Why Is There So Little Interest In the Civil War in the South?

There are two Civil War Sesquicentennial memes that get bandied about without any reflection at all.  The first suggests that white Southerners are still fighting the Civil War or that they are holding onto a traditional narrative that is being threatened by various external forces.   Even a cursory glance at recent commemorative events in South Carolina suggests that the story is much more complex.  The second also plays up supposed strict regional differences that assumes a closer, more emotional need to remember the Civil War in the South than the North.

Consider the following brief post at Freakonomics by Matthew Philips in which he asks the following:

In the South, the Civil War is still big business, which got me thinking: why are the ones who lost the war trying the hardest to remember it? The Civil War devastated the South, and plunged much of the region into a century of poverty and economic stagnation, the effects of which are still apparent in many areas. The South’s relationship with the “Lost Cause” is obviously complicated, but where else in history do we see the losers commemorating a war while the winners, by comparison, largely ignore its anniversary?

Historian Peter Coclanis offers a few unsatisfactory remarks to help answer the question, but the real problem with this inquiry is that it is not at all clear as to whether we are even asking the right question.  Is it even true that Northerners lag behind their fellow Americans in commemorating the Civil War?  How should we go about measuring this relative interest?

Part of the problem is that the state of Virginia is often referred to as representing the continued interest of the entire South.  As we all know Virginia was the first state to organize a commission and is far out in front both in terms of the funds appropriated by the state as well as the range of activities that have been organized.  North Carolina’s commission is also active.  While South Carolina has received a great deal of attention over the past few months it is not at all clear whether their level of activity will continue past the commemorations of secession and the bombardment of Fort Sumter.  I hasten to add that the Southern states number more than three, but we have not heard much of anything from any of them?  It seems to me that one could just as easily right a story asking why there is so little interest in the war in the South.

But what about those damn Yankees?  We could start by looking at my future home of Boston.  While the state has been slow to sponsor a commission and it refuses to appropriate funds for events there is a wide range of activity related to the war that can be found in local institutions.  Here is a short list:

This doesn’t even scratch the surface of what is going on in the Boston area, but my point here is not to get into a numbers game; rather, I simply want to point out that there is a great deal going on above the Mason-Dixon Line if you just take the time to look.  Most of the Northern states have organized sesquicentennial commissions and some of them are very active.  Consider Pennsylvania, Illinois, New York, and Indiana for starters.

Of course, most of the activity, regardless of region, is taking place on the local level.  Those pockets of activity are being organized by folks who are passionate enough to take the time to organize events and fund raise. I suspect that it has nothing to do with regional identification.


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28 comments… add one
  • Charles Lovejoy Jun 12, 2011 @ 14:59

    Growing up in the Jonesboro Ga area most people I know just got tired of hearing about it. I’m about the only person in my circle I know that has an interest in it. Growing up in the 60’s in Metro-Atlanta the Civil War centennial was over shadowed by , the Cuban Missile crisis , the space race , an expanding airport and the aerospace industry, The Braves , the Falcons, the Vietnam war , the Kennedy assassination and numerous things of that nature. The Civil War with most in Georgia is old news.

  • Dudley Bokoski Jun 9, 2011 @ 17:14

    The South at the Centennial is not the South at 150 years on. People are highly mobile and the South is populated by a diverse mix of people with deep roots and more recent arrivals from the North. In combination with the effects of mass media we are now, North and South, part of a national culture as opposed to a collection of regional ones. From that standpoint, interest in the War is naturally much less part of the narrative of people’s lives.

    Pop culture no doubt is a factor. Where would the war fit into a young person’s attention? Somewhere after PS3’s, Twitter, IPads, iCarly, Lady Gaga, and vampire movies, probably much later.

    Finally, because the war and race are so intertwined, expressing interest in the events of the war might be considered poor form, much more an issue in the South than in the North. And educators and the educational establishment seem to have problems knowing exactly what to say about the war, or even how much emphasis to place on it. There are competing historical narratives today that weren’t around 50 years ago. History books only have so many pages, and room has been made for many more stories.

