Is the Civil War Sesquicentennial a Very Gloomy Birthday?

Exterior of National Building Museum

Thanks to The Journal of the Civil War Era for making available online a forum from their most recent issue on the future of Civil War historiography.  The essays are all worth reading and I especially enjoyed Stephen Berry’s “top ten” predictions on how broader trends within the field will shape Civil War studies in the near future.   Included in the list is a note of skepticism surrounding the reach of the ongoing sesquicentennial, though it is unclear as to how exactly this will influence academic historians:

#1: The Civil War Is about to Have a Very Gloomy Birthday

Despite some very noble efforts, the Civil War at 150 will be remembered as having been met by a collective national shrug, even in the South. Apparently Americans are happy enough to celebrate their past but not that interested in commemorating (or, better yet, understanding) it. The reason is not far to seek: the war and its racial legacy remains a can of worms most states don’t want to open publicly. Why shine a light or build a stage just so neo-Confederate dead-enders can perform their ludicrous one-man shows? In a house full of roaches, it is better to leave the lights off.

This is unfortunate in a sense—a “teachable moment” is about to go begging. But by comparison to the centennial celebrations, ambivalence is a victory. Ambivalence is the proper response to war. War is about damage, even at its most heroic, even when certain people and things deserve to be damaged. The destruction of slavery was a good thing and a great thing. Having to fight our bloodiest war to the end is neither good nor great. It is just sad. And remembering that the end of slavery was only the beginning of a longer battle for the kind of freedom that really matters is sadder still. Soon enough, if not already, the Civil War will be understood not as a test this country passed—a kiln in which the nation was fired—but as a test we failed when we couldn’t, short of war, give up our original addiction to “black gold.”

This “victory” of American ambivalence belongs to us, to academe. We have killed, or are killing, the war our fathers and grandfathers built. But no one, including ourselves, feels like celebrating, because it is already clear that our version of the war is an unlovely mess—sordid means serving varied ends, some good, most unforeseen; our version is a longer slog, less politically correct, less inspiring, and more befitting a chastened nation.

And this from Ari Kelman in his TLS review of four recent Civil War studies:

As birthday parties go, this one has been a bit of a downer so far. The American Civil War was 150 years old last year, but it went on for four years, so there’s still plenty of time for history buffs in period costumes to re-enact blood-soaked battles; actors to give President Lincoln’s and Frederick Douglass’s speeches, grafting new wings on to a bygone era’s soaring oratory; and writers to churn out volumes chronicling the history of the nation’s deadliest conflict. But, up to now, the reaction has remained oddly muted, suggesting that people in the United States, though apparently still obsessed with the Civil War, remain uncertain about how to remember this troubling event collectively: as triumph or tragedy, as rebirth or mass murder, or as something else again. Or maybe it’s just that Americans are notoriously suspicious of foreign languages, and just what kind of fancy word is sesquicentennial anyway?

Why the doom and gloom and why does this attitude consistently come from within the academic community?  Perhaps these characterizations of the general public’s interest reflects their own increasingly defensive posture in response to the marginalization of history and the humanities generally in our society.  What is never included in these prognostications is any sense of what exactly is being measured.  What would a successful commemoration 150 years later look like?  What exactly do Berry and Kelman need to see to help steer us away from the cliff and collective amnesia?

Perhaps I spend too much time reading through my Google News filter about events related to the sesquicentennial.  It’s impossible to keep up.  The amount of new educational materials related to the Civil War is staggering; museums large and small are creating exhibits; teachers have a wide range of workshops to choose from and visits to NPS sites are up.  I could go on and on.  My view: The Civil War Sesquicentennial looks just like you would expect it to look like.

[Image source]

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Myra Chandler Sampson To Discuss Silas Chandler

I am pleased to announce that Myra Chandler Sampson will be speaking on Wednesday evening at 6:30pm at the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center in Austin, Texas.  Her topic, as you can see in the museum’s advertisement, is Silas Chandler.  If I am not mistaken, this will be her first public presentation.  I am sure this is going to be an informative and entertaining talk and I strongly encourage those of you who live in the area to attend and support Myra.  As interesting as Silas’s story is, however, I suspect that Myra will also talk about her personal journey that involves nothing less than reclaiming an important piece of family history that had been hijacked by the Sons of Confederate Veterans and spread on the Internet as an example of a false heritage.

It was an honor for me to be able to help Myra bring this story to a wider reading public.  I certainly wish I could be there on Wednesday evening.  Best of luck, Myra.

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The Graying of the Civil War Centennial Generation

Central Ohio Civil War Round Table

One of my first posts all the way back in 2005 focused on what I saw as the inevitable decline of our Civil War round tables.  I suggested that without a resurgence of interest in the Civil War era that animated Americans in the early 1960s these groups would disappear one by one.  In light of the last two posts I stand by the claim that I made over six years ago.

On Saturday the Museum of the Confederacy hosted a day-long event that culminated in a “Person of the Year: 1862″ that was decided by an overwhelmingly older audience.  That same day the Sons of Confederate Veterans were forced to relocate an event that had been scheduled at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church as part of their national rally.  These two stories have more in common than you might think.  Both organizations cater to a centennial generation.

I have no idea why church officials canceled the SCV’s event yesterday.  That said, it seems safe to assume that enough people within the church community found out about it and voiced their disapproval.  Whatever, the reason they didn’t want their church to host an SCV event and the reason for this must rest with the SCV itself, which has done everything in their power over the past few years to alienate reasonable people.  Take a look at any photograph from Saturday’s rally along Monument Avenue and what stands out is that hardly anyone showed up.  As far as I can tell the former capital of the Confederacy paid no notice of the SCV’s presence.  And those who were present overwhelmingly represented an older crowd.

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Sons of Confederate Veterans Kicked Out of St. Paul’s Episcopal

Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis all prayed at the church at one point or another during the war.  It was there in April 1865 that Davis learned that Richmond must be evacuated.  So, why the cold shoulder?  It’s hard to tell at this point, but here is what we know.  Yesterday the Sons of Confederate Veterans held their National Heritage Rally in the city, which was to include a panel discussion titled, “Debunking the Myth of the White Confederate Military” at the church  The panelists were to include Teresa Roane archivist at the Museum of the Confederacy and Eric Richardson, who is currently a graduate student in history at North Carolina Central University.  I’ve heard through the grapevine that he is doing some very interesting research at the MOC.  It is highly unlikely that the title of the panel or the panelists themselves were responsible for the church’s change of heart.  The panel was to be followed by a revival service at the church.  Apparently, at the last minute some time on Friday church officials canceled the event.

The day began with a small rally of SCV faithful at the Lee monument on Monument Avenue.  At least one unit marched while chanting the following:

What do we do?

Kill Yankees

How Many?

All of them

Would you want these people in your church?

Note: Updates will be posted as more information becomes available.

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Where Have You Gone, Benjamin Butler?

I’ve caught bits and pieces of the Museum of the Confederacy’s “Person of the Year: 1862″ symposium on CSPAN-3.  It’s an entertaining event for the children of the Civil War Centennial.  The historians in charge of nominating this year include Robert K. Krick, David Blight, James McPherson, Jack Mountcastle, and Emory Thomas.  The historians selected are all familiar to the audience and their selections, for the most part, are predictable. Can anyone imagine Krick selecting anyone else but Jackson or anyone but Lee for Thomas?  Blight chose Frederick Douglass, which is not surprising.  McPherson’s choice of Farragut may be the only one that couldn’t be predicted.  I don’t know what to make of Mountcastle’s choice of McClellan since I am not familiar with his scholarship.

There is nothing wrong with their selections since this is clearly not a question that has a final answer.  There is also nothing necessarily wrong with the selection of historians.  All of them are well respected scholars.  That said, I do have a few suggestions for next year.  Get a panel of younger historians, whose choices may not be so predictable.  Not only are you likely to get a different short list of nominees, but the Q&A will also be an opportunity to explore new terrain rather than rehash the same tired stories.   You have to include at least one woman and an African American.  In short, perspective is everything when it comes to these kinds of events.

So, who would you choose?

My choice: Benjamin Butler

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