Evaluating the Civil War Sesquicentennial

Some of you who are interested in the question of how to evaluate the Civil War sesquicentennial may find the following panel discussion worth your time. The panel is from a conference that took place in Virginia over the summer and was filmed by C-SPAN. You will see some familiar faces. It should come as no surprise that the events in Charleston and the subsequent debate about the Confederate flag occupied a good deal of attention and it was interesting to hear how different people are thinking through some of these difficult issues.

My only concern is that at one point mid-way through the discussion, the topic of the vandalism of Civil War monuments appeared to be framed in terms of how whites and blacks think about and remember the Confederacy. The implicit assumption at work seems to be that African Americans are responsible for the defacing of Civil War monuments. I have yet to see any evidence suggesting that African Americans are more likely than whites to vandalize Confederate monuments.

Yes, a number of Confederate monuments have been spray-painted with “Black Lives Matter,” but regardless of what you think about the organization, it could just as likely have been carried out by a white individual. It’s time we move beyond this tired trope.

30 thoughts on “Evaluating the Civil War Sesquicentennial

  1. Rob Orrison

    Kevin, I was on that panel and I think everyone did a good job sharing their personal opinions on the 150th. The good thing about the group at the table is…we are all friends and can disagree with one another without disrespect or trying to flame dissent against one another. As historians, we all see the past in a different way, as the general public does as well. Public historians, in my opinion have the most difficult task when it comes to the history field. Taking accurate information and making it available in an interesting way to the general public. Each person on that panel, IMHO does an excellent job of just doing that.

    As for the monument discussion…no matter who is doing the destruction of the monuments, its wrong. I personally don’t care of the color of the people doing the damage, I see people as people…not as a race. And defacing public property or a monument is just wrong. As I believe you agree with that as well.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      As I stated in the post, everyone did an excellent job of sharing their thoughts on a wide range of issues. Mature people who are friends should be able to disagree without disrespecting one another. Not sure where this is coming from.

      I have written extensively about the defacing of Civil War monuments on this blog, especially over the past few months. Readers are free to consider my thoughts on the matter.

      The comment was in response to what I perceived to be a distinction being made among some of the panelists. I believe that distinction is unjustified given the lack of evidence. Whether you see race is really not the issue.

      In the end I am sure you will brush this post aside as just another example of “click baiting”. Right? 🙂

      Reply
  2. Rob Orrison

    I think the panel did a good job and all of its members believe so as well. Some of us are “in the trenches” so to speak when it comes to these topics. It is easy to make judgments when not involved in talking to the general public every day of the week. I commend you for bringing up the discussion though, even though I usually do not agree with you…healthy, honest debate is always a good thing.

    No need to get in a debate with you on “click baiting” when you control the forum of that debate.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      I think the panel did a good job and all of its members believe so as well.

      Again, who is suggesting otherwise?

      It is easy to make judgments when not involved in talking to the general public every day of the week.

      For reasons that I really do not understand you come off as incredibly insecure and defensive.

      Reply
  3. Rob Orrison

    Personal attacks (calling me insecure and defensive) on a blog where you would not allow someone to personally attack you is uncalled for I think. You assume my comments about “making judgments” was about you. They were about the discussion in general, if I meant it to be directed towards you, I would have said as much. Feel free to ask our mutual acquaintances and I believe you will find I am neither defensive or insecure.

    I think a good debate (that has been on going for many years now) is academia vs public history (maybe versus is a little harsh of a term). There is much that both sides have to learn from each other. Just an idea for a future post, though I know you have covered elements of that in the past. As I said before, thank you for at least bringing up meaningful topics for debate, hopefully our virtual misunderstanding is just that. Anyways, look forward to discussing other topics in the future.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      You assume my comments about “making judgments” was about you. They were about the discussion in general, if I meant it to be directed towards you, I would have said as much.

      You didn’t have to mention me by name. Your track record about what you assume motivates me is sufficiently clear.

      Reply
  4. Pat Young

    I watched the video. I won’t address the issues already raised here, but I wanted to discuss another aspect of the discussion. I appreciated that Mr. Dabney expanded the question of audience beyond black/white. Our country’s demography is currently:

    64% White Non Hispanic
    12% Black Non Hispanic
    24% OTHER

    By 2050, the OTHER category will grow to 35%.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      I completely agree. Any measure of a successful Civil War bicentennial is going to have something to do with the attention and interest of a multicultural audience.

      Reply
    2. Phil R

      Let’s not forget that many visitors to our battlefield parks and sites aren’t Americans at all. This point reinforced itself to me during a recent trip to Gettysburg. Context is even more important to foreign tourists.

      Reply
      1. London John

        I hope (but have no way of knowing) that most foreign visitors would realise that the ACW was of world-historic importance, not just another fascinating bit of Americana.

        Reply
  5. Pat Young

    A second note, one I have made before, is that an analysis of the Sesqui cannot be simply a look at Virginia tourism numbers. “Driving people to Civil War parks” may be important to the NPS, but it is not the sole metric for examining the anniversary.

    As one woman pointed out in the video, people her staff spoke to often mentioned the films “Lincoln” and “12 Years a Slave.” Do we only measure the impact of these films based on whether they increased NPS battlefield visitation? Many more people saw these two films than the movie Gettysburg, yet because they were not park-specific they are not seen as being as important contributors. The fact that both Sesqui-era films were topics of public discussion in the media for many weeks, and that Gettysburg enjoyed little currency beyond hobbyists, is unmentioned.

    Also, almost none of the Sesqui recaps I have seen looks at where most Americans visited Civil War related exhibitions. I wager that many more Americans saw the exhibits on Civil War painting and photos at the Metropolitan Museum of Art than visited “Civil War sites.” One speaker on the panel says that when he went from Sesqui commemoration to Sesqui commemoration at battlefield after battlefield, he saw the same few hundred people. When I went to Civil War Sesqui exhibits at different venues around New York and nearby areas, I saw people who would never think of going to Appomattox taking in Civil War history after a short subway ride. They were not the same 300 people who followed the war from place to place in Virginia.

    Institutions as diverse as the State Museum in Albany, the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven, Walt Whitman State Historic Site and Governors Island park all had Sesqui exhibits. I attended events at the NewYork Historical Society that were better attended than some of the 150th anniversaries on the Virginia battlefields. Any look back at the Sesqui has to look at the success of these non-Virginia events.

    These events and exhibits often focused on the sorts of things that the battlefields did not. For example, the recent exhibition on Lincoln and the Jews at the New York Historical Society was not only well attended, it attracted the attention of major media in the most media-rich city in the country. A lot of the people who visited were not folks who hit the Civil War trail. Yet they learned about the struggles of a new, and often excluded, immigrant group.

    I don’t want to criticize any of the speakers in the video. They are not giving a comprehensive analysis of the Sesqui, but their individual perspectives on what they saw over the last four years. But, the yearning expressed by one speaker for a combat oriented Civil War film that then drives people to the battlefield speaks to the bias of the Civil War being essentially a military event. Yet, the popular discussion of the Civil War, which has been more intense over the last three months than at any time in my adulthood, has not focused on what happened at Little Round Top, but rather over what the war was really over and what its outcome was.

    Another aside, while more than one speaker used Buster Kilrain as an example of the lack of sophistication of people visting battlefields, none of them reflected on why a fake immigration story was one of the most compelling ones for visitors and why that tie-in to immigration is so rarely exploited at our parks. Why insist that main message for vistors is that Buster Kilrain was not real instead of the fact that one-in-four Union troops was a Buster Kilrain?

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      There was way too much focus on battlefields, but that reflects the backgrounds of many of the speakers. To your point about museums, I chaired a public history awards committee for the Society for Civil War Historians in 2014. The award was for best museum exhibit. We received a fairly large number of submissions and some of them were from large institutions, but what surprised me were the number of submissions from small independent sites in relatively small communities. They reflected limited budgets, but pointed to the desire to do something. Someone is going to write a book one day about the sesquicentennial. Hopefully it will take a comprehensive look at it all.

      Reply
      1. Pat Young

        Last month, I visited the State Capitol in Albany where the Flag Room has an interesting exhibit on Lincoln’s funeral train and on the Civil War in 1865. It was emblematic of what I saw at many non-battlefield sites. These local events often garnered news coverage in local media like this article from the Albany Times Union. http://www.timesunion.com/news/article/N-Y-capital-to-honor-Abraham-Lincoln-150-years-6187993.php

        My own local newspaper, Newsday of Long Island, did a full two page spread talking to local historians and reenactors about the end of the Civil War in April.

        None of this was about getting people to battlefields in Virginia. Friends wrote to me about many museums, recreated villages, house museums, etc that explored the Civil War era during the Sesqui.

        Reply
        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          None of this was about getting people to battlefields in Virginia. Friends wrote to me about many museums, recreated villages, house museums, etc that explored the Civil War era during the Sesqui.

