We Could Just As Easily Have Waited For the Civil War Bicentennial

Gettysburg College historian, Allen Guelzo, has a short op-ed piece in the Gettysburg Times on the ongoing efforts to commemorate the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  Guelzo assumes a rather gloomy posture owing to the small number of states that have organized commissions, the inability of the federal government to get involved, and the continued difficulty to attract African Americans to Civil War related events.  All of these point, especially, the last one, deserve our attention and even concern, but I tend to think that Guelzo’s skepticism is misplaced.

To be completely honest, I am surprised as to what has been done already to acknowledge the 150th anniversary of the war.  There is no reason why we must officially acknowledge this milestone.  We could just as easily wait for the bicentennial year.  It would be nice to see a few more states approach the level of activity to be found in Virginia, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina, but let’s not hold our breadth.  What Guelzo misses entirely is the number of museums along with state and local historical societies, which will organize events, teaching materials, and other resources for their local communities.  How about the attention that the National Park Service will bring to all of this?  Yes, their exhibitions and events will vary in quality, but that should not be of any great concern.  Perhaps Guelzo’s concern about the number of state commissions is more about how it reflects on Americans’ overall attitude to its collective past.  He may be asking, “Are we this disinterested in our past?”  Yes and no.  On the one hand we are in the middle of a pretty bad recession, which has no end in sight.  It’s no surprise that remembering events that took place long ago through the spending of millions of dollars may not seem like the best use of tax dollars.  I happen to agree with that sentiment. On the other hand, perhaps one can make the case that there is no longer a need for a top-down model of national historic commemoration.  Information is much more easily shared via the Internet and information is much more easily accessible by a broader spectrum of the general public.  We can see this in action here in Virginia as local communities are taking the lead in organizing Civil War commissions.

Guelzo concludes with the following:

There is a much to celebrate in the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. There is also a great deal of anger and disappointment, and in some places, downright contempt. The Civil War re-enactment community mistrusts academic Civil War historians; the academics, in turn, are regarded by the public historians as gate-crashers of their collections and exhibitions; public historians suspect relic and memorabilia dealers of piracy; and the general public seems interested in history only when it’s painted-up in bizarre, horror-movie formats. These are all obstacles in the path of a worthwhile Sesquicentennial. But the greatest challenge of the Sesquicentennial will be how to synthesize the Civil War’s “old” story of battles-and-reunion with the Civil War’s “new” story of race and gender. Until that begins to happen, and until the competing re-enactment, academic, and public empires decide that they all have a common stake in the Sesquicentennial, state legislatures, historical societies, and organizations are likely to take the safe road, and call the whole thing off.

There is something to this, but it smacks of arm-chair navel gazing.  The divisions between various constituencies cannot be so easily drawn and in the case of the relationship between reenactors (general public) and academic historians, I would argue that it is simply false.  I also think that Guelzo’s characterization of the general public’s interest in the past is also way off the mark.  It doesn’t explain the popularity of Glory or the fact that last year’s Signature Conference, sponsored by the University of Richmond and Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission attracted over 2,000 people.  Guelzo is absolutely right that the biggest challenge is expanding the general public’s understanding of the war beyond the battlefield, but even here I would suggest that he misses the mark.  Here in Virginia I’ve traveled to numerous historical institutions for exhibits and lectures over the past ten years that focus on issues of race and gender.  You can even find it at the Museum of the Confederacy. [“Before Freedom Came” takes us all the way back to 1992.]  No doubt, public historians have struggled with the question of how to attract African Americans to Civil War related events, but there is no magic bullet here.  All you can do is continue to work to present the general public with projects that reflect solid scholarship and a commitment to inclusiveness.

The extent and scope of our national Civil War commemoration will reflect local urges to take steps to organize.  No doubt, we will see much more of it in certain places around the country, but we should keep in mind that it does not have to be all or nothing.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“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

Purchase your copy today!

19 comments… add one
  • Alex Sep 7, 2010 @ 10:13

    Maybe you don’t agree with Guelzo’s skepticism because you’re on the East Coast, where Civil War history is well and alive. But we need commissions like these out here in the West, especially in California.

