Karl S. Betts was the first executive director of the Civil War Centennial Commission and a successful Kansas-born businessman. His goals were first and foremost to fashion a centennial celebration that would attract patriotic audiences and steer clear of issues related to race. This meant battle reenactments and parades. Most of the sesquicentennial commissions, including Virginia, have decided to steer clear of reenactments. As I understand it, that decision has to do with not wanting to be perceived as celebrating what was a destructive and costly war as well as wanting to focus on more substantive and educational projects.
“The whole purpose of the commission was basically to educate, to organize events to educate the public about the founding of West Virginia, the causes of the war, and the conduct of the war,” Snell said. Instead, he said, state officials on the commission — primarily Education and Arts Secretary Kay Goodwin, who serves as the commission’s chairwoman, and Culture and History Commissioner Randall Reid-Smith — turned it into a grant-awarding agency to fund re-enactments, parades and other Civil War-themed festivals around the state. As a historian, Snell said he believes it’s wrong to turn the 150th anniversary of America’s bloodiest war – a war that killed more than 600,000 Americans – into a celebration.
Snell, director of Shepherd’s George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War, said he envisioned the commission sponsoring at least one major educational event each year, leading up to the state’s sesquicentennial, or 150th anniversary, in 2013. The events would have started with a symposium this summer, at Davis and Elkins College. However, he said, that concept was shot down. “Commissioner Reid-Smith was fighting that tooth and nail,” Snell said. “He thought we shouldn’t be doing academic stuff. We should be having pageants, fairs and parades.” Snell said the issue came to a head over a vote on whether to award a grant for a Civil War battle re-enactment. It came down to a tie vote, with Goodwin breaking the tie and voting to award the grant.
The question of whether it is appropriate to fund battle reenactments is a good one and I don’t mean to suggest that a case cannot be made for such events. That said, I’ve been consistent in pushing for the available funds to be used for more substantial and long-term projects. It goes without saying that $100,000 is not a significant amount of money and in a state that has budget concerns it is reasonable to suggest that it be used to benefit more than those people who have the ability to attend a brief reenactment or parade. The Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission has shown that it is possible to put together educational and entertaining events [click on “Programs” tab] that will continue to impact the collective understanding of the general public long after the end of the sesquicentennial.
From what I can tell it looks like there were some good people on the WV committee. It’s unfortunate that a key player in the history of the Civil War will be unlikely to make an impact over the next few years.