Has It Been An “Anemic” Civil War Sesquicentennial?

Here is another excerpt from The Civil War Trust’s interview with Gary Gallagher. Here Gary responds to a question about the impact of the sesquicentennial in comparison with the centennial.

I think it’s been anemic. I don’t think many states have done much. Virginia’s done a great deal with a series of what they call Signature Conferences. There’s a state agency devoted to the sesquicentennial. They’ve had these conferences at different universities–one on emancipation; one on military affairs; we’re going to do the last one here at the University of Virginia in 2015 on the memory of the war. A book is published from each of the conferences, and there’s a website and various ancillary benefits. So I think Virginia’s done by far the best job of any state. Pennsylvania’s done a little; North Carolina’s done a little. Tennessee’s done a lot more than most. But most states have done absolutely nothing. And I think part of it is that the Civil War still can become very controversial very quickly because you can’t talk about it without talking about race. Or you shouldn’t, because slavery and issues related to slavery are so central to the coming of the war and the conflict itself. And that part of the history of the war can be so fraught, even in 2013, that it’s just easier not to do it. Which I think is too bad.

There was a lot more going on in the centennial, although it got embroiled in all kinds of racial problems as well, as I’m sure you know. There was still segregation in 1961. The national commission met in Charleston early on, which was ridiculous. It’s a vastly different world – although some people pretend it isn’t – from what it was in 1961. But there’s not nearly the attention [now]. There was a national Civil War centennial commission then that had all kinds of publications; sponsored all kinds of things. There’s nothing equivalent to that now. But then you still have the governor of Texas talking about secession as an option!

Needless to say, I completely disagree with Gary’s assessment because he places too much emphasis on the activities of state commissions. In fact, I am convinced that if you look at the local level it is likely that the number and scope of activities over the past few years far outstrips the centennial.

What do you think?

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26 comments… add one
  • Pat Young Oct 23, 2014 @ 3:55

    This year is the 150th Anniversary of the coining of the term “miscegenation”.


  • Judy Hopkin Mar 14, 2014 @ 2:38

    Years ago, as a young adult raising a family, I had an interest in the Civil War but did not delve in too deeply, but I decided what better time to learn more than during this sesquicentennial period. I’ve finally got around to reading my many books, I attended events both large and small and find that I do a lot of thinking about the period as well. The CW and its people have become very real to me, almost as if it is still going on. At each large event I attended, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, a wonderful incident would happen to make the event very special and meaningful for me. I will treasure this 150th period and yes, for me, a lay person and for many, many others, I’m sure, the sesquicentennial has been a success.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 14, 2014 @ 2:49

      Hi Judy,

      Thanks so much for taking the time to add your voice to this thread. I am sure you are not alone.

  • Craig L. Mar 13, 2014 @ 12:28


    Here’s a link to Kenosha’s new Civil War Museum built for the sesquicentennial on the site of what used to be a General Motors plant. Its focus is regional, serving the entire upper midwest from Minnesota to Michigan. It’s in the middle of what’s become an historical district in the city. Based on my experience researching my own Civil War ancestor, the city of Kenosha played a key role, primarily through churches, in organizing and facilitating the war effort in the western Great Lakes region. I grew up in Seattle and have spent much of my life in Asia and the Pacific. I have a third cousin, twice removed, in Tampa who I met online two years ago, a descendant of my great grandfather’s niece. Putting the genealogical pieces back together for what happened to our family in the Civil War leads directly to downtown Kenosha.

  • Ken Noe Mar 13, 2014 @ 5:09

    By what are we measuring the Sesquicentennial? If it’s the Centennial hoopla that most of us of a certain age remember, or even the Burns blip, it has failed. If it’s the national political mess that the Centennial stirred up in segregated Charleston, the Sesquicentennial has been a quiet success. If it’s the amount of national and state funding, it flopped. If it’s the number of NPS and local events, well, I’ve given a lot of public lectures since 2011. If the goal was to ‘change hearts and minds’ and revive a pro-Confederate interpretation of the war, I don’t see progress beyond the choir. If it’s penetration of the popular media, then the net effect has been emancipationist and Oscar-winning. If it’s grabbing the next generation, a local high school class told me that they’d never heard of it. If it’s the impact of scholarship on the next generation of Civil War buffs, it’s too soon to tell, except the Civil War shelves at the local book store keep shrinking. If it’s the impact on new academic scholarship, what some are calling “the dark turn” in interpretation may end up being called Sesquicentennialism. I wrote in 2011 that I was cautiously optimistic, and in sum I think I still am, but it’s all how you line up the ruler.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 13, 2014 @ 5:46

      These are all good points. We can measure success/failure in any number of ways. To me it seems worthwhile to survey the ways in which the war is currently being commemorated as opposed to year’s past. What kinds of stories are being told and how they are being shared is of interest to me. Most Americans are paying zero attention to this, but I suspect that is not much different than the centennial.