  • EarthTone Sep 4, 2010 @ 9:08

    It’s mentioned above that there has been a lack of African American interest in this 150th anniversary of the Civil War. I am hopeful that for the Sesquicentennial, we will see (a) a consensual acknowledgement that the lack of AA interest in the Civil War is a problem; (b) an identification and discussion of the causes of the problem; and most important, (c) the taking of concrete short- and long-term steps to address the problem.

    In considering this topic, I have become aware that there may be as many memorials commemorating Colored Troops in the South (perhaps 3-5) as there memorials to loyal slaves. I’ve seen several historians who’ve noted that there is a problem with public memory when it comes to issues such as race and African American participation and experience during the war and after. Will anything permanent come out of the Sesquicentennial that will address this in any way? If so, that would be a great legacy for the Sesquicentennial commemoration to leave behind. But maybe that’s too much to ask or expect.

  • Allen C. Guelzo Sep 2, 2010 @ 5:53

    Since I seem to have started this thing, let me say first of all that I am not a skeptic about the Sesquicentennial, but I do see a great deal which I think merits a warning. That is what the op-ed was about: an alarm bell. Kevin believes that “what Guelzo misses entirely is the number of museums along with state and local historical societies, which will organize events, teaching materials, and other resources for their local communities.” That, I think, is precisely the problem: there really are not that many of them, and certainly not on a par with the 1961-1965 Centennial. Sitting on the NEH Council, I can tell you that very little has been proposed by applicants for funding by the NEH concerning the Sesquicentennial, and that’s usually a pretty good bellwether about levels of public interest. IAnd yes, Kevin, is right to see that my “concern about the number of state commissions is more about how it reflects on Americans’ overall attitude to its collective past.” Nor do I think that this is simply the result of an informational paradigm shift, ie. that commemorations are going to take place in Web-based formats, so we shouldn’t worry if “bricks-and-mortar” commemorations are diminishing. I appreciate Ken Noe’s hopefulness about digital commemoration, but I am anxious that the InterNet is about information retrieval, not learning; my experience has been that it actually crowds out the acquisition of knowledge. I am confident that the NPS is going to pitch in well for the Sesquicentennial, and especially at Gettysburg with Bob Kirby, Scott Hartwig, Greg Goodell, John Heiser, Troy Harman et al, but a lot of what they will do will depend on funding levels, which in turn brings us back to the apathy towards Civil War subjects which seems to operate at the highest levels. The gentleman who dismisses me as an “elitist” has, of course, never met me; but perhaps this is only an indication of how easily the InterNet debases discussion into trash-talk. But if he would like to see what I mean by the public’s taste for horror-movie history formats, he has only to come to Gettysburg, where he will find eleven “ghost tour” outfits in full cry on the streets of the boro. I am glad for Rob Haley’s response, however — that’s the kind of commitment that will turn this situation around.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 2, 2010 @ 6:23

      Professor Guelzo,

      Glad to see that you’ve found your way to Civil War Memory and thanks for following up with this comment. Unfortunately, the “trash-talk” usually comes from those readers who have nothing useful to say, but feel a need to be seen. That’s part of the reality of the online world.

      I’m somewhat surprised to see a reference to the Centennial as a flowering of local exhibits and educational materials. Robert Cook doesn’t spend much time on this in _Troubled Commemoration_ and in our own sesquicentennial meetings here in Virginia, Bud Robertson has continued to express regret over how little was done to further education in the 1960s by the commissions and museums. As for the role of the Internet let me say that I don’t see such a clear distinction between information retrieval and learning. Museums are well into the process of exploring the possibilities of virtual exhibits, which can offer a level of interaction that moves beyond the need for a personal visit. That said, I understand your concern. I’ve seen over and over how little people understand when it comes to evaluating online sources. It’s one of the most important things that we as history instructors should be teaching.

      Finally, it is almost impossible to imagine the federal government being able to steer clear of politics and the inevitable cultural clashes that would accompany the formation of a federal commission. I don’t see the lace of such a commission as a loss.

