The Ghost of Karl Betts

Update: In it’s first decision since the resignation of half of its committee members, the West Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission denied a funding request from The Guyandotte Civil War Days festival committee. It turns out that the committee invited H.K. Edgerton to give the keynote address. Clearly, the WV commission made the right decision.

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.

As far as I know, the West Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission is the first case of a sharp divide between those who want to entertain as opposed to educate.  This report is based largely on an interview done with Professor Mark Snell, who is the vice chairman of the commission.  [I should note that I am good friends with Professor Snell and I trust his judgment.]

“The whole purpose of the commission was basically to educate, to organize events to educate the public about the founding of West Virginia, the causes of the war, and the conduct of the war,” Snell said.  Instead, he said, state officials on the commission — primarily Education and Arts Secretary Kay Goodwin, who serves as the commission’s chairwoman, and Culture and History Commissioner Randall Reid-Smith — turned it into a grant-awarding agency to fund re-enactments, parades and other Civil War-themed festivals around the state.  As a historian, Snell said he believes it’s wrong to turn the 150th anniversary of America’s bloodiest war – a war that killed more than 600,000 Americans – into a celebration.

Snell, director of Shepherd’s George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War, said he envisioned the commission sponsoring at least one major educational event each year, leading up to the state’s sesquicentennial, or 150th anniversary, in 2013. The events would have started with a symposium this summer, at Davis and Elkins College.  However, he said, that concept was shot down.  “Commissioner Reid-Smith was fighting that tooth and nail,” Snell said. “He thought we shouldn’t be doing academic stuff. We should be having pageants, fairs and parades.”  Snell said the issue came to a head over a vote on whether to award a grant for a Civil War battle re-enactment. It came down to a tie vote, with Goodwin breaking the tie and voting to award the grant.

The question of whether it is appropriate to fund battle reenactments is a good one and I don’t mean to suggest that a case cannot be made for such events.  That said, I’ve been consistent in pushing for the available funds to be used for more substantial and long-term projects.  It goes without saying that $100,000 is not a significant amount of money and in a state that has budget concerns it is reasonable to suggest that it be used to benefit more than those people who have the ability to attend a brief reenactment or parade.  The Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission has shown that it is possible to put together educational and entertaining events [click on “Programs” tab] that will continue to impact the collective understanding of the general public long after the end of the sesquicentennial.

From what I can tell it looks like there were some good people on the WV committee.  It’s unfortunate that a key player in the history of the Civil War will be unlikely to make an impact over the next few years.

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7 comments… add one
  • Ginger Mar 5, 2012 @ 10:10

    I was just wondering if these were worth anything , stamps, Fort Sumter,Appomatiox, Gettysburg, Shiloh, and The Wilderness, all are on a certificate dated April 9th 1965. They are all Civil War Centennial.

  • TF Smith May 24, 2011 @ 19:06

    I think Dr. Snell made the right decision; one question I had is the “war that killed more than 600,000 Americans” comment.

    What is the consensus on this? Were the combatants on both sides of the Civil War all “Americans”? Really?

    • Kevin Levin May 25, 2011 @ 2:02

      I believe that is the standard interpretation of the numbers.

      • TF Smith May 25, 2011 @ 8:34

        Good case study of reconciliation overtaking memory in terms of intellectual honesty, certainly…I don’t think there was anywhere else in US history (the Loyalists after the Revolution, for example) where that sort of meme was generated, for example.

  • Ken Noe May 24, 2011 @ 10:15

    When people such as Mark Snell, Connie Rice, and Beth White–all long-time advocates for West Virginia’s history–resign from your Sesquicentennial commission, there’s a glaring problem that ought to be dealt with ASAP. I can’t help but add that the June edition of Civil War Times includes a three-page, glossy advertisement from the West Virginia tourism office, plus two additional ads placed elsewhere in the issue. Not only is the focus on battles, but the dominant image is a state map superimposed on a graying, grayclad, well-fed reenactor who may well first have gotten the bug thanks to Karl Betts. How much did that cost?

    • Kevin Levin May 24, 2011 @ 13:14

      I’ve had a close association with Mark for a few years now. The situation must have been pretty bad to force such a decision. Nice to hear from you, Ken. Hope all is well.

      • Margaret D. Blough May 24, 2011 @ 20:07

        Kevin-Thanks for the update. It’s good to know the Commission, post-resignation, has some standards and boundaries.

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