  • Chris Meekins Mar 12, 2014 @ 12:21

    Taking the high road on this one!
    NC has done a little? Typical Virginian response to Tar Heel contributions! :oP

    • Kevin Levin Mar 12, 2014 @ 14:09

      There have been plenty of activities throughout North Carolina over the past few years. Nice to hear from you, Chris.

  • Al Mackey Mar 12, 2014 @ 11:01

    I think the NPS has done and is planning to do some outstanding commemorations and educational programs connected with the Sesquicentennial. Virginia and Pennsylvania both have a mobile display going around each state to spread awareness and to educate the public. There have been a number of symposia and conferences regarding the Sesquicentennial. So I don’t necessarily thing it’s been “anemic,” but on the other hand has it been robust? Indeed, can it be robust, given the lack of interest in history among most Americans?

  • Bill Backus Mar 12, 2014 @ 8:57

    Since there’s comments about State 150th Commisions not having enough funding, here’s a portion of Civil War Trust’s interview with Joe Glatthaar:

    “CWT: What do you make of the sesquicentennial commemorations so far?

    JG: I think it’s been a disappointment, don’t you? I just think it’s a matter of resources, and a matter of disorganization. If you go back to 1960, they had a central organization, headed by Bud Robertson. It was a much bigger deal – the centennial than the sesquicentennial. I don’t know why. There’s a conscious effort to shift away from military issues, which strikes me as odd since the war was a war. The fact of the matter is that emancipation was not about to happen without war. The divisions have been a problem, the resources have been a problem. Various groups were lobbying to be designated really early on as the center. We should’ve had a national commission.”


    • Kevin Levin Mar 12, 2014 @ 10:19

      Thanks for passing this along.

    • Pat Young Mar 12, 2014 @ 12:13

      Glatthaar’s comment :”There’s a conscious effort to shift away from military issues, which strikes me as odd since the war was a war. The fact of the matter is that emancipation was not about to happen without war.”
      This is illustrative of the judging of the Sesqui by standards that are not particularly relevant to most Americans.

      The negative reaction of the Civil War Community Inc to the LGBT theme of DKG was another indicator of insularity. Instead of embracing it to show why gays and lesbians should be interested in Gettysburg, the Civil War Community Inc. said “That wasn’t in our last Gettysburg reenactment. Gays are not part of OUR story.”

  • Buck Buchanan Mar 12, 2014 @ 7:03

    Many have already mentioned Lincoln & 12 Years a Slave. And there is little doubt that the national economic sitution since 2008 has caused some events to be toned down….not to mention the absolutely toxic political climate we are now “enjoying.” This has caused soem states’ efforts to be uneven.

    That said I applaud the NPS for all of the excellent work they have done so far and will continue to do for the rememberance. Let’s also remember all of the local groups who have done exceptional work in upgrading the interpretation as well as restoration and preservation fo MANY of these sites….Friends of Raymond Battlefield, Chesterfield Round Table and Friends of Brandy Station are just a few of the grassroots organizations who through volunteer work and fund raising expanded our knowledge of the ACW. Their work is aurgmented by orgnizations such as Pamplin Park.

    Finally, academia has also stepped up to the plate with symposia and seminars liek the one at Longwood University thsi Saturday (see what I did there Kevin….shameless plug for you!)

    Finally, I also have to see all have done well in light of the populace’s war weariness after the last almost 13 years of grinding news about war.

    • Wayne W. S. Hsieh Mar 12, 2014 @ 20:26

      **Finally, I also have to see all have done well in light of the populace’s war weariness after the last almost 13 years of grinding news about war.**

      To be blunt, what do Americans have to be weary about? Most direct American experience with the Iraq and Afghan wars have been limited to a comparatively small subset of the American population, and even within the uniformed services, we’re talking about a fraction of a fraction facing the sharp end of the spear. There are a lot of good reasons why we’ve chosen as a nation to use an all-volunteer force (I personally find conscription by its inherent nature morally offensive, except in desperate circumstances), but one consequence, for better or for worse, is to the use the words of a friend: The Army and Marine Corps have been at war; America’s been at the mall. And never mind the folks who are the *most* weary–Iraqi and Afghan civilians.