    As Seinfeld would say, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

  • Sherrin Jun 9, 2011 @ 9:57

    Kevin, I’m a first time reader of your blog – I’m definitely coming back! I’ll put in my two cents on this subject. And this is probably not widespread, but…I’m a southerner born and bred and I’m fascinated with history, including the Civil War. However, I feel that as a southerner, to be interested in the Civil War could be construed as being a supporter of slavery…that somehow to express TOO much interest would make me look like a racist. I’ve talked to others here and there who feel the same way…maybe that’s just the too-PC era we live in? On all my visits to Civil War sites in the south, there are very few African Americans touring. Not sure if I’m expressing this properly, but any thoughts on this viewpoint?

    • Kevin Levin Jun 9, 2011 @ 11:41

      Hi Sherrin,

      Nice to have you on board and thanks for the comment. I am sorry to hear about your experience. I’ve lived in Virginia for 10 years and I have not experienced any problems expressing an interest in the history of the Civil War nor have I heard of this from any of my friends. You may be interested in the following post: http://cwmemory.com/2011/03/20/but-will-they-come-to-the-battlefields/

  • Rob in CT Jun 9, 2011 @ 8:46

    Oh, and, um… typo? Why is there so little interest in the Civil War in the… NORTH, right?

  • Rob in CT Jun 9, 2011 @ 8:43

    Well, I grew up in Connecticut and I’ve always loved the Civil War. The things I believe about its causes and consequences have changed some as I’ve aged (I’m much more interested in the root causes of the war now, and less interested in the battles), but my interest has always been there. It’s really the only part of US history that I find all that compelling. I majored in History, but I tended to like ancient (Greece, Persia, China, Rome) and medieval (Europe, China again, Maya, Aztec, Inca) more than early modern. The big exception was and is the US Civil War.

  • Billy Bearden Jun 9, 2011 @ 5:44

    Glad to see the Confederate Battleflag was proudly marched down the middle of Boston recently.
    I initially thought that Kevin had finally come to his good senses, but it wasn’t him. Maybe next year?

    • Kevin Levin Jun 9, 2011 @ 6:02

      You will be happy to know that I will be sharing my research into Confederate history with a number of Civil War Roundtables in the Boston area. 🙂

      • TF Smith Jun 9, 2011 @ 6:57

        In the land of Native Sons of the Golden West (TM – the requirements are not especially daunting; basically, be born here), I’ll say that the focus on the sesquicentennial in California is very local, and largely by non-profits, but there is more discussion than one would expect. There have been some good conferences (academic and CWRT type) and Memorial Day helped at least some people focus on why the holiday exists (no, it is not the official kick-off for summer).


        • Kevin Levin Jun 9, 2011 @ 6:59

          We so easily forget the number of Civil War veterans on both sides who migrated west after the war. It’s not surprising that there is an interest in the war out there and I would venture to guess that it rivals sections of the South.

          • Raffi Jun 9, 2011 @ 8:13

            Indeed, Kevin. When I was first in Santa Fe, I saw a monument right in the center of the 400+ year old city plaza established by the Spanish. Upon closer look, I was stunned to find out it was a GAR monument! And, as it turns out, it is one of the oldest in the country, put up in 1866. New Mexico did not even become a state until 1912, though of course it was an American territory during the Civil War, and the site of a few battles, as well as the First New Mexico Volunteers.

            As you say, the war certainly has a lot of presence out West as well.

          • Will Stoutamire Jun 9, 2011 @ 9:42

            There is definitely an interest out West. I spoke at the annual meeting of the Arizona SUVCW just a couple weeks ago, about my work/article on Civil War memory in AZ. There are at least ten memorials in this state, the earliest erected in Tombstone in 1887 (GAR). There are even a couple annual reenactments that draw sizable crowds.

            I don’t know about rivaling the South, in truth, but some certainly wished it did. One of my favorite quotes comes from Lewis Hall, co-chair of the AZ Centennial Commission and leader of the AZ SCV in the 1960s, who adamantly lobbied for the state to have more commemorative events than Virginia!

            In other news… a dissertation on Civil War memory in the West was once in my sights. That has since passed, for other reasons, but I hope to return to the topic for a book at some point. It is certainly a forgotten tale in the scholarship on this topic.

          • TF Smith Jun 10, 2011 @ 12:46

            I don’t think the Pacific Coast comes close to rivalling the Southeast and “Old” Southwest/Gulf states, but the story of the Civil War on the West Coast (“All Quiet on the Pacific Slope”) and the Rockies is actually pretty fascinating; Wright, Alvord, Carleton, and Connor did more with less than, I think, any other senior US commanders in the conflict, bar none.

            Rosecrans retired in California, and Wright and Canby both died in harness; McDowell retired from the Pacific Department, IIRC; Schofield used his postwar service to begin the Pacific Century…and the GAR was a factor in Republican Party politics on the Pacific Slope and the Rockies for a LONG time.


            • Kevin Levin Jun 10, 2011 @ 13:40

              That point was just a way of suggesting that it is probably a mistake to generalize about the South in terms of its eagerness to commemorate the Civil War.

  • Raffi Jun 8, 2011 @ 18:38


    I think you have a good point here. More broadly, I’m with Ed Ayers et al in this, in that the distinctions between the regions, even in the antebellum era, can be over-stated, especially in the image of starkly contrasting monolithic North and monolithic South. This is particularly on my mind now, as I sit in southeastern Louisiana, which has nothing “South” about it, but rather is one of the most unique places I have ever set foot in.

  • Paul Taylor Jun 8, 2011 @ 17:16

    Kevin – As to the second meme that says the South has a closer, more emotional need to remember the Civil War than in the North, my favorite explanation for that has always been the Shelby Foote bit in the Ken Burns documentary where he addresses this very issue. He tries to explain it by saying that as a young man growing up in rough parts of the South, he was involved in many fistfights. Though he supposedly won most of them, the ones he remembered best as an older man were the handful he lost. Though folksy and homespun, I think there’s something there.

  • Marianne Davis Jun 8, 2011 @ 15:38

    Is it heresy to suggest that we might be better off with a bit less attention to the Civil War? The sesquicentennial is giving more people opportunity to declaim on a subject they may not have mastered. Teachers in Jefferson County, WV will be given staff development credit for attending any part of a workshop in Shepherdstown on the 20th. They describe the keynote speaker as a Civil War historian, and I have no doubt of his interest in the subject, having heard him speak before. But his County Historical Society bio says that “as the great grandson of a Confederate soldier, his real passion is the War for Southern Independence.” No kidding. The George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War is two blocks away, but teachers get credit for sucking up some Lost Cause? Thank God they will have other speakers, if they stay long enough to hear them.

    • Raffi Jun 8, 2011 @ 18:36

      Ms. Davis,

      While I think you make a good point, in my opinion, perhaps the solution isn’t “a bit less attention to the Civil War,” but rather focusing more on giving quality attention to the Civil War. I am suggesting that the problem isn’t the quantity of the attention the Civil War gets (which I would argue is not enough), but the problem you point out has to do with the quality of the attention it gets.

      Decreasing the amount of attention the Civil War gets is only going to perpetuate the misconceptions of the Civil War, because there will be even less public discourse on the subject, and thus even less avenues of education. Thus, I fear, less attention means a forgotten war, and thus a very trouble memory — because people can invent what they believe they want to remember/project about the war.

      • Marianne Davis Jun 9, 2011 @ 5:30

        You are right, of course, I was too snide to make my point properly. For me, though, this commemoration has become more an opportunity for re-enactments and cultural nostalgia than for scholarly discussion, or even elementary education. The fact that West Virginia has handed out cash for such celebrations of “The War for Southern Succession” is chilling. This was the state’s opportunity to present a factually-supported history of its important role in the war and its resolution, and they bobbled the ball badly.

  • Rob Jun 8, 2011 @ 11:18

    I think a lot of what is going on in the south now is at the local level much like the societies you pointed out in the North. Also, economic times are harder than the last celebrated revival of the Civil War in the 1960’s which is hurting smaller towns that would normally host such celebrations. There is however, much activity going on regardless. It seems every weekend I see an updated photo or facebook message about the most recent living history/event.

  • Katherine Gotthardt Jun 8, 2011 @ 9:58

    Larry, I grew up in MA and experienced similar to what you describe–the emphasis is on the Revolution, especially in the Boston/Lexington/Concord areas. As a child, I went to numerous reenactions that stick out in my mind.

