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.
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.
This is an interesting little report on the commemorative events surrounding the sesquicentennial of Fort Sumter. A number of people are interviewed, but what I find so interesting is the difference in tone between NPS interpreter, Michael Allen and the Kennedy brothers (aka the Civil War’s Statler and Waldorf), who identify themselves as “Southern Historians.” I just love that reference. It has nothing to do with regional identification because if it did they would have to include hundreds of historians who were all born and raised in the South. I live in the South. Am I a Southern Historian in their eyes? You get my point. No, that identification marks a certain way of looking at the history of the South and its tone is overly defensive and presentist – a perspective that I suspect does not reflect the views of most white and black southerners. The language used reflects very little interest in the nineteenth century itself. Just listen to these two describe the federal government as tariff and money obsessed and intent on going around the world to oppress innocent people at the point of a bloody bayonet.
You certainly leave with a sense of their emotional connection to the issue, but it’s not much of an explanation.
The bigger problem here is that the media’s insistence on interviewing people like the Kennedy brothers reinforces the assumption that this is the Southern view of the war. They may be entertaining and they may refer to themselves as Southern historians, but they do not speak for the South.