Is the Civil War Sesquicentennial Over?

It’s a question that is on my mind right now as I work to complete an editorial for the Atlantic. We’ve commemorated the trifecta of our Civil War Sesquicentennial, which in my mind includes Emancipation, Gettysburg, and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Other than the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, what else is there to acknowledge? It will be interesting to see whether President Obama accepts an invitation to speak at Gettysburg in November.

It seems to me that the war in 1864-65 takes the kind of turn that is not easily framed in the form of commemorations and celebrations. We shall see.

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25 comments… add one

  • Patrick Young Jul 26, 2013

    The movie “Lincoln” raised mass awareness of the passage of the 13th amendment. This has none of the ambiguity of the Emancipation Proclamation and can be celebrated, unlike the two battles. And for me personally, the central legal legacy of the war for modern times is the ratification of the 14th amendment. If you really want a monument to reconstruction, there it is.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 26, 2013

      Let’s hope the passage of the 13th Amendment is acknowledged in a big way. I am less optimistic about the 14th given recent political debates over its scope and even less optimistic that the 150th anniversary of Reconstruction will make much of a dent on public awareness.

      • Patrick Young Jul 26, 2013

        Strange that Americans killing one another is less controversial than Americans recognizing a common civil equality for anyone born here or naturalized. I think, however, that the 14th has a great appeal to the sorts of blacks, Latinos, and twenty somethings who were missing at, let’s say, the Bull Run commemoration.

        • Kevin Levin Jul 26, 2013

          I suspect that part of the challenge in acknowledging the 14th is dealing with the ugliness of Reconstruction. There is also the perspective that Reconstruction was little more than an interlude between the Civil War and Jim Crow.

  • wkerrigan Jul 26, 2013

    There is another factor which leads me to conclude that the Civil War commemoration is essentially over, and it is this: the anti-war turn in Civil War historiography in recent years, inspired by national war-weariness as a result of Iraq and Afghanistan, is now seeping into the broader public’s consciousness. A number of popular histories of the Civil War with an anti-war turn have been published in the last few years, and Tony Horwitz’ recent essay on Gettysburg is another manifestation. As the idea that “there are no good wars” takes hold of the public’s imagination, I think it is inevitable that media and popular history will de-emphasize things like emancipation. I suspect the Gettysburg Address anniversary will receive far less attention than the battle of Gettysburg received, and that the anniversaries of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments will be almost media footnotes. Appomattox, as a symbol of peace at last, may get more attention than any other event.

  • yankeefifergal Jul 26, 2013

    I was definitely going to say – Appomattox is left and that is certainly an important 150th to commemorate. Also – the 23rd USCTs have their anniversary of being the first black soldiers to fight against the Army of Northern Virginia on May 15th of next year. As a journalist, I’m going to try and get the story accepted by an editor, but to editors, the Civil War anniversary was over in 2011, and now *really* over after Gettysburg.

    I do not think the public’s interest in these anniversaries has waned, especially if framed by historians and journalists as extremely significant (the 13th and 14th amendments are good examples of this) – but whether or not journalistic institutions see them as significant and permit coverage of them is a different story.

    Btw I love your blog!

  • grandadfromthehills Jul 26, 2013

    Are you thinking only in terms of public consideration or the historical importance?

    I am neither a historian nor a person who has near the historical knowledge of other readers of this blog, but I personally hope the remembrance continues. It is not a celebration, but we should give these events their proper recognition not to remember a war, but to remember a time of struggle in which this nation suffered and eventually fully united. It should be a time of reflection of the political issues of that day and consideration of the cause, the stated reasons and the eventual results of the war.

    There is much more that I could opine about the issues of that day and their parallels today, but that would not be addressing the purpose of this particular posting and I would be a child amongst giants. I do deeply respect the learning reflected in this particular blog and cannot wade in on most conversations.

    Sam Vanderburg
    Gun Barrel City, Texas

    • Kevin Levin Jul 26, 2013

      Thanks for adding your voice. I certainly agree with the thrust of your comment.

  • Al Mackey Jul 26, 2013

    I would distinguish between commemoration and celebration. Certainly the high casualties would be nothing to celebrate, but the sacrifices of the soldiers very much merit commemoration. Also, June 19, 1865 will be something to celebrate, as will the passage of the 13th Amendment.

    The big question as I see it is what will happen for the sesquicentennial of Reconstruction?

    • Kevin Levin Jul 26, 2013

      Reconstruction will likely pass with very little attention beyond teacher workshops, the release of classroom resources, and academic gatherings. The 13th Amendment will get some attention thanks to Spielberg’s Lincoln.