      • Allen C. Guelzo Sep 2, 2010 @ 6:45

        I’m drawing a distinction between retreival and learning along lines parallel to the kid in our classes who knows what the battle of Gettysburg was, and the kid who knows that he can look it up in the World Book. The first has taken the trouble to acquire knowledge about it; the second merely knows that he can find it if he wants to. Mark Bauerlein surveyed the reports of seven major evaluations of “e-literacy’ in the US and the UK, and found that despite the predictions for a new kind of literacy emerging from the on-line “millenial” generation between 2002 and 2007, not a single one showed any improvement in reading or comprehension. And this, despite a $14 million dollar investment by the Texas Education Agency in wireless technology or a $275 million program in Broward county to provide laptops for 260,000 students. I don’t object to digitizing Civil War resources — heaven knows, I use them myself — but I think it would be a mistake to seize on a digitized Sesquicentennial as an equivalent.

        That much said, I think you’re entirely right that a major obstacle toward a worthwhile Sesquicentennial is precisely the fear of controversy and the lack of dollars. It may be that the only way around both is to focus on the local — ask not what your country can do for you, but what your local county historical society, school district, and board of supervisors has done for you lately.

        • Kevin Levin Sep 2, 2010 @ 7:08

          I am not surprised at all by the results of that survey. Somehow we’ve been seduced into thinking that our students understand how to use and evaluate the Internet. I fear that many of our secondary school teachers themselves have not learned how to properly utilize the Internet in their classrooms as well as how to evaluate digital sources. Like I said in my last comment, I devote a great deal of time to this in my classes and preach it in public whenever I have the opportunity. I am seeing this in my own school where we’ve drastically reduced the amount of printed sources for databases. On the one hand I couldn’t be happier about this because it broaden the kinds of sources that students can work with, but teachers need to be able to teach students how to access the information.

          Your point about a digitized Sesquicentennial is well taken and I am certainly not pushing for such an approach.

    • Ken Noe Sep 2, 2010 @ 7:08

      Professor Guelzo:

      Thanks from me too for joining the conversation. I wouldn’t say that I’m entirely hopeful about digital commemoration. There are days when trash-talk, anonymous drive-by postings, and righteous misinformation lead me first to despair, and then to the X in the upper right corner. As president of a state historical association, I helped draft a print and speaker-based sesquicentennial plan that included no digital component. But looking back, I think that was an oversight. Whether I like it or not, we have entered this digital age, and I think the Sesquicentennial surely is beginning to reflect that. And frankly, in the end I don’t know if the result will be any worse that the sort of lukewarm, 1960s, “let’s please the loudest constituent groups” genuflecting that I’ve seen–and backed away from–in more traditional commemorative venues. I do remain quite hopeful about the future of Civil War studies.


  • Rob Haley Sep 1, 2010 @ 16:07

    I’ve just (today, on my lunch break) read an essay about the problematic CW Centennial by Jon Wiener in The Civil War in American Culture, edited by Alice Fahs and Joan Waugh. Wiener argues that Kennedy totally shied away from ANY official response to the conflict between the emancipationist and white supremacist themes in the ongoing Centennial commemorations because he needed the Dixiecrats to support his policies on Cuba and Vietnam. His take on this inaction is that it supported the Lost Cause/Dixiecrat interpretation.

    As Alan Guelzo writes:

    The Civil War Centennial had the misfortune to occur at the apex of the Civil Rights Movement, and by trying to limit its gaze to what it supposed would be “safe” subjects – battle re-enactments, the reconciliation of North and South – the Centennial Commission communicated instead a serene indifference to the racial tensions which were rising all around the nation. The Centennial effectively convinced black Americans that the Civil War was not “their” story, and fostered a sense of what one commentator called “emotional alienation” from Civil War history. That alienation, in turn, convinced many cautious white Americans that the Civil War was either a sleeping dog which would be best left to lie, or that it was going to have to be dramatically re-written to downplay the battle-and-reunion script.

    If the Sesquicentennial comes ANY closer that the Centennial to acknowledging that race and slavery are at the core of any Civil War commemoration, then the various local and national initiatives can claim a modest success.

    I agree with you, Kevin. It’s WAY too early to be cynical about the Sesquicentennial. AND, thanks to you and Alan Guelzo’s op-ed, I just kicked in some $$ to http://www.pacivilwar150.com. My Mississippi and Louisiana ancestors are at present saying WTF? in their graves.

