The Civil War Sesquicentennial: Potential Problems

The other day I commented on the recent meeting I attended as an adviser to the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the Civil Commission.  Everyone on the committee is extremely optimistic and excited about both on-going and future projects.  During the meeting a few of the Commission members submitted written reports outlining the broad goals of the commission.  Ervin Jordan, who is an archivist and historian at the University of Virginia, submitted a very thoughtful report that included potential problems that will have to be addressed at some point. 

The most important issue that Jordan cites should come as no surprise.  As I’ve commented before the Commission hopes to be as inclusive as possible in commemorating the Civil War era and that will mean acknowledging, among other things, the importance of race, including the centrality of emancipation and the contributions of black Americans to securing their freedom through their service in the Union army.  While the Commission is committed to this goal of inclusiveness it may be difficult recruiting or convincing African Americans to take part in various events.  And the reason for this, which Jordan cites, is that many black Americans view the symbols of the Confederacy through the prism of "Massive Resistance".  Simply put, they consider those symbols to be offensive.  I am not making a normative claim as to how people ought to interpret those symbols, but simply reporting that the black community does in fact subscribe to this view.  And anyone who understands the history of symbols such as the Confederate flag should be able to sympathize with this view.  I heard the very same thing during my interviews of NPS personnel.  As long as those symbols are present on the battlefields it will be difficult to attract the attention of the black community or convince them that those symbols are not being used to reinforce an interpretation designed to exclude or minimize their claims to the past.  This is, of course, very difficult given that reenactors and others use the Confederate flag for historical purposes. 

I don’t know what the solution is or if there is one at all.

Jordan also raised a few other concerns.  Most importantly he speculates that there may be very little enthusiasm for the Sesquicentennial across the board.  Visitorship is down at places such as Monticello, the Smithsonian, and the Civil War Library and Museum in Philadelphia.  We’ve also heard recently that the American Civil War Museum at Tredegar is not meeting the levels they expected and the Museum of the Confederacy continues to deal with declining numbers.  It should also be pointed out that the First World War Centennial will overlap the sesquicentennial by two years (2014-2018).  I mentioned in my last post that the federal government has yet to create a Civil War Commission, but it is likely that they will devote significant energy to planning events for First World War commemorations – the planning of which will surely not generate the same kind of political tensions that the Civil War engenders.  Jordan speculates that the federal government will use the opportunity to "reinvigorate homeland patriotism in the Global War on Terrorism" which would not be surprising given the effort to use the Centennial as a way to unify the nation during the Cold War.

It is much to early to speculate as to how the Sesquicentennial will play out both here in Virginia and elsewhere.  As mentioned before the Virginia Commission has taken the lead in planning for the event, but it will also need to consider what it will mean for someone to have participated in the Sesquicentennial.  Perhaps we should move away from numbers alltogether and focus on projects such as James I. Robertson’s proposal that every community in Virginia transcribe their 1860 census report.  It’s a brilliant idea because it is worthwhile as a historical endeavor, it brings people together around local history and it has the potential to attract significant interest without its success necessarily depending on it. 

No one should expect that any amount of planning will shift the general public’s attention away from "To Catch a Predator" to questions of history.  Those days may be over for good assuming it was ever true. 

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“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

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19 comments… add one
  • Jim Aug 24, 2007 @ 14:59

    Thanks again for another excellent post. I grow more enamoured of your thoughts with each passing day. The Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission is very lucky to have you as an advisor.

    Jim Yeatts

  • Jim Aug 23, 2007 @ 18:46

    Kevin, — Thanks for the excellent post. I couldn’t agree more.


  • Kevin Levin Aug 23, 2007 @ 6:42

    Adam, — Nice to hear from you. Good luck with the new semester and stay in touch.

  • Adam Zimmerli Aug 22, 2007 @ 16:04

    Just to throw in my couple cents worth, if the white southerners felt they were so indebted to their slave communities (for guarding their homes, serving as laborers behind the lines, etc.), why is it that they engaged so forcefully in the repression of that community and lynched so many in during Reconstruction? To my knowledge, the Reconstruction Acts and the stationing of troops in the South weren’t commandments to lynch, rape, and torture, but the opposite. Finally, to call it “the haves aginst the have nots” sure seems to imply that the freedmen were antagonistic (as the supposed “have nots”) and that the returning soldier who may have lost all but his life was somehow one of the “haves.” I doubt you’ll find many instances from the 1872 Congressional KKK investigation where a freedman (or woman or child for that matter) says that they hid in the woods for months at a time because they were too scared to go home because they rose up against the white southerners in anything akin to a class war.

