A Quick Response to Brooks Simpson

I want to take a minute to respond to Brooks Simpson, who has apparently misinterpreted a recent post of mine in which I ask whether the Civil War Sesquicentennial is over. Here is the offending passage that seems to suggest that I don’t believe that the years 1864-65 offers anything significant to commemorate.

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?

What I was attempting to get at in the above passage is that for many Americans the summer of 1863 represents a high point in the Civil War. In the follow-up post I briefly mentioned why I believe it might be difficult to generate the same level of enthusiasm that we’ve seen over the past two years. I attempted to convey this point this out on Sunday and earlier today (and here) on Brooks’s blog.

I admit that the post could have been more clearly written, but I hope it is sufficiently clear that I was not in any way suggesting there is nothing more that needs to be commemorated. I completely agree with Brooks’s list of what is still worthy of being commemorated.

There’s a lot we can learn from the eighteen months from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to the spring of 1865, but only if we want to drop old-fashioned and even quaint notions of the American Civil War. What about the Democratic claim that the war was a failure? What about the debate over prisoner exchanges? What of the impact of the war waged by William T. Sherman in Georgia and the Carolinas and Philip H. Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley? What about Confederate efforts to continue the struggle, most notably through enlisting blacks, and what of the collapse of support for the war that created such a crisis? What about the struggle to end the war? What, indeed, about Appomattox?

Let’s throw in the battle of the Crater to boot. In fact, next July I will deliver the keynote address for the NPS’s commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the battle. And as I pointed out the other day, we ought to make every effort to acknowledge the 150th anniversary of Reconstruction.

No, I am not “trying to pull one over” on all of you. This is a simple case of misunderstanding that I hope will be acknowledged as such soon.

3 thoughts on “A Quick Response to Brooks Simpson

  1. Dudley Bokoski

    I agree with your premise. I blame Gettysburg and D.S. Freeman. Gettysburg is such an interesting and written about battle it is easy to believe it settled things it most assuredly did not. The narrative is so powerful you are left feeling if it didn’t change something surely it should have. Vicksburg, the draft, and Emancipation are so much more important in turning the course of the war in 1863, but they don’t have Pickett’s Charge or Lincoln’s address.

    Freeman wrote “Lee’s Lieutenants” with an almost Shakespearian quality and you get a palpable feel of collapse in Volume III, which begins after Gettysburg. Stuart dies, Lee fades physically, and the replacements for Jackson are revealed as having feet of clay. You get no sense of the difficulties still faced by the Union or what might have happened had Lincoln lost the election in 1864.

    We also loose sight of the fact that what made the war so unpredictable in 1861 and 1862 was often mere ineptitude. By 1863 the armies had perfected the art of killing their enemy to a remarkable degree. 1864 and 1865 are about blood letting on an appalling level and while you may overlook it while reading of Jackson in the Valley, you can’t miss it at Cold Harbor. The bloom is, or should be, off romantic ideas of war by 1864.

    So, I don’t expect we’ll see the level of interest continue the rest of this year and the next two. Gettysburg is a tough act to follow and there is no anti-Freeman to bring us along with Grant and Sherman. But at least we can console ourselves in that we’ve probably heard the last of Doris Kearns Goodwin on the Civil War.

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  2. Paul Taylor

    How and if the remaining two years of the sesquicentennial will be commemorated is an interesting question. I recall reading in “Troubled Commemoration: The American Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965″ that public interest in the centennial began to noticeably languish in the final two years, especially with regards to reenactments, as those were the years of Confederate decline best illustrated by a lack of Southern battlefield victories.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Cook does indeed say that in addition to pointing out that by 1963 it had become more difficult to ignore the civil rights movement. We see this play out in Petersburg specifically where enthusiasm quickly deteriorated owing to local protests, one of which took place at William Mahone’s old home.

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