One of my first posts all the way back in 2005 focused on what I saw as the inevitable decline of our Civil War round tables. I suggested that without a resurgence of interest in the Civil War era that animated Americans in the early 1960s these groups would disappear one by one. In light of the last two posts I stand by the claim that I made over six years ago.
On Saturday the Museum of the Confederacy hosted a day-long event that culminated in a “Person of the Year: 1862” that was decided by an overwhelmingly older audience. That same day the Sons of Confederate Veterans were forced to relocate an event that had been scheduled at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church as part of their national rally. These two stories have more in common than you might think. Both organizations cater to a centennial generation.
I have no idea why church officials canceled the SCV’s event yesterday. That said, it seems safe to assume that enough people within the church community found out about it and voiced their disapproval. Whatever, the reason they didn’t want their church to host an SCV event and the reason for this must rest with the SCV itself, which has done everything in their power over the past few years to alienate reasonable people. Take a look at any photograph from Saturday’s rally along Monument Avenue and what stands out is that hardly anyone showed up. As far as I can tell the former capital of the Confederacy paid no notice of the SCV’s presence. And those who were present overwhelmingly represented an older crowd.
Whether the SCV will be able to attract a new generation to their banner has yet to be seen, but I have my doubts. Their preferred view of history flies in the face of the last 40 years of serious scholarship, but more importantly, their narrow view of what it means to remember a Confederate past will likely only continue to pull in folks who place themselves within a larger morality play that blurs the distinction between past and present.
The MOC’s challenge in the coming years is much more in line with that of other historical institutions that are focused on the Civil War era. It would be a good idea to start out by acknowledging that the sesquicentennial is unlikely to produce the same level of interest in the Civil War that occurred in the early 1960s. This should not be interpreted in any sense as some kind of surrender, but an acknowledgment that the conditions present at that earlier time were unique. Let’s not delude ourselves in thinking that this earlier generation was hardwired or predisposed to be smitten with the past in a way that those who came after are not.
What the SCV, MOC and other institutions all have in common is a belief that the past matters. Their members and patrons manifest a belief at one level or another that we are compelled to remember the past and place our own lives within a broader narrative. And in doing so, we believe that our lives and those of our communities are greatly enriched.
The institutions that are most successful in attracting the post-centennial generation will be those that think out of the box. It’s a formidable task given how much of our technology and values are geared to keeping us focused on the triviality of the present. It won’t be by appealing to traditional cultural triggers or the same tired Civil War narratives. We are going to need a new narrative for a generation born and raised under very different cultural, social, and political conditions. Our expectations of a post-centennial audience will also need to be revised. It is hard to imagine such an audience showing up on a Saturday to vote on a person of the year or marching down Monument Avenue in Confederate uniform.
No, it won’t be easy, but as we all know, it is worth the effort.