.Getting to school for me meant a forty minute commute on a congested freeway. I belonged to the Honors Program. It had an office and a lounge in the East Office Annex, situated directly between the Math Department and the Black Student Union. The director of the Honors Program was a white history professor. The only required course for Honors Students was a history seminar called Western Civilization.

I commuted to school with my dad my freshman year. He was a psychology professor then. I lived in a high rise dorm for part of my second year, then found an apartment I couldn’t afford off campus in a “bohemian” district three or four miles from school. My third year was spent in an apartment I could almost afford three or four blocks off campus, an area known as the Third Ward. Except for a few “international” students it was an all black neighborhood. Living white in an all black community was a far more profound educational experience for me than anything offered in the classroom.

I dropped out of school after my third year and moved back to the west coast. I drove taxi for four or five years and eventually started taking classes part-time, but didn’t really make any progress until I got poor enough to qualify for financial aid, which allowed me to borrow money in exchange for attending school full-time. It took me twelve years to get a four year degree and three more to earn a master’s degree that younger students were collecting in only one year.

My problem in school was that my history text was written by Spengler and everybody else was reading Toynbee. I never did figure out how to color those Jayhawks inside the lines. But thanks to the internet I know why my great great grandfather was buried in St. Louis and how his visit to Texas prefigured mine.

The Sesquicentennial Celebration is to the internet what the Civil War Centennial was to television. My great great grandmother was widowed by the Civil War. My great grandfather was orphaned by it. He died in an industrial accident the same year that his father’s commanding officer died. My grandfather got into seminary with an eighth grade education because his grandfather died in the Civil War. My dad wrote a dissertation about sadness and anger that he completed when I was five years old. He knew about sadness and anger because he was five years old when his father died.

My grandfather didn’t live long enough to tell my father that his great grandfather died in the Civil War. His older sisters knew and so did his mother, but they left it to me to break the news to him when he was almost eighty.

Craig, thanks for this post, thanks to Kevin for highlighting it, and howdy from Galveston. I’ve added the Intense Inane to my blogrolls at Dead Confederates and Maritime Texas. Good luck in your further exploration of your family history.

Time naturally dims the vividness of historical events for subsequent generations and I see no reason to exempt the Civil War from that process. We are in the midst of the bicentennial of the major events of the Napoleonic Wars and I don’t think the level of interest in that critical period among Europeans is especially high. We’re soon to approach the centennial of World War I and it’s sobering to consider that World War I is much more distant to us than the Civil War was for the generation that fought WWI.

It’s an old joke that the child tells his grandfather that History as easier for him because there was “so much less of it” when he was in school, but like many jokes there is a kernel of truth to it. I don’t think young people today have the kind of common knowledge about World War II, for example, that i did, but that’s only natural. When I was young (the 60s) the World War II generation was in the prime of life and they were everywhere. World War II figured prominently in mass media such as movies and television. As a kid you could hardly help but soak up a lot of that. Well, a lot has happened in the ensuing 50 years and it’s unrealistic to expect a young student to have the same level of engagement with WWII as I did. If so for WWII then how much mores o for the Civil War?

I expect an uptick in interest for the 150th anniversary of the war’s events, but it will not match the centennial and it shouldn’t.

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