          Battlefield sites play an important role in helping us to interpret and better understand our civil war, but they represent one window into this time period. We may not want to admit it but the push over the past few decades to preserve as much Civil War battlefield land may have reached its peak. It may turn out to be a reflection of the values of a specific demographic.

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          1. Pat Young

            That is often how the discussion of the Sesqui sounds to me. Less about people learining about the Civil War and more about battlefiled acquisition and monument preservation.

            Don’t get me wrong, I think it is a public good to preserve land that battles were fought on, I just don’t think that is the main measure of the Sesqui.

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            1. Kevin Levin Post author

              That’s because many of the players involved are connected in some ways to the battlefields. As a teacher in Virginia I was very much connected to these sites. I brought my students to battlefields in the Fredericksburg and Richmond areas as well as the Shenandoah Valley. I did a thorough job describing what took place, but I also took the opportunity – depending on the location – to talk about a host of issues.

              The panel discussion was very interesting, but it did reflect a preoccupation with battlefields. Again, there is nothing wrong with this, but it may not get us very far in evaluating how Americans experienced the sesquicentennial.

              Reply
  6. Pat Young

    A final remark. I appreciated that one speaker (Rob) said that when Latinos visited sites he was associated with they often mentioned that they were from countries where they had lived through civil wars. A lot of New Americans are civil war survivors.

    Maybe we need to understand that America is not so exceptional when it come to civil wars. There had been years of political violence before our civil war. Americans tortured, raped and murdered people born in this country to violently maintain their conditions of servitude. After the war, political violence and terrorism were problems that persisted for many years. How different is that from El Salvador, Peru, or Guatmela? As long as we insist that “we were different” and “we came together” after our civil war is our narrative we risk looking like chumps to many Latinos who have a much better sense of how a real civil war plays out. They know that post-war is not the same as peace.

    I don’t offer these remarks as a criticism of the speakers. I found their presentations thought provoking. These are a just a few of the thoughts they did provoke.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Maybe we need to understand that America is not so exceptional when it come to civil wars.

      Our actions in Iraq and Afghanistan has certainly influenced a number of recent studies of Reconstruction and studies of postwar racial violence through the early twentieth century. I completely agree with you.

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  7. Patrick Jennings

    Pat Young,

    As an historian my stock & trade is evaluating and measuring the effectiveness of historical/memorial events such as the Civil War Sesquicentennial. The National Park Service has only begun to assess the impact of this multi-year effort.

    I was, however, struck by one of your comments when you noted, “But, the yearning expressed by one speaker for a combat oriented Civil War film that then drives people to the battlefield speaks to the bias of the Civil War being essentially a military event.”

    That is not a bias. The American Civil War was nothing but a “military event.” It was not a civil disturbance, it was not a social experiment, it was not a cultural realignment – it was four years of grueling combat that stitched, rather poorly, a torn nation back together. In my humble opinion one of the broad failures of the Sesquicentennial at the meta level was the refusal to grasp this critical concept. It is also my opinion that this weakness at the meta made some elements of the Sesquicentennial a deep success at the micro level. Please allow me to explain.

    When people make a concerted effort to travel to a place of conflict – a battlefield – they go, knowingly, to see a “military event.” perhaps one of the failures at the meta-level was not understanding this, so the NPS created a entire list of educational and interpretive opportunities that talked about almost everything surrounding the war BUT the battle. They mostly fell flat. On the other hand, tours of the battlefield and combat “talks” were at an all time high. On the other side of the coin, I think the desire for many to bypass the combat aspect of the war made several state and local exhibits (not battlefields) extremely popular. They did their mission, they localized a national event.

    At this early time we can not accurately measure the impact of the Sesquicentennial, that will take years. I will say, however, that the effort to bend a “military event” into a dissolved review of a social discourse we seemingly refuse to understand was an abject failure at the higher levels. I certainly understand that a lot of people and institutions are looking for new things to say about a field that’s been written about and digested for what seems like forever. Consequently, a lot of the attention is on the margins now and not where it should be – on the war.

    I believe a historic event should be remembered in the context of its time, not the lens of modernity. Again, at the meta levels too much time was spent trying to dilute the war to meet the imagined expectations of almost every group out there. National programs that looked to present the war in a way sympathetic to what you, wrongly, identify as “24% OTHER” (There is no such thing for planning purposes, that “other” is composed of about 15% of the population that is Spanish/Hispanic/Latino origin including those of Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican Republic, Spanish, and Central or South American origin living in the US that are counted as white, 4.43% who are counted as Asian, less than 1% that are Amerind/Alaskan, less than .20% that are native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders and about 1.6% that are of mixed race – ALL of whom have their own outlook and worldview that is certainly NOT consolidated under the metric of OTHER). In the future national programs should let the story of the war stand as it is, based on the facts, which itself is a magnificent story. At the same time we must enable local communities – with the help of grant programs – to tell a more defined local story.

