There are two Civil War Sesquicentennial memes that get bandied about without any reflection at all. The first suggests that white Southerners are still fighting the Civil War or that they are holding onto a traditional narrative that is being threatened by various external forces. Even a cursory glance at recent commemorative events in South Carolina suggests that the story is much more complex. The second also plays up supposed strict regional differences that assumes a closer, more emotional need to remember the Civil War in the South than the North.
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.]
I get a real kick out of the good folks over at the Southern Heritage Preservation site. They spend a great deal of time calling for the preservation of African-American history by pushing the black Confederate narrative, but when a black man disagrees with their preferred view of the war all bets are off. Consider this little give and take over an editorial written by Tony Norman for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The editorial is par for the course compared with most editorials written this year. Norman places too much weight on recent polls and completely ignores the dramatic changes that can be seen in recent Civil War commemorations and the overall public dialog. That hasn’t prevented the folks at SHP from going for the jugular. For people who are committed to preserving black history they sure don’t have much patience for black people.
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.
If you are looking for a reflection of how our collective understanding of the Civil War has changed over the past few years take a look at this small sample of state SOLs. I suspect that we will continue to see a shift away from a curriculum that is inspired and sometimes distorted by the Lost Cause in the coming decades. Interestingly, if you are looking for some of the most dramatic changes you just need to check out the following list of Southern states. I pulled this from an article written by Eric Robelon for Education Week.