North Carolina’s Other Civil War Sesquicentennial

After Virginia no other state has done more to commemorate the American Civil War than North Carolina.  Their state commission has done an excellent job thus far of organizing activities that reflect an incredibly rich and complex past.  They are doing their very best to make the war relevant to the state’s diverse population by focusing on a wide range of themes from the military to race to memory.  I have a number of friends who are directly involved in the commission’s work and I can say with confidene that they are making an impact on a number of levels.

Even with all the work this group has undertaken it appears that not everyone is satisfied.  In fact, there are two Civil War sesquicentennial commemorations taking place in North Carolina.  The other one is being called the North Carolina War Between the States Sesquicentennial and they even have their own website.  The commission is headed by Bernhard Thuersam, who works as a home designer.  So, why an alternative commemoration?

This is the North Carolina view of the war and the time shortly thereafter, and not the view from 150 years later.

This is just another way of arguing that the work of historians and other advisers on the NC state’s commission is bogged down in presentism.  The point is reinforced by Professor Clyde Wilson on the opening page of their website:

America in 2011 is a very different country than America in 1961. The long march of cultural Marxism (political correctness) through American institutions, which began in the 1930’s, has achieved most of its objectives.  Schools at every level, media, clergy, government agencies, and politicians are now captive to a false dogma of history as conflict between an evil past and the forces of revolution struggling toward a glorious future (This is exactly the way that Karl Marx, who knew nothing about America, described The War).

This is so over-the-top that I am led to the same assessment re: Wilson’s rhetoric that I made in a previous post: “I Don’t Believe You.”  I will leave it for you to assess.  When asked about why the nine-member commission and four-member academic board are all white, “Thuersam said he didn’t know if they were all white because he had never asked.”

In all seriousness, there really isn’t much going on at this site.  The commission’s agenda is built around a perverse understanding of the work the NC state commission is doing and about Civil War scholarship generally.  They seem to have one thing on their mind and that is to return our understanding of the Civil War era back to the 1930s.  This project reminds me of the following Seinfeld episode:

My advice, stick with the real thing.

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15 comments… add one

  • Ray O'Hara Jan 3, 2012

    The only people who use the term evil in relation to the past are those trying to defend the South and its “peculiar’ institution.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 3, 2012

      No, I have heard plenty of other people use it in different contexts re: various aspects of Civil War memory.

  • Karl Gottschalk Jan 3, 2012

    Let a thousand blossoms bloom, let a multitude of views be presented — God bless the web! Though individual websites may have censors, the web itself allows alternative voices to be heard. And folks can think for themselves and draw their own conclusions. How American!

    • Kevin Levin Jan 3, 2012

      I couldn’t agree more with you.

  • James Harrigan Jan 3, 2012

    I actually find the existence of the “North Carolina War Between the States
    Sesquicentennial Commission” to be a hopeful thing. First of all, there is nothing to indicate that the “Commission” is anything more than the project of one racist old fool, Dr. Clyde N. Wilson. Second, Wilson’s anger and frustration that his beloved Lost Cause fantasy is losing cultural ground to a more accurate view of history is quite gratifying.

    By the way, an important “tell” about Wilson is his affiliation with the Ludwig von Mises institute, intellectual home to Ron Paul’s favorite white supremacist, Lew Rockwell.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 3, 2012

      James,

      While I appreciate the comment I would please refrain from accusing someone of being a “racist” without providing clear evidence to support. I say that as someone who has been subjected to a wide range of unfounded insults. Thanks.

      • James Harrigan Jan 3, 2012

        fair enough, Kevin. I’ll stick with old fool, though.

        But to push back just a little: when Wilson talks about “our history”, and “North Carolina’s history”, it is pretty clear that he means the history of white people. In general, when Confederate apologists talk about “The southern point of view” or some such thing, what they mean is the white southern point of view. The conflation of “white southern” with “southern” is objectively racist.

        I’ll take it all back if he highlights the wonderful book about USCT troops from North Carolina that I read a few years ago, “Freedom for Themselves: North Carolina’s Black Soldiers in the Civil War Era”, by Richard M. Reid.

        • Kevin Levin Jan 3, 2012

          Thanks, James. I agree, but they are not simply interested in the history of white people. They are interested in those whites that conform to their preferred memory of the war. You won’t find much on NC’s unionists. Reid’s book is excellent. I also recommend a new collection of essays on NC and the Civil War edited by Paul Escott that is well worth checking out.

    • Andy Hall Jan 3, 2012

      Then there’s NCWBTS Sesquicentennial Commission member Mike Tuggle, who’s the lead blogger for the League of the South. I suspect a little more Googling will reveal lots of what might be termed “interlocking boards” between heritage groups and ones with explicit, present-day political/cultural objectives. This particular sesquicentennial effort has as much (or more) to do with modern politics as it does with events of 150 years ago. And that’s fine — just understand it for what it is.

  • Karl Gottschalk Jan 3, 2012

    I find it amusing that the Raleigh News and Observer article that you link to celebrating the official state committee and its up-to-date views and new perspectives is illustrated with a picture of Confederate re-enactors restaging the Battle of Bentonville. Same illustration could have run in their articles of 50 or 100 years ago. I think the old perspective lingers on, albeit sometimes unconsciously.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 3, 2012

      Why are you surprised? The commission has done plenty to highlight the history of Confederate soldiers from the state. The history of the men who served in its ranks is central to North Carolina’s story. No one that I know of has denied that fact.

      • Karl Gottschalk Jan 3, 2012

        Kevin, I believe I said I was amused, rather than surprised. Maybe it’s just me, but given the commission’s desire to be “even-handed”, seems that the article could have found an illustration that is a little less stereotypical.

        • Kevin Levin Jan 3, 2012

          I see your point.

  • Chris Meekins Jan 5, 2012

    Hoping to show that I do not have a lack of good judgment, I will refrain from adressing the larger debate on the ongoing commemoration by the NC Sesquicentennial Committee. I only wish to point out that the committee is not a state commission – it as a Department of Cultural Resources state-wide committee. The director of the agency, Dr. Jeffrey Crow had the foresight to organize the committee on the chance that the state might not form a state commission.
    Although near impossible to find, Dr. Donald (Don) Collins has done some excellent work on the North Carolina Union Volunteers (white). I believe there is a Hyde County webpage (search Hyde County, Civil War, Unionism) that might link to some of his work and others folks’ work as well. While still harder to find than Confederate memories, Unionist memories are becoming more and more available.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 5, 2012

      Thanks for the correction, Chris. Collins has indeed done some good work, including his recent study of Jefferson Davis’s postwar life and memory.

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