      I do think it’s a fair question as to exactly what metrics can be used to measure interest in the sesquicentennial, but my own anecdotal impression is that the anniversary hasn’t really stopped the slow bleed of interest in the era from the perhaps unrealistic high marked (but not necessarily caused) by Ken Burns’ documentary. There’s a more lively internet scene, but isn’t that because the internet makes everything seem more vivacious, because there are so many more forums for interaction than in the past? I’m not sure that can really prove more interest among the population as a whole.

      I *do* think that there’s been a slow bleed of interest, and that it does have*something* to do with Americans’ current lack of substantive contact with war, especially in relation to the centennial coming so soon after World War II. For most Americans, war is something they see on the news on occasion in far off lands, and neither they nor anyone close to them would be so touched by it to see military conflict as anything more than abstraction. And since the Civil War is seen for not unreasonable reasons as a *war*, it seems even less relevant than the part of the nightly news that inspires a little frustration, but mostly indifference.

  • Pat Young Mar 12, 2014 @ 6:49

    I think that the description of the Sesqui as anemic is due to several factors:

    1. The failure to recognize many popular depictions of the Civil War era as part of the Sesqui-The Conspirator, Lincoln, Copper, and 12 Years a Slave all had audiences in the millions.

    2. Overestimation of the impact of the 100th- Most Americans were more interested in the Civil Rights Movement than they were in the Civil War. Pop culture manifestations during the 100th were mostly cheesy and grossly misleading. Reenactments, recalled so fondly by those who saw them 50 years ago, were smaller than contemporary events and decidedly inaccurate.

    3. Using Outdated and Misremembered Metrics- Hundreds of thousands of people watching Civil War videos on line, as well as the availability of archives, message boards, and blogs means that the Civil War is discussed and investigated on a daily basis. Gary says of 1961 to 1965 “There was a national Civil War centennial commission then that had all kinds of publications; sponsored all kinds of things. There’s nothing equivalent to that now.” According to the book on the Centennial, Troubled Commemoration, that is simply not true. The Commission published a few dozen books and guides and after 1962 the events it helped sponsor were not particularly well attended. By any standard there has been vastly more publishing, in print and online, during the Sesqui than during the Centennial. There have, perhaps been fewer of the sorts of local remembrance days, the wreath layings at local cemeteries, for example, but that is largely because the children of the Civil War generation have passed away themselves. Those wreath layings in 1961 often included people who knew the deceased veterans and that group just is gone.

    4. The disappointment of high expectations- Talking to some folks involved in Civil War stuff before the Sesqui began, many had exaggerated expectations. Compare the Civil War Sesqui with the 100th Anniversary of the Spanish American War, the 150th of the Mexican War, the 200th of the War of 1812, the 200th of the Louisiana Purchase, or just about any other anniversary of an event of which all of the participants are dead and then compare it to the Civil War Sesqui.

    5. The Civil War Community Inc., whatever its disclaimers, is still very focused on dressing up in uniforms and firing toy guns or standing by old cannons at NPS sites and imagining themselves sighting the guns on the enemy. That is of no interest to most Americans, particularly to women. They are interested in how women in slavery were raped or how men were emasculated, how Lincoln got stuff through Congress in the middle of a Civil War, and how immigrants lived in troubled land. By redlining these out of the Sesqui, Gary does a disservice to the commemoration.

  • John Heiser Mar 12, 2014 @ 5:35

    It sounds as if Dr. Gallagher was expecting something more dramatic in state and nationally sponsored events? As an academic and teacher, he obviously views the sesquicentennial as a learning experience fallen short of expectations though positive efforts have been made to recognize and commemorate the people and places in the National Parks, state sites and elsewhere- perhaps not as well advertised as they should have been, coupled with very little on TV and in film apart from “Lincoln” and “Twelve Years a Slave” to garner interest. (I’m not sure how to fit the “Weakest Lincoln” from the Daily Show into this.) There simply has not been the surge of interest in the war like what occurred when Ken Burns’ series first aired on PBS, but 150th anniversary events at battlefield parks and sites have been heavily attended as have most of the symposiums I’m aware of. No matter what commemorations take place through 2015, I doubt whether we will see a broader reaction in popularity to the sesquicentennial than what we have seen so far; the big difference is that events of the sesquicentennial have also included more about the causes of the war and that war’s effect on American society right up to today, critical elements all but ignored during the centennial.

  • Doug didier Mar 12, 2014 @ 4:38

    Perhaps We are in the fourth Information Age that didn’t exist 50 years ago. So with YouTube, blogs, online papers, booktv, university panels, google search, Wikipedia , etc, the role of state commissions would naturally be passed by.