  • Ken Noe Sep 1, 2010 @ 8:32

    Sales of Civil War related books are slipping, and my local bookstore has reduced what it cares by a full unit. Pete knows the NPS better than me, but attendance at parks not named Gettysburg is apparently down. Round Tables and the re-enacting community are aging rapidly. And so people in the Civil War community quietly worry that the end is near. Many clearly hoped that a big national Sesquicentennial, along the lines of the 1960s Centennial only better and more inclusive, would reverse the course and reinvigorate the field just as we saw in the 1960s. Now that doesn’t seem to be happening. Certainly the Lincoln bicentennial passed quietly, even as even as events such as the Virginia Confederate proclamation flap frightened many into a “why even bother” stance. There might be a casino at Gettysburg. Thus, we now see on the eve of the Sesquicentennial a lot of preemptive hand-wringing about what is already assumed to be a failure that went to hell in a hand-basket, and a nascent blame game for that failure to boot.

    I think all of this this is woefully premature. Interest in the war has always ebbed and flowed. Quietly, local groups and historical societies already are planning their own observances; I’ve agreed in just the last few weeks to take part in three unrelated, locally based Sesquicentennial events. Pete was at the SCWH dinner with me last June, and saw just as I did the legions of new, young faces that are arriving on the scene. Even if we think it’s so, we’re not part of a dying breed that needs a big, national PR boost to survive. What we need to accept is that the Sesquicentennial, and interest in the war in general, is just going to look different in the future. Like everything else in the digital age it’s going to be be less based in print, less bureaucratic, more balkanized and polarized, more grass-roots based, and lacking in a top-down, synthesized meta-narrative. I’m frankly old enough to wonder if that’s good or bad–I’m a child of the Centennial and I know what I like–but that’s the Sesquicentennial that is already more or less happening, right under our noses, in classrooms, communities, museums, and on websites like this one.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 1, 2010 @ 8:56

      Good points, Ken. As a high school history teacher one way I will measure success is in the amount and quality of classroom resources. This is a great example of the shift to what you describe as a grass-roots based approach. Actually, this view of things should give all of us plenty of reason to be optimistic about the next few years.

    • Vince Sep 1, 2010 @ 9:50

      Something else to note is how the Civil War has faced increased competition in the market for history enthusiasts’ attention over the past fifteen years. I’d guess that Founding Fathers restorationism has always been cyclical in some circles, but it seems many factors have come together to allow World War I and World War II interest to explode. Being occasionally in touch with circles of some of the more dedicated young Civil War reenactors, I think more than half have WWII kits and many have WWI kits as well. And, as I think I’ve said before, the generation who started reenacting in the late 1980s and early 1990s has yet to retire, and that restricts the Civil War’s appeal to younger generations, to put it kindly.

      Going along with your points, Prof. Noe, is a personal (and probably overly optimistic) hope of mine that easier access to historical sources will help refresh and reinvigorate historical interpretation at the local level. In particular, public domain books and full-text searchable newspapers (e.g., PA Civil War Newspapers Project) allow us now to effortlessly rediscover long-forgotten historical episodes rather than retelling those handed down from the Centennial. In doing so, I think the important questions of “new” military history will more naturally rise to the surface. At least that’s what I saw in a small exhibit on local manifestations of Civil War memory I was lucky to curate as a summer intern at my local historical society a couple years back.

  • Dick Stanley Sep 1, 2010 @ 7:39

    His remark about “the general public” is elitist. It does not require acquaintence to pick that out.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 1, 2010 @ 8:26

      That it may be inaccurate does not necessarily make it elitist.

  • Dick Stanley Sep 1, 2010 @ 7:02

    He’s an elitist who thinks everyone’s stupid except him and his peers. Hard to say what will happen on the various commemorative dates, except that the news media is likely to be using one phrase over and over to describe the crowds (if any), i.e. “overwhelmingly white.”

    • Kevin Levin Sep 1, 2010 @ 7:16


      Allen Guelzo is no elitist. Rather than use this space to criticize someone that you know nothing about why not try to contribute to the discussion?