    I think it is too soon to count the Sesquicentennial as a failure or a success. I do think, however, that as we look to a bicentennial we need to remember that it was a war and a tragic one at that. We must keep in mind that critical junction between the “military event” and everything else. We must remember that emancipation came about because the United States Army got into the Confederacy. All of the legislation, all of the hopes and desires on the part of enslaved black people to be free, absolutely everything the combined opposition of slavery wanted to try to do – none of that would have mattered if U.S. military forces hadn’t projected power. In short, campaigns and battles matter and at a national level that must be the story we tell.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Hi Patrick,

      Thanks for the comment. Definitely a lot to think about. You said:

      At this early time we can not accurately measure the impact of the Sesquicentennial, that will take years. I will say, however, that the effort to bend a “military event” into a dissolved review of a social discourse we seemingly refuse to understand was an abject failure at the higher levels.

      This may not be an easy thing to do, but could you provide us with a concrete example? The other question that I have is how do you define a “military event”? Is it just the movement of troops on the ground/tactics and strategy? Your comment points to some of the central questions that the NPS has been working through in recent years.

      Reply
    2. Pat Young

      Patrick Jennings wrote:

      “The American Civil War was nothing but a “military event.” It was not a civil disturbance, it was not a social experiment, it was not a cultural realignment – it was four years of grueling combat that stitched, rather poorly, a torn nation back together.”

      If someone writing about another civil war (the Russian Civil War, the Spanish Civil War, the civil war in Syria for example) were to write that it was nothing but a military event, that person would be considered naive.

      In any event, if the war were merely military, it could never have “stitched…a torn nation back together.”

      Reply
    3. Jimmy Dick

      Patrick J,
      I am going to disagree with you on this matter. There were multiple levels of activity going on during this time period. The military phase was only one part. It was caused by change in cultural, social, and economic spheres. To say the period was only about the military actions is to reject the massive changes that were occurring. Some of those changes were brought about due to the military actions, but many more were caused by the same forces that created the military actions.

      One of the reasons we study this period is so we can avoid repeating the same mistakes. By studying the military actions only, we fail to learn how to avoid the mistakes that led to those military actions. The military actions took place against a vast background of social, cultural, economic, religious, political, etc. types of history. They did not exist solely in a vacuum. In some cases the military actions that took place did so for other reasons than military.

      Changes occurred as the result of the military actions as well. I have to reject the idea that the military history was the only or even the most important history of the period. It was part of the overall history, but far from being the most important. The outcome of those actions was certainly important, but had they been different we would still be looking at more than just military history.

      Reply
    4. Pat Young

      Patrick Jennings wrote:

      ” Again, at the meta levels too much time was spent trying to dilute the war to meet the imagined expectations of almost every group out there. National programs that looked to present the war in a way sympathetic to what you, wrongly, identify as “24% OTHER” (There is no such thing for planning purposes, that “other” is composed of about 15% of the population that is Spanish/Hispanic/Latino origin including those of Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican Republic, Spanish, and Central or South American origin living in the US that are counted as white, 4.43% who are counted as Asian, less than 1% that are Amerind/Alaskan, less than .20% that are native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders and about 1.6% that are of mixed race – ALL of whom have their own outlook and worldview that is certainly NOT consolidated under the metric of OTHER).”

      Just for clarification, I used the term “OTHER” because that 24%, soon to be 35%, of the population that does not fit into the black/white binary is often ignored. I do know that there are vast differences among different immigrant and ethnic groups, having served seven terms as the chair of the largest regional immigrant coalition in the nation. I assure Mr. Jennings that I am not trying to conolidate anyone’s worldview under the “metric of OTHER.”

      I also note that unlike some other discussions on the Sesqui which restricted themselves to the black/white binary, on this panel two members brought up visitors who were neither white nor African American.

      Reply
  8. Ryan A.

    Obviously the war encompassed vast societal and racial issues that, in the broad sense of history, become more important than the bullets and blood on the battlefield, except to the extent that the conflict itself brought about that discussion and struggle. As much as ever, we have to acknowledge that. Gettysburg has done a good job of using it’s fame as an important battlefield location to that advantage and be able to present slavery and the causes of the war in a more prominent light than before.