  • Chris Coleman Mar 12, 2014 @ 3:14

    I do remember the Centennial, albeit as a youth, and the Sesquicentennial has not been as widely promoted as that. Granted, government activities, state or Federal, should not be the only standard of measurement. Overall, I think it has, so far, been a mixed bag.
    Certainly in the South there has been a lot going on, but I think that is because the Late Unpleasantness looms so large in Southern consciousness anyway. Even if the War is remembered inaccurately or with bias, it is still quite alive in Southern memory.
    I think where the commemoration has fallen down most is with the national media: to be sure we have Spielberg’s Lincoln and Twelve Years a Slave; there is the NY Times Disunion column and a very good cd of Civil War music done by a collection of Country artists; but virtually nothing on TV or Cable which are the main venues to reach the American public these days. There are a great many stories, fiction and non-fiction, which could make into great drama, comedy or tragedy, but aside from the few notable exceptions above, I think Hollywood and the national media couldn’t care less.

  • Brad Mar 12, 2014 @ 2:47

    I know this may be impossible to calculate but if the Sesquicentennial got more people interested in the Civil War, slavery and their antecedents, particularly reading and researching about them, then it’s a complete success.

  • Patrick Young Mar 11, 2014 @ 18:49

    The main events of the Sesqui were the films Lincoln and 12 Years a Slave, both of which dealt directly with race. Looking to what governments did as the measure of popular interest is silly. It has been the imagination of certain members of the “Civil War Community Inc.” who view the 150th through the discredited lens of the 100th that is anemic. Sorry fellas, Bruce Catton is dead.

  • Donald R. Shaffer Mar 11, 2014 @ 15:58

    Judging the sesquicentennial on the basis of the state commission activities is ill-advised. The state commissions were devastated by Great Recession. Before relocating to Arizona, I was a member of Iowa’s Civil War sesquicentennial commission. We met exactly once and then basically the legislature yanked our funding and we never met again. Since then to the best of my knowledge, Iowa’s commission has been defunct,

  • Meg Thompson Mar 11, 2014 @ 14:35

    I wondered immediately if the state and national economic situation has had a negative effect of the Sesqui. Here in California, we were in very serious danger of having more than a few state parks shut down because of funding issues. School programs were scaled back considerably in many areas, including history. My middle school simply quit trying to offer Science Camp and a trip to D. C. because there was no money to fund the large portion of those projects necessary in a less-advantaged school like mine. Seems to have hurt a lot of programs.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 11, 2014 @ 14:43

      I think that is definitely part of the story, but not entirely. My post is very brief, but I think we need to understand what exactly it is we are measuring to gauge interest in the war over the past few years. The National Park Service has been incredibly active as have various institutions, including historical societies and museums. One of the things that I find interesting is the role of social media in allowing for groups and individuals to share their interests. As a teacher the development of curricular materials has been very extensive and will likely have the most impact as we move forward.

  • Victor Mobley Mar 11, 2014 @ 13:23

    I agree that you can’t just look at state commissions. The media has been full of Civil War stories, at least online and in print. As for each state, most states had little to do with the war. Most of the action naturally occurred in the South. Given the economy, people can’t travel to historic sites as frequently so maybe that adds to the impression that many states are not engaged. I live in Michigan and aside from some articles in the state history magazine and some museum exhibits there has been little public interest.

    What disappoints me most is that we STILL don’t have a high quality Civil War film or miniseries for the 21st century. Aside from “To Appomattox,” which will probably never be made, there are none in production, either.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 11, 2014 @ 13:26

      The producers of The Civil War: The Untold Story comes close, but its focus is the Western Theater. Part of the problem is that the comparison with the centennial is almost always made by individuals who lived through it. I suspect they are remembering, in large part, the enthusiasm and energy of their childhood.

      I can’t say how much attention Michigan has given to the sesquicentennial, but I am willing to wager it is more than what was done in the 1960s.

    • Ben Allen Mar 11, 2014 @ 15:00

      “As for each state, most states had little to do with the war.” Little to do with the war?! You got to be kidding me! Every state then in the union had plenty to do with it, even in the relatively untouched North. Everybody at least knew of somebody who was fighting. Every community sent off volunteers. There was a draft. All purchases were taxed, in addition to an income tax. The war might not have affected it as much as the South, but the North’s involvement was still more than the kind that has been displayed by the United States in the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan thus far. Consequently, I’m guessing that the problem of Civil War remembrance in the North lies primarily with its states’ educational curriculum (the exception being those schools that devote whole classes to the conflict, of course).

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