    In other comments, I’ve been away from the blog for a while, but it’s nice to see it still wildly exciting!

  • Michael Aubrecht Aug 21, 2007 @ 21:05

    Well said Ranger. I agree Mannie. I’ve been a full-blown CW addict since I was 7 years-old, and nothing would make me happier than to see 7 year-olds all across the country fall in love with it too. BTW: Kevin, They had an article down here in the Free Lance-Star last week about teachers attending some seminar and learning how to teach the Civil War better. One guy showed how tying yesterday in with today helped grab high-schoolers’ attention. He started by having them take out their cell phones and then went backwards in time to show how primitive telegraph communications were during the war. He then presented the differences in living in a society that is not privileged with instant communications or information. It was his way of giving them something to relate to. It’s not my style, but apparently it worked. It probably gets harder year after year as our kids become more digital, and therefore; distracted (both things go hand in hand IMO). If I’d of had a Playstation video game as a kid, I wouldn’t be into this ‘old stuff’ either.

  • Kevin Levin Aug 21, 2007 @ 17:58

    Hi Mannie, — I’ve been going into school over the past few weeks to get things ready for the new school year. It’s always exciting and a little nerve racking in anticipation of what’s to come. I guess it’s not unlike your anticipation of a new season at Antietam.

    Don’t be surprised if you get to meet my Lincoln class this semester.

  • Mannie Gentile Aug 21, 2007 @ 17:52


    My greatest hope for the sesquicentennial is a simple one:

    that it captures the imagination of many more children, as mine was during the centennial, and transforms them into lifetime learners, historians, bloggers, teachers, and rangers.

    If it also brings a new generation of plastic Civil War soldiers…

    that’s good too!

    Best wishes for a great school year.


  • Chris Paysinger Aug 21, 2007 @ 11:36

    In response to the issue that there were no uprisings in the South…I just finished Wayne Durrill’s “War of Another Kind”. His evidence would obviously find that to be contrary. Heck, whites even rose up against whites, slaves against masters, etc. That is a great book by the way. One of the best I’ve read in quite a while. Chris

  • Cash Aug 21, 2007 @ 11:29

    Slave revolts were brutally repressed. Witness the aftermath of Nat Turner, where scores of innocent slaves were lynched or burned to death in a frenzy of blood-soaked revenge.

    During the war, the structure of repression was intact. The home guard was there and the “20-slave” rule was passed specifically to address the possibility of slave revolts.

    Winthrop Jordan has uncovered a planned slave revolt in Mississippi in 1862 that was discovered with the usual result. It’s detailed in his book, _Tumult and Silence at Second Creek._

    Who was going to risk such brutal vengeance when they could stay on the plantation until the Federal army came close enough to make it possible to flee?


  • Chris Paysinger Aug 21, 2007 @ 11:11

    Kevin, I am enjoying watching through your posts this process unfold. I like many have high hopes for the anniversary. I am not surprised at Virginia taking a proactive approach to the event. Being from Alabama, I worry even more how my state will approach 2011. I’ve recently been on the local lecture circuit and am amazed at the raw nerves even innocuous events seem to aggrevate.

    I am also working on a great opportunity to remember the war in the town in which I live. Basically rebuilding the destroyed parts of a local fort and the building of a small museum. I left the first meeting wholly disgusted. A couple of people came off as wanting to highlight the fact that Forrest blew the hell out of it in Sept.,’64. The fact that there were locally recruited black troops there who significantley bloodied the noses of the Confederates took a backseat. Also, there was no focus outside of telling how the CSA won. In other words no interpretation or contextualization of the war as a whole.

    As Michael discussed, how to include groups who may be less than willing to get involved makes the process of remembering the war seem artificial. I have been hoping that when Alabama looks to begin the process that the likes of George Rable and Ken Noe will be involved.(I know you read these Ken!!!) Hopefully the ball will begin to roll before others with questionable agendas dictate to Montgomery the programs that Alabama will plan. Good luck, Chris

  • LarryC Aug 21, 2007 @ 11:06

    I was reading Gary Nash’s _The Forgotten Fifth_ about blacks in the era of the Revolution and it occurred to me that American history is just littered with slave revolts. The tens of thousands of slaves who fled to the British during the Revolution and took up arms constitute a slave rebellion. Ditto for the colored troops in the Civil War. And what are all the Seminole Wars if not a slave rebellion? We just never call them that.

  • Kevin Levin Aug 21, 2007 @ 10:53

    Fasincating analysis. So how would you explain the thousands of fugitive slaves that flooded Union camps during the war? Isn’t that an uprising? Much of the federal legislation of the 1850s was designed to address the concerns of white Southerners in reference to escaped slaves from the Upper South.

