When Did the Civil War Start?

Dimitri Rotov seems to be perplexed over what is being billed as the first major event of Virginia’s Civil War sesquicentennial commemoration.  Since I am on the advisory board for Virginia’s Sesquicentennial Commission I thought I might say a few words about what went into the decision to begin in 2009.  On April 29 the University of Richmond will host a panel of distinguished historians who will discuss “America on the Eve of the Civil War.” This all-day event will bring together a distinguished panel of historians and will be hosted by Ed Ayers.  The format is as follows:

“America on the Eve of the Civil War” brings a fresh perspective on enduring issues. The program will be conducted in an interactive format with speakers from varied perspectives. Akin to news programs like “Face the Nation” and “Meet the Press,” speakers will discuss events of 1859 and their effect, limiting themselves only to what would have been known at that time.

The goal is to try and capture as much of the contingency of events as possible.  Topics include the 1860 presidential election, John Brown’s Raid at Harpers Ferry, and the place of Virginia in the South.  The event is free, but you are encouraged to register early.  I have already arranged with conference organizers to live blog the entire event.

I was present at a number of committee discussions that explored the proper scope of the sesquicentennial and it was determined that beginning with 1859 would set the right context for understanding the war years.  Of course, anyone who remembers the centennial celebrations knows that it kicked off in 1861 and made it a point to steer clear of the bigger issues of slavery and race.  The decision reflected the temperament of much of the country and a strong desire to maintain as much consensus as possible at the height of the Cold War and in the wake of desegregation.  Ultimately, it backfired as the Civil Rights Movement kicked into high gear and increasingly came to identify with the emancipationist legacy of the Civil War.  I think it is important to note that while scholars were well on their way to exploring the role that slavery played in the war by the 1960s it had yet to filter into the general public in any noticeable way.  In contrast, organizers are approaching the sesquicentennial from a very different perspective.  First, they hope to be much more inclusive in terms of subjects that deserve proper analysis and recognition.  More importantly, Virginia’s sesquicentennial will be educational and not celebratory.   Finally, the idea that slavery and race are central to understanding both the cause of the war as well as its outcome is no longer worth debating – unless, of course, you operate in certain circles.

It was pretty clear from the meetings that I attended that John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry sets the right tone for the sesquicentennial as a whole.  There is nothing to celebrate or get excited about as in the case of a bloody battle.   Brown’s raid is a crucial event in Virginia’s history that had important ramifications for the nation as it approached the 1860 presidential election and is one that must be understood.  Harpers Ferry also forces those interested to confront the problem of slavery that plagued the nation.  In effect, Virginia’s Sesquicentennial Commission is saying that the war started here.   At the same time there is the question of when to conclude the sesquicentennial.  Should Virginia acknowledge Appomattox as the end of the war or should it explore both the immediate and long-term effects on the state and the rest of the nation?  These are good questions that deserve to be explored and debated.  I am thankful that my state has put together a commission that is willing and eager to debate such questions.

While I’m at it let me take a moment to plug another event that I am involved with.  Between March 12 – 14 the American Civil War Museum at Tredegar will host a conference titled, “Lincoln and the South.” The three-day event brings together a number of heavyweights in the field, including James McPherson, Ed Ayers, Michael Burlingame, David Blight, Brian Dirck, William J. Cooper, Manisha Sinha, and Charles Dew.  Although the conference is organized around panels, there will be no formal papers.  Moderators will engage fellow panelists as well as the audience in discussion.  I couldn’t be more thrilled about this as it is so difficult to keep your eyes open after the first 15 minutes of a formal paper.  I was asked to moderate a discussion for teachers and anyone else interested on the conference theme on Saturday morning over breakfast.  No doubt, I am going to need to practice eating my eggs and biscuit while speaking.

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6 comments… add one
  • David Frazer May 6, 2009 @ 10:36

    May I nominate the date when the the Massachusetts senator got clubbed on the senate floor by the South Carolina senator? Seems to me that was the first actual physical act of sectional conflict, unless you want to count some of the Kansas pleasantry…

  • Robert Moore Jan 6, 2009 @ 5:26

    Kevin, One of the things I have wondered about is how, while the country is engaged in wars, people can feel comfortable participating in commemorative-type events that reflect on an earlier war. I would think that it would greatly diminish participation (some people simply get their fill of war because of current events). It seems that reenactments have been impacted somewhat over the past few years. Did this come up at any time in discussion about upcoming 150th events? – Robert

    • Kevin Levin Jan 6, 2009 @ 11:20

      If I remember correctly, the commission is steering clear entirely of reenactments. In other words, it will not endorse battlefield reenactments. Part of the concern has to do with the legacy of the centennial. If you remember, a reenactment of First Manassas was held and it ended up as a cheer-fest for the Confederacy. Given the more scholarly focus of the commission I am not surprised by this move.

      • Robert Moore Jan 6, 2009 @ 17:35

        I think I may have eclipsed my entire point by including that last sentence. Ultimately, for a period of time during which we will be reflecting on a previous American war, I wonder if it is more difficult to gather a greater number of participants (some might say enthusiasts) during a contemporary war as opposed to the same event during a time of peace. Are there any thoughts or concerns expressed in the commission in regard to the potential lack of participation (event sign-ups, for example)?

        • Kevin Levin Jan 6, 2009 @ 17:40

          Great question Robert, but one that I am going to hold off on answering. I am hoping to interview one of the commission organizers for my radio show. I will make sure to include this question.

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