The Graying of the Civil War Centennial Generation

Central Ohio Civil War Round Table

One of my first posts all the way back in 2005 focused on what I saw as the inevitable decline of our Civil War round tables.  I suggested that without a resurgence of interest in the Civil War era that animated Americans in the early 1960s these groups would disappear one by one.  In light of the last two posts I stand by the claim that I made over six years ago.

On Saturday the Museum of the Confederacy hosted a day-long event that culminated in a “Person of the Year: 1862” that was decided by an overwhelmingly older audience.  That same day the Sons of Confederate Veterans were forced to relocate an event that had been scheduled at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church as part of their national rally.  These two stories have more in common than you might think.  Both organizations cater to a centennial generation.

I have no idea why church officials canceled the SCV’s event yesterday.  That said, it seems safe to assume that enough people within the church community found out about it and voiced their disapproval.  Whatever, the reason they didn’t want their church to host an SCV event and the reason for this must rest with the SCV itself, which has done everything in their power over the past few years to alienate reasonable people.  Take a look at any photograph from Saturday’s rally along Monument Avenue and what stands out is that hardly anyone showed up.  As far as I can tell the former capital of the Confederacy paid no notice of the SCV’s presence.  And those who were present overwhelmingly represented an older crowd.

Whether the SCV will be able to attract a new generation to their banner has yet to be seen, but I have my doubts.   Their preferred view of history flies in the face of the last 40 years of serious scholarship, but more importantly, their narrow view of what it means to remember a Confederate past will likely only continue to pull in folks who place themselves within a larger morality play that blurs the distinction between past and present.

The MOC’s challenge in the coming years is much more in line with that of other historical institutions that are focused on the Civil War era.  It would be a good idea to start out by acknowledging that the sesquicentennial is unlikely to produce the same level of interest in the Civil War that occurred in the early 1960s.  This should not be interpreted in any sense as some kind of surrender, but an acknowledgment that the conditions present at that earlier time were unique.  Let’s not delude ourselves in thinking that this earlier generation was hardwired or predisposed to be smitten with the past in a way that those who came after are not.

What the SCV, MOC and other institutions all have in common is a belief that the past matters.  Their members and patrons manifest a belief at one level or another that we are compelled to remember the past and place our own lives within a broader narrative.  And in doing so, we believe that our lives and those of our communities are greatly enriched.

The institutions that are most successful in attracting the post-centennial generation will be those that think out of the box.  It’s a formidable task given how much of our technology and values are geared to keeping us focused on the triviality of the present.  It won’t be by appealing to traditional cultural triggers or the same tired Civil War narratives.  We are going to need a new narrative for a generation born and raised under very different cultural, social, and political conditions.  Our expectations of a post-centennial audience will also need to be revised.  It is hard to imagine such an audience showing up on a Saturday to vote on a person of the year or marching down Monument Avenue in Confederate uniform.

No, it won’t be easy, but as we all know, it is worth the effort.

[Image Source]

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23 comments… add one
  • Edward Peese Oct 14, 2013 @ 14:50

    The entire emphasis of the original editorial is completely focused on the graying of the southern centennial generation and does not even acknowledge the fact that there were two sides that fought in the Civil War. I’m seeing more and more younger people being attracted to the more cosmopolitan Union perspective and submit that there is a “shadow” generation silently taking in the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and drawing their own conclusions. These are not the type of people to join hackneyed “round tables”. They are the type to look down at their smart phones and select an “app” that will connect them to a cloud of information on the Civil War where they will selectively learn about the alternative viewpoint. Case in point, I recently met a young woman who had the signature of Ulysses S. Grant tattooed on the inside of her left forearm. Strange, but she was indeed a diehard fan of the man who won the war for the Union. Don’t think I would do something like that, but its a different generation now. The upcoming generation’s values that don’t match up to the “Lost Cause” mythos. Grant, a man who had past problems with alcohol, who rose from obscurity to become the man who won the war for the Union, is far more appealing to younger people than old “Granny Lee, the near-perfect marble man of myth.

  • Edward H. Sebesta Mar 3, 2012 @ 6:29

    Civil War history in the high school history books is a tale of “A whole lot of fighting going on,” and obscures the reasons for the Civil War. The Civil War press primarily sells to reenactors who are interested in a flight from modernity. The Civil War community is permeated by those who either believe in the Lost Cause or those who give it a free pass.

    For the younger generation who would be interested in that?

    Also, look at the other demographic of the picture, race. The coming generations are multiracial and in a multipolar world with changing ideas of gender. The Civil War community is primarily about manly men fighting manly wars.

    The year is 2012 and as people might notice there isn’t a lot of interest in the Bicentennial of the War of 1812. The Bicentennial of the Civil War may be a big snoozer as well.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 3, 2012 @ 6:48

      Civil War history in the high school history books is a tale of “A whole lot of fighting going on,” and obscures the reasons for the Civil War. The Civil War press primarily sells to reenactors who are interested in a flight from modernity.

      This is simply not true. I spent plenty of time as a high school history teacher reviewing textbooks. While this may have been true even 25 years ago the most recent and most popular titles do a pretty good job of explaining the reasons for secession and war.

      • Edward H. Sebesta Mar 3, 2012 @ 10:29

        James Loewen’s book, “Lies My Teacher Taught Me,” documents how high school history books obscure the reasons for the Civil War. While preparing the “Confederate Reader” James Loewen conducted questions of his audience and agains discussed how the Civil War is taught in the schools.

        I purchased a stack of high school history books sometime around 2002 or 2003 and noticed the same thing that Loewen observed.

        Also, the new Texas teaching standard adopted by the Texas State Board of Education certainly obscure the cause of the Civil War.

        James Loewen in “Teaching What Really Happened,” Teachers College Press, Columbia University, again reviews the failure of high school text books.

        Loewen has also pointed that minority studies in particular dislike American history as it is taught because of its bias.

        • Kevin Levin Mar 3, 2012 @ 11:43

          Yes, I am familiar with Loewen’s book and I certainly agree that our nation’s textbooks can always be improved. At the same time it is important to acknowledge the substantive changes that have been made to many titles and not just in the area of the Civil War.

        • Ray O'Hara Mar 3, 2012 @ 15:52

          Loewen in many cases substitutes his own “lies”

          • Kevin Levin Mar 3, 2012 @ 16:03

            I think if you are going to make a claim like that you should at least provide some evidence.

            • Ray O'Hara Mar 3, 2012 @ 21:17

              Look at his list of sundown towns in Massachusetts.


              the criteria he uses applies to every town in Mass except the Urban centers.
              Read the entry on Dedham.
              method of exclusion, Blacks are being kept out, but he doesn’t know how. Dedham is no different than any of it’s neighboring towns in Norfolk county in Racial Make up. that being overwhelmingly white. Its a 95 % white town in a 99% White county. the money shot is this

              “Dedham’s 1930 and 1940 black population were moslty live-in domestic workers. In 1930, only one of the black residents was under the age of 15 (a boy under five), and in 1940, no black Dedhamites were under the age of 15. Teenage domestic servants were quite common in this era, so Dedham’s older black teenagers (those 15-19) were mostly likely domestic workers. “I grew up in a sundown town – Dedham, Massachusetts. What is extraordinary about Dedham is that it borders the Boston neighborhoods of Hyde Park and Readville, yet is virtually 100 percent white. As kids, we always heard that it was that way on purpose. My grandfather was a contractor there, he built a subdivision of about 300 homes [in the 1960s]. He remembered being approached just once by a black man interested in buying one of his houses but wondering whether it would be OK for him to do so. He said he told the man that he would sell to anyone who had the money to buy. The guy never came back… “I don’t live in Dedham anymore… A friend ran into a hardcore Dedhamite at a bar one night a couple of years back. He hadn’t seen the guy in years. And the first words out of the guy’s mouth were: ‘Dedham is a great town. Ten minutes from Boston and no niggers.’ So it continues.” -posted to the web, 2002″

              something found on the web , proof positive.
              but the reason he made that determination is the “next to Hyde Park and Readville.” which if Mr Loewen had actually ever looked at a census he would have found those Neighborhood were and still mostly are White, so being next to them proves exactly what.? It wasn’t that long ago,{20 years} you never saw a Black in those areas, or Roslindale, Blacks going shopping would take the bus through Rosi and HP to shop in Dedham , to get off the bus before reaching the Dedham Mall would get one beaten {Readville was the worst} . It has changed. But he just looked at some superficial statistics and an unsourced web anecdote,{Sounds like the grandson of Carrol Colwell} and made a determination Dedham was a sundown town.

              everything he claims for Dedham is also true for Newton, or Needham, Milton, and the towns on the norther edge of the city. the entire region is racially