This is the second video that I’ve posted from the Virginia Historical Society’s traveling exhibit, “An American Turning Point”. This one addresses the issue of conscription, but it also introduces visitors to women as political agents. It’s always nice to see an exhibit move past the traditional and one-dimensional image of Civil War era women as Melanie Wilkes caricatures.
Yesterday I spent the day doing my part as one of twelve members of a Sesquicentennial Working Group that will meet next month in Milwaukee as part of the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians. Our panel was organized by the American Association for State and Local History. We are now at the stage where group members are responding to the various proposals in an attempt to facilitate as fruitful a discussion as possible once we all get together in one room.
All of the proposals are very interesting and reflect a broad range of issues that educators, public historians, and museums are facing as we make our way through the Civil War 150th. I was particularly intrigued by one case study, which focused on securing funding to properly interpret the Centralia Massacre in Missouri for students and the general public. The author, who is a history teacher, focused on the challenges of raising sufficient funds for a story that tends to fall outside of our traditional narrative of the Civil War.
The challenge that this person faces in promoting interest in and funding for the preservation and interpretation of the Centralia Massacre highlights the continued popularity of a glorified Civil War narrative. Americans are much more comfortable commemorating and remembering a war that pit brave Confederate and Union soldiers against one another, mainly on Eastern battlefields, and apart from any serious discussion of causes and consequences. This is still the case even though there has been a steady stream of scholarly studies [start with Dan Sutherland’s A Savage Conflict] devoted to the Border Wars over the past few years and online databases are also available. The story of Centralia and the war in Missouri is essential to the creation and maintenance of a sesquicentennial narrative that finally moves beyond what is still a deeply engrained Lost Cause/Reconciliationist narrative.
I’ve used the movie Ride With the Devil in my own course on the Civil War to introduce students to the Border Wars in Missouri. While it does capture some of the violence in the region, the movie’s emancipationist streak, which emerges in the final scene masks both the short- and long-term consequences of what was essentially a civil war within a civil war.
The story of Missouri’s Civil War has much in common with this nation’s military experience overseas in recent years, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, where much of the violence is driven by local disputes among competing tribes and various other warring factions. Questions of who holds the moral high ground is difficult to discern and arguably irrelevant to understanding the complexity and depth of violence that took place in Civil War Missouri. This project fits into an important narrative that moves us beyond that of North v. South/Confederate v. Union and forces us to confront some of the tougher questions of the war.
The author concludes with the following: “Missourians no longer bushwhack each other; however, it is important to remember they once did.”
The following video was uploaded to YouTube a couple of days ago. I know nothing about the woman who produced it, but I think it is a wonderful example of how the Web2.0 world has shaped the Civil War Sesquicentennial. As opposed to the centennial years, when relatively few historical institutions exercised control over how the nation remembered the war, the sesquicentennial’s narrative is being written one blog post, one video, and one tweet at a time. Much of what is being produced, including this video, defies easy categorization. Watch this through to the end.
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.
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.