    I moved to the Manassas, VA, area in 1999 and didn’t feel much about the Civil War except that I knew I hated slavery and felt bad for the poor people left in the South post-war. When I discovered the local battlefields and museums, I discovered how ignorant I was. I spent a few years wandering around and learning, trying to discern what the people were really feeling at the time. Eventually, I put out my book of poetry.

    I can’t speak for all Northern transplants or native Southerners, but I can tell you, our family frequents the battlefields for both their natural beauty and their history. And of course, yes…we bring our out-of-state family and friends there.

  • Karl Kersey Jun 8, 2011 @ 9:48

    Here are some of things going on in TN. We had the Sesquicentennial kick off last November on the mall near the capitol with demonstrations for the public, 2 days of lectures and discussions, and tours of the State Museum.

    Tennessee Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission:

    The TN Civil War Preservation Association recently held their summit to map and evaluate all the Civil War sites in TN. http://www.tcwpa.org/

    Also, now online is a new GIS tool for TN:

    I also recently participated in a new film for the Shiloh Visitor’s Center and one is in the works for Chickamauga.

    Thanks for your efforts,
    Karl Kersey

    • Kevin Levin Jun 8, 2011 @ 10:01

      Thanks for the update, Karl.

  • Michael Aubrecht Jun 8, 2011 @ 9:40


    I would like to propose the notion that more Northerners aggressively seek out opportunities to acknowledge the Civil War in the South than many southerners who live here. Here’s my logic: I think people tend to forget the most rudimentary difference between the North and South having a more significant historic draw…there were very few battles fought on northern soil. On the other hand, battlefields saturate the South. People therefore have to travel from the North to the South to visit them. And they do. I rarely give tours to southerners.

    Why? Southerners are already here. Even a casual observer living in the Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania area is acutely aware of the history as they drive past 40+ roadside markers and battlefield signs while traveling to and from work every day. YET…That does not mean that they have any real interest. In fact, I would bet that there are more residents who live here that don’t care about the Civil War than those that do. (I’m basing that strictly on my own relationships with people here and the fact that I hike our four battlefields all the time and they are rarely what I would call “crowded.”)

    Also, many area residents (like myself) are transplants. I have found that those who were raised here, especially with family ties that go back for a few generations, are more likely to be Civil War enthusiasts or preservationists. Most of the transplants are more concerned the current state of the town, not its past. They want Fredericksburg to remain a tourist draw, but they probably don’t contribute directly by visiting the local museums and battlefield sites more than a couple times when they first move there.

    Here is what usually happens to most “non-history” people… They move here. They go see the historic sites as they familiarize themselves with their new surroundings. Their family and friends visit shortly thereafter. What do they do to entertain and show the uniqueness of their new town?… They take their guests out to see the historic sites…once. Then they don’t go back themselves for years – if ever.

    I think our friend John H. can comment more accurately on the National Park’s tourist and event attendance numbers, but I liken living in battlefield country to living at the beach. People who live near the beach see it every day. It was there before they came. It will be there after they leave. Therefore beach residents take it for granted when compared to those who vacation there for one week a year.

    How many people think they would go to Disneyworld every weekend if they lived in Orlando? I would guess many. How many actually do? Probably few. The same can be said for our Civil War Battlefields.

  • Larry Cebula Jun 8, 2011 @ 6:27

    I grew up in Connecticut and was always interested in history but the Civil War was never a part of my historical consciousness. The Revolutionary War, heck yeah, and all things Ye Olde Colonial, and 19th-century mills, and Indian sites are all much admired, but we did not think about the Civil War. I believe this is typical of New Englanders. I have no idea why it is so.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 8, 2011 @ 6:55

      Hi Larry,

      Thanks for the comment. In measuring the public’s interest in the sesquicentennial I think we too easily slide back into these broad claims about historical consciousness. On the one hand I don’t have any reason not to agree with you, but I don’t see how it helps us. We probably would agree that aspects of the Lost Cause became deeply engrained in the American South, but that doesn’t seem to have translated into any more interest in commemorating the sesquicentennial than what you will find in the North. Perhaps that emotional nerve that was so easily tapped not so long ago is no longer such an important catalyst. Just a thought.

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