    But Patrick is correct – it was, ultimately, a war that involved armies fighting and killing each other. The war was won on the battlefield and emancipation and the ending of slavery ultimately had to be enforced at the point of a bayonet before the South would relent. As such, battlefields and a focus on the military action itself is and will continue to be, a very large part of our understanding and focus on the war. People don’t visit battlefields just to hear about the causes of the war – they don’t attend battle walks at Oak Ridge at Gettysburg to hear the ranger opine on Lincoln’s evolving views on race. Battlefield land is protected because it was made a battlefield by the soldiers of those two armies. And while I agree with Kevin that the focus on preserving battlefield land may have reached a tipping point, I don’t think the push for such work reflects a negative or counter-productive set of values from a certain demographic. It’s great that the NPS is trying to incorporate a focus on the causes of the war and an understanding of those issues relating to today’s world, but is it a problem that they also focus primarily on the actual battle itself? Is it a problem that many historians continue to focus on the minutiae of combat at Antietam or Chickamauga rather than the overall social issues of the day? Would it be a problem if there WAS a Band of Brothers or The Pacific type of series or movie dedicated to combat in the war that didn’t focus primarily on slavery – especially if it was dedicated to one battle or singular event in the war?

    Going to visit Shiloh means visiting an out of the way and almost remote battlefield in the middle of no-where. While the NPS can and does include some focus on slavery, etc., the vast majority of information available to a visitor is about that horrific 2 day battle, and the strategic implications of the Union victory. Is it wrong that this is the case? Should we abandon the ongoing efforts of preservation of battlefield land in order to save money and resources for locations that emphasize the causes of the war? That’s not a rhetorical question – I mean it sincerely. A national museum on slavery and proper preservation and interpretation of historic houses and plantations is certainly the least we can do, but what else is there? A 200+ year history of slavery makes it difficult to include many if not most of the important sites simply because of the vastness of land and territory to try and preserve. Along those lines, it’s certainly understandable for the NPS to include a lot more focus on slavery, body servants, runaways, and USCTs as well as the “peculiar institution” itself because of their visibility.

    I guess my question is, does anyone think it’s counter-productive to have NPS battlefields and historians focus on battle-only or combat-only studies? Is it wrong to expect a ranger talk at Little Round Top to focus on the action at Little Round Top rather than the abolitionist movement?

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      And while I agree with Kevin that the focus on preserving battlefield land may have reached a tipping point, I don’t think the push for such work reflects a negative or counter-productive set of values from a certain demographic.

      I don’t either.

      I guess my question is, does anyone think it’s counter-productive to have NPS battlefields and historians focus on battle-only or combat-only studies? Is it wrong to expect a ranger talk at Little Round Top to focus on the action at Little Round Top rather than the abolitionist movement?

      Why is this issue once again being framed as an either/or proposition. NPS historians/guides have done an incredible job over the past few years expanding interpretation of Civil War sites in ways that enhance what took place on the battlefields.

      How did we end up back on this topic? Why are we speaking in generalizations about why people visit battlefields?

      Reply
      1. Ryan A

        I guess I framed it that way because there appears to be a growing push-back against focusing so much on the minutiae of battles and tactics. It’s a fair criticism for people more interested in that aspect of the war and I understand it, but it feels like someone is implying that we’ve learned all we need to know about the military aspect and just need to move on from that? Maybe that’s not the case and I’m reading too much into it.

        I think there’s always going to be a market for military studies of the Civil War, just because of human nature, etc. It’s a good thing that recent scholarship on the war has begun to focus more on slavery, the societal changes of the period, and the evolution of the country out of war. I just don’t want to see anyone interested in the detail aspects of a battle like Antietam discouraged by that focus being marginalized for a broader understanding of the big picture. Not saying that’s happening, but hope it doesn’t at any point.

        Reply
        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          Perhaps you can provide an example. As far as I can tell no one here is suggesting that battlefield history ought to take a back seat to anything. My shelves are filled with books about battles and campaigns. There are certainly legitimate questions related to how we define the scope of military history and how we educate visitors on battlefields.

          Reply
  9. John Hennessy

    In his opening paragraphs in his Second Inaugural, Lincoln referred to “the progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends.” In the midst of all the discussion about what a visit to a battlefield sites ought and ought not to be, I think it’s useful, sometimes, to go simple. To go Lincoln. “The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends” is a nearly perfect interpretive framework for interpretation at battlefield sites.

    To be exceptional and effective, programming at battlefield sites ought to:

    – Address the progress of arms, as reflected at that site.

    and

    – Explore the “all else” that chiefly depended on the progress [or not} of arms at that site.

    Tell me what I am missing.

    Reply

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