The Rise of the West During the Sesquicentennial

SCWH Public History AwardI’ve been upfront in my conviction that it is too early to write off the overall impact of the sesquicentennial. We ought to resist drawing uninformed comparisons with the centennial and conclusions based on attendance alone will not get us very far. There are a broad range of factors that need to be taken into consideration.

One factor that has not received much attention is the geographical scope of events related to the sesquicentennial. It’s no surprise that the large battles in the East have received and will continue to receive the most attention by the mainstream media. Right now its the Wilderness, but if you spend some time sifting through news feeds you will soon learn that there is quite a bit going on in other parts of the country.

This past year I was honored to be asked by Anne Sarah Rubin, president of the Society of Civil War Historians, to chair a committee for their Public History Award. I worked with Garry Adelman and Antoinette Van Zelm in sifting through some incredibly creative exhibits and programs from institutions from across the country. We received submissions from institutions with large budgets and others that are clearly working on a shoe-string budget.

What I was pleasantly surprised by, however, was the number of submissions from institutions west of the Appalachians. The War in the West is front and center in many of these communities. In fact, our top 2 submissions were from this part of the country.

The winner, which was recently announced, is the Kansas City Public Library’s “Civil War on the Western Border”. The project combines the best of digital history with traditional scholarship and a commitment to public outreach through lectures and other programs. The award comes with a $5,000 prize. Congratulations.

I am going to have to go back to Robert Cook’s book on the centennial, but I am going to venture that the Border War was not on most people’s radar during the early 1960s. Along with the rise of the black Union soldier narrative it may constitute the most dramatic shift in our popular memory of the war in recent decades. It’s an important story.

Over the next few weeks I am going to feature some of the other submissions. Thanks again to Garry and Antoinette for a job well done.

2 thoughts on “The Rise of the West During the Sesquicentennial

  1. London John

    “the Border War was not on most people’s radar during the early 1960s. Along with the rise of the black Union soldier narrative it may constitute the most dramatic shift in our popular memory of the war in recent decades”
    From the one book I’ve read about the Army of the Frontier (Race and Radicalism in the Union Army by Mark A Lause) I gather that these two topics can be combined. The A of the F included black and native American (mostly Cherokee) units, and I believe had a larger non-white proportion than the better-known (and of course larger) armies further east. Whereas the latter had all-black regiments, in the A of the F white, black and native American companies operated together. Many of the officers had been associated with John Brown in Bleeding Kansas.
    Regarding the war in a different part of the west, ten or so years ago I visited Gloriete Pass in NM, where there was a visitor centre but no battlefield park you could visit. Does anyone happen to know if this has changed?

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  2. Julian

    In a way London John’s comments are right – but simultaneously a case could be put forward that the current cultural interest in the western theatre triangulates cultural usage and memory of the ACW.

    Much of the recent shifts of cultural and creative narratives around the war have still focussed on an Eastern Theatre great battle narrative, with the plantation, moonlight and magnolias and the Lost Cause still not far away. Glory restored a sense of honour and purpose to representations of the whole Union army not only the USCT in the wake of the tarnishing of US reputation in Viet Nam – as Gary Gallagher has persuasively argued. As Kevin has noted 12 Years a Slave continues the plantation romance – albeit as a bad romance ( which one could note is oh so fashionable nowadays and indeed post Bataille, Story of O and 50 Shades of Grey a violent bad romance is also acceptable – cf Game of Thrones ) – as had previously Roots, Queen, Wind Done Gone – the stage set and action is the same – even if the cast has changed. The North and South miniseries is being remade partly under the auspices of the Discovery Chanel – which will be interesting to see how they deal with that strongly lost cause themed tale in the twenty-tens – given its lexicon of familiar tropes: best friend white male bonding, war of the brothers, the glamorous allure of the plantation, the industrial North, the tragic mulatto, the fanatical abolitionist, a Scarlett O’Hara type femme fatale etc etc

    The Western Theatre allows for cultural narratives of the ACW such as Ride With the Devil that are more cellular, more ambiguous, less fixed about race and class, less metaphorically entangled with replaying modern political conflict. A narrative where the causes of the war – and the grand statements of the succession documents are cross cut with local and personal rivalries and issues. It also resonates with personal experience of watching a global unravelling of social fibre and the coping with such uncertainties in the present day.

    The growing interest in the Western Theatre – lets not forget the documentary series that positioned itself as an intervention – is as Kevin says is an indication that the sesquicentenary is not necessarily lesser than the centenary but different. Moreover this difference is relevant to and reflexive of our current reality.

    Loudon John mentioning Native American US soldiers then raises the issue of Native American CSA troops which cuts across both the Flaggers vision of the Confederacy and those more shallow or simplistic of the post Civil Rights rethinkings of the Confederacy

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