Update: In it’s first decision since the resignation of half of its committee members, the West Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission denied a funding request from The Guyandotte Civil War Days festival committee. It turns out that the committee invited H.K. Edgerton to give the keynote address. Clearly, the WV commission made the right decision.
Karl S. Betts was the first executive director of the Civil War Centennial Commission and a successful Kansas-born businessman. His goals were first and foremost to fashion a centennial celebration that would attract patriotic audiences and steer clear of issues related to race. This meant battle reenactments and parades. Most of the sesquicentennial commissions, including Virginia, have decided to steer clear of reenactments. As I understand it, that decision has to do with not wanting to be perceived as celebrating what was a destructive and costly war as well as wanting to focus on more substantive and educational projects.
As far as I know, the West Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission is the first case of a sharp divide between those who want to entertain as opposed to educate. This report is based largely on an interview done with Professor Mark Snell, who is the vice chairman of the commission. [I should note that I am good friends with Professor Snell and I trust his judgment.]
You should definitely take a look at Drew G. Faust’s NEH 2011 Jefferson Lecture, titled, “Telling War Stories: Reflections of a Civil War Historian.” [pdf] It is incredibly thoughtful. [Click here for David Blight's introductory remarks.] I think Faust effectively explains the difficulty of trying to capture the horrors of war as well as the dangers involved in trivializing it. The following passage at the end caught my eye and pretty much sums up why I have little interest in attending the Manassas reenactment this summer:
There is just something about reenacting that I find troubling and yet I know that there are very serious people, who are passionate about it and who see it as a form of education. I don’t want to be entertained by representations of battle, suffering, and loss. On the other hand I don’t have a problem with a reenactment of a slave auction, which also depicts violence and personal loss. This may be an inconsistent attitude on my part, but I just can’t imagine ordering a hot dog or picnicking at a slave reenactment.
What I do completely agree with, however, is Faust’s final comment regarding our current wars. I do believe that battle reenactments help to trivialize war and prevent us from considering the tough questions that any citizenry in a democracy must consider before going to and during war. In the end, I am skeptical that the narrative of a reenactment gets us closer to any meaningful understanding of what it means to go to war as well as the costs.
Thanks to CBS’s “Sunday Morning” show for producing one of the most balanced accounts of the Civil War Sesquicentennial that I’ve seen in some time. Not only was it thoughtful, but it managed to include a number of important perspectives without taking on the loaded question of why and how we are still fighting the Civil War. Click here for one of the worst examples of this style of reporting out of England.
Civil War Proclamation No. 3882
By The President of The United States of America:
The years 1961-1965 will mark the one hundredth anniversary of the American Civil War.
The war was America’s most tragic experience. But like all truly great tragedies, it carries with it an enduring lesson and a profound inspiration. It was a demonstration of heroism and sacrifice by men and women of both sides, who valued principles above life itself and whose devotion to duty is a proud part of our national inheritance.
Both sections of our magnificently reunited country sent into their armies men who become soldiers as good as any who ever fought under any flag. Military history records nothing finer than the courage and spirit displayed at such battles as Chickamauga, Antietam, Kennesaw Mountain and Gettysburg. That America could produce men so valiant and so enduring is a matter for deep and abiding pride.
The same spirit on the part of the people back home supported those soldiers through four years of great trial. That a Nation which contained hardly more than 30 million people, North and South together, could sustain 600,000 deaths without faltering is a lasting testimonial to something unconquerable in the American spirit. And that a transcending sense of unity and larger common purpose could, in the end, cause the men and women who had suffered so greatly to close ranks once the contest ended and to go on together to build a greater, freer and happier America must be a source of inspiration as long as our country may last.
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On this day in April 1865, Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House. Those of you who continue to harbor hatred for Grant and the rest of the “yankee horde” would do well to listen closely to Johnny Yuma. In this episode, Johnny explains to a young boy, who lost his father in the war, to put aside his hate and embrace forgiveness and reconciliation.
This episode beautifully captures the reconciliationist spirit of the Civil War Centennial. “Well Mr. McCune, here is how I look at it. In a way everybody who fought for either side was at Appomattox.”
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