  • Cajie Aug 21, 2007 @ 10:49

    My opinion is: Keep on Keeping on! Never give up the FLAG! Someday, sometime, people will become educated instead of proprogandized and the Lincoln myth will end! I pray the Lincoln statue which is so prominent in Washington DC comes down.

    -“The Civil War might have freed our ancestors but it was never about slavery, no white people ever cared that mush about our rights.”

    They know.

    BTW – We had no uprisings in the South – in fact we had just the opposite – many looked after the Confederate Soldier’s family and their property or joined with the Confederate Army themselves.

    That alone should tell you something.

    It was the occupation and reconstruction by the union that caused the division of our Southern blacks and whites. A Class issue; the haves and have-nots.

  • Kevin Levin Aug 21, 2007 @ 10:35

    Larry, — Thanks for the comment. I don’t know if you are reading too much into it, but I do think that the reactions you experienced were not simply based on a particular interpretation, but from a broader perspective that included the history of race since the Civil War.

    I think it is also important to remember that as much as Glory did focus on the experience of USCTs much of it was about Shaw.

  • LarryC Aug 21, 2007 @ 9:34

    Wow, the description of the events in Fredericksburg is Reconstruction in miniature.

    I watched Glory in a theater on the South Side of Chicago and most of the audience was black. There is a scene where (according to my 20-year-old recollection) one of the black soldiers gives another black soldier a pep talk about how thousands of white boys from the north are fighting and dying because they care about our freedom. A black guy behind me stated growling “Bullshit! Bullshit!” The whole audience was grumbling and hissing in a vocal rejection of this interpretation of the war.

    What I took away from this is that the audience was interested in the Civil War, enough so that they had an investment in a particular interpretation and were angered by a contrary one. Unfortunately it seemed as if their interpretation was a variation on the Lost Cause–“The Civil War might have freed our ancestors but it was never about slavery, no white people ever cared that mush about our rights.”

    Or maybe I am reading way too much into some hisses and catcalls.

  • Kevin Levin Aug 21, 2007 @ 8:54

    Michael, — Thanks for the comment. I would qualify your points just slightly. The black community in Fredericksburg was very active in commemorating the war during the first few years. They decorated Union graves and took part in and organized public ceremonies. Off hand I don’t remember when this ended, but it ended as a result of Union veterans inviting their Confederate counterparts to take part in local ceremonies. This, of course, was a gesture of reconciliation, but at the cost of alienating the black community. My point is that there is a resaon why black Americans do not identify with the Civil War and that has a great deal with they way it tends to be remembered along with the symbolism associated with it.

    You are right that Glory did not lead to greater interest in the war within the black community. My interview this summer with three black reenactors from the movie confirmed much of what I suspected as to why that is.

    Finally, I don’t understand your baseball analogy.

  • Michael Aubrecht Aug 21, 2007 @ 8:37

    I have thought about that dilemma myself when reading your posts on this subject Kevin. Frankly, I don’t know of any black Civil War buffs. I never see any African-Americans at our local battlefields in (Fredericksburg or Spotsy), or at the museums for that matter. And now that I think about it, I never see them at any other battlefields, events, or reenactments.

    How do you get people interested in something that they have no interest in? And how do you appeal to young people who really aren’t interested in the Civil War to begin with? It is certainly a challenge, but I often wonder if this could be another example of the white people ‘taking it upon themselves’ to push the subjects that they deem important on minorities.

    I like to use the example of when a group of uptight whites were lobbying in the Midwest against all of the Native American sports mascots. They were being interviewed on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” ranting and raving about how racist it was to have the Blackhawks, Indians, Braves, Redskins etc. and how they were going to make them change. Then a smart reporter went out to the Native Americans and asked them IF they were offended by it, and the majority of them said ‘no,’ they could care less.

    This may be a similar situation. You can’t make a large demographic of people (any people) care about a part of their culture if they don’t want to – or if the memory is too controversial. Therein lies the REAL challenge, especially in the South.

    I’ll be anxious to see how this goes. I remember when ‘Glory’ came out and people were writing in all of the magazines how the story of the 54th would open up a huge interest in the Civil War in the black community. That didn’t happen. Best of luck in this endeavor.

  • Kevin Levin Aug 20, 2007 @ 21:36

    Hi Bill, — Nice to hear from you and thanks for the kind words re: the blog.

  • bill emory Aug 20, 2007 @ 21:31

    hey Kevin- I like Robertson’s proposal, transcribing the 1860 census. I am enjoying your blog!
    Bill Emory

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