  • Pete Carmichael Sep 1, 2010 @ 6:31

    The incessant self-evaluation of commemorative activities leaves me confused as to what constitutes the standard of success. How does one quantify popular enthusiasm, interest, or intellectual engagement? I hope we don’t rely upon sheer numbers of visitors to determine whether our conferences and museums are resonating with the American people (or God help us all if we rely on book sales). So Kevin I am curious as to what you would see as a baseline of success in order to declare the Civil War 150th a commemorative triumph? In trying to answer this question, I think you will agree that the line of inquiry that Allen raises needs to be abandoned entirely. The bar of success is set too high, especially by academics, who I would agree with Allen are quick to judge when they are far removed from the point of engagement between public historians and general audiences. At the Southern last year I heard panelists at a session on Civil War Memory condemn the recent commemorative activities for John Brown’s raid, even though they admitted that they really didn’t know what the NPS had planned, but assumed that it wouldn’t be any different from what occurred during the Centennial. The panelists could not have been more wrong. The commemorative activities at H. Ferry dealt with some very difficult and controversial matters and in no way did the NPS events resemble the 1960s nationalist love fest. I would like to suggest that we all take a collective deep breath and appreciate the impressive and engaging events that are being planned by a variety of groups at the state and local level—-which I believe is what you are suggesting Kevin in your response to Allen.

    I think Allen is right about the challenge of trying to synthesize the old military story with the new story of race and gender to a general audience. Despite the challenges, public historians are jumping into the breach and getting people to think broadly about issues that have been traditionally consigned to the classroom. I do worry that we are repeating the mistakes of the Centennial in one critical area. While we are more sensitive in confronting issues related to the coming of the war, slavery, and emancipation than the guiding lights of the Centennial, I suspect that we are missing a chance to use the Civil War as a way to press Americans to think deeply about what it means to be a nation at war today. I would like to see more commemorative activities explore issues like post-traumatic stress syndrome, the environmental impact of war, how Americans over the course of history have drawn from the bone-deep belief that we find our true selves in war, etc. I am somewhat shocked that we have not used the 150th to confront contemporary issues related to our two front war (or is it now a one front war after Obama’s address last night), but we are quick to condemn the historians of 1960s for failing to create a “usable past’ when it came to the Civil Rights Movement.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 1, 2010 @ 8:37

      Hi Pete,

      Thanks so much for the comment. I don’t know if there is a way to even outline what it might mean for the commemorations to be counted as successful until after the fact. Certainly, it will be much more difficult to engage in any kind of generalization given the ease with which various constituent groups will be able to assess for themselves. On an individual level we are likely to see a much wider spectrum in terms of assessment. I think Allen is right as well re: the need to synthesize the old military history with more recent narrative threads of race and gender, but I wonder at this point what more can be done. Part of the challenge here is finding the right entry point when it comes specifically to race. Look what happened in response to Gov. McDonnell’s proclamation back in April. Yes, there was some discussion about the appropriateness of the proclamation itself, but in the end it was drowned out by a mainstream media that thrives on controversy and sensationalism.

      You make an excellent point at the end, but what percentage of Americans feel as if they have been living in a nation at war for the past decade? After all, we were told by Bush to go shopping as a way to participate. The other point is that we’ve tended not to look at the hard issues related to the Civil War even when it comes to battles and campaigns. Your reference to post-traumatic stress syndrome is instructive here. We are much more comfortable remembering the war through a lens of glory, honor, and sacrifice. Of course, those concepts are important to grasp as part of the Victorian era, but we tend to use them for our own edification.

  • MississippiLawyer Sep 1, 2010 @ 6:04

    This guy is just wrong. Ken Burns’ Civil War was the most watched program of all time on PBS and it was hardly a horror-movie. I’m not even sure what he is talking about when he talks about the public only caring about history in a horror-movie format.

    Some of the more popular historical films of the past decade
    – Gladiator
    – Gangs of New York (sidebar: weird that they went to such amazing effort to portray the clothing and mannerisms of the time and were largely successful, yet when the Union soldiers appear at the end to put down the riot, they are walking around and wearing their gear like they are out ‘humping the ‘Nam’, not soldiers fresh from Gettysburg.
    – Cold Mountain
    – Master and Commander
    – Kingdom of Heaven
    – Letters from Iwo Jima
    – The Pianist

    Maybe he is referring to 300 or something…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Next post:

Previous post: