#1: The Civil War Is about to Have a Very Gloomy Birthday
Despite some very noble efforts, the Civil War at 150 will be remembered as having been met by a collective national shrug, even in the South. Apparently Americans are happy enough to celebrate their past but not that interested in commemorating (or, better yet, understanding) it. The reason is not far to seek: the war and its racial legacy remains a can of worms most states don’t want to open publicly. Why shine a light or build a stage just so neo-Confederate dead-enders can perform their ludicrous one-man shows? In a house full of roaches, it is better to leave the lights off.
This is unfortunate in a sense—a “teachable moment” is about to go begging. But by comparison to the centennial celebrations, ambivalence is a victory. Ambivalence is the proper response to war. War is about damage, even at its most heroic, even when certain people and things deserve to be damaged. The destruction of slavery was a good thing and a great thing. Having to fight our bloodiest war to the end is neither good nor great. It is just sad. And remembering that the end of slavery was only the beginning of a longer battle for the kind of freedom that really matters is sadder still. Soon enough, if not already, the Civil War will be understood not as a test this country passed—a kiln in which the nation was fired—but as a test we failed when we couldn’t, short of war, give up our original addiction to “black gold.”
This “victory” of American ambivalence belongs to us, to academe. We have killed, or are killing, the war our fathers and grandfathers built. But no one, including ourselves, feels like celebrating, because it is already clear that our version of the war is an unlovely mess—sordid means serving varied ends, some good, most unforeseen; our version is a longer slog, less politically correct, less inspiring, and more befitting a chastened nation.
As birthday parties go, this one has been a bit of a downer so far. The American Civil War was 150 years old last year, but it went on for four years, so there’s still plenty of time for history buffs in period costumes to re-enact blood-soaked battles; actors to give President Lincoln’s and Frederick Douglass’s speeches, grafting new wings on to a bygone era’s soaring oratory; and writers to churn out volumes chronicling the history of the nation’s deadliest conflict. But, up to now, the reaction has remained oddly muted, suggesting that people in the United States, though apparently still obsessed with the Civil War, remain uncertain about how to remember this troubling event collectively: as triumph or tragedy, as rebirth or mass murder, or as something else again. Or maybe it’s just that Americans are notoriously suspicious of foreign languages, and just what kind of fancy word is sesquicentennial anyway?
Why the doom and gloom and why does this attitude consistently come from within the academic community? Perhaps these characterizations of the general public’s interest reflects their own increasingly defensive posture in response to the marginalization of history and the humanities generally in our society. What is never included in these prognostications is any sense of what exactly is being measured. What would a successful commemoration 150 years later look like? What exactly do Berry and Kelman need to see to help steer us away from the cliff and collective amnesia?
Perhaps I spend too much time reading through my Google News filter about events related to the sesquicentennial. It’s impossible to keep up. The amount of new educational materials related to the Civil War is staggering; museums large and small are creating exhibits; teachers have a wide range of workshops to choose from and visits to NPS sites are up. I could go on and on. My view: The Civil War Sesquicentennial looks just like you would expect it to look like.