      • grandadfromthehills Jul 27, 2013

        When I was taught reconstruction back in the 60’s and 70’s, it was maybe mentioned in one day although the carpetbaggers were clearly covered and in vocabulary tests! I was in Arkansas, afterall! Yet, I do not the Reconstruction was truly over for over 100 years in parts of the South. Particualy Arkansas. In traveling through the South, I notice a difference in the areas as I go through and see how much better off nothern and western states seem to be by appearance. Arkansas looked so much rougher.

        I am not sure his fits here, but more study needs done about this. I would like to see more on this. Perhaps it is there, but I am not aware of it.

        Ya’ll keep baiting me to go after a degree in history!

        Sam Vanderburg
        Gun Barrel City, TX

        • Jimmy Dick Jul 28, 2013

          Reconstruction education tended to be a one day affair at best. It would be nice to see some solid work done on that subject become common knowledge. The problem with celebrating Reconstruction’s sesquicentennial is that most of it took place in the South. The attitude there today is based on the lack of education about the time period because it was glossed over, much like the Civil Rights era is getting glossed over because no one wants to admit what really went on.

  • John Cummings Jul 26, 2013

    Thanks, yankeefifergal for the plug regarding the 23rd Regiment USCT’s. We will be commemorating this event on May 17, 2014, two days after the actual anniversary date. More news to come.

  • Emmanuel Dabney Jul 26, 2013

    I’ve said this to you on social media, Kevin, but I fear that several things will contribute to problems in commemorating the rest of the war. For museums, battlefields, and other historic sites that rely on state or federal funding, there is none to be had. Some states seem to be bent on closing up as much as possible and at the Federal level bickering appears to be the most important task at hand.

    It is difficult to manage large scale commemorative events with a place being closed or without a budget.

    Secondly, I agree with your points regarding the post-April 1865 history of our nation. We can’t even see true 50th anniversary events for the 1960s portions of the Civil Rights movement so I can’t imagine events for Reconstruction.

  • London John Jul 28, 2013

    “what else is there to acknowledge?” Well, that’s rather disappointing. I was hoping the epic of the Army of the Cumberland from Chattanooga to Atlanta to Savannah and through SC and NC would now be celebrated, with a frank recognition that they really did “help the world along”.
    Am I right in thinking that the majority of those who were slaves in 1861 were still in bondage 150 years ago? If so, that’s something still to come.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 28, 2013

      Army of what? :-)

      Am I right in thinking that the majority of those who were slaves in 1861 were still in bondage 150 years ago?

      Yes.

      • London John Jul 28, 2013

        OK then Grant’s then Sherman’s army: you know what I mean.

        • Brooks D. Simpson Jul 30, 2013

          Fans of the Army of the Cumberland will cringe when they read that it was Grant’s army, then Sherman’s.

  • Jimmy Dick Jul 28, 2013

    The war changed after Gettysburg, especially in 1864. It would be nice to commemorate how Grant put together a strategic campaign designed to defeat the South. The Lost Causers won’t want to participate in anything to do with the war now except mouth platitudes to the holy trinity of Lost Cause saints while continuing to advance the victimization concept that underlies their myth.
    I do expect to see more attempts to advance the Black Confederate lie as the role of the USCT comes into the forefront of the 150th. I think it will be a great time to educate people on the lack of Black Confederates and how it fits into the larger Lost Cause lie.

    • grandadfromthehills Jul 30, 2013

      Jimmy – I do not think I am in a total vacuum, but the concept of black Confederates is a very limited concept. I do not think “fighting it” is a proper method nor term, but education is a focus. So much of the public and obviously those in the historical educational arena are totally unaware of solid evidence. Perhaps in other wars, there is validity to the idea of the victors writing the history; too many survived to give their stories for the American Civil War. There are undoubtedly instances of blacks who “fought” against the invading Nothern armies, but to say thousands would have surely have required much more documentation somewhere. And there is a definate lack of that from my point of view.

      Thanks for your concern for maintaining historical integrity. It is so important and we need to be concerned that history is taught the way it really happened.

      Sam Vanderburg
      Gun Barrel City, TX

  • Al Mackey Jul 29, 2013

    Be sure to be there as we light the bonfire to celebrate Sherman in Georgia. ;)

  • TF Smith Jul 29, 2013

    One of the fields that should get a lot of attention over the next year and a half is the ACW has a historical case study of conflict resolution – the 1864-65 period of the war offers a master class in how to end a war, while the Reconstruction era does the same for post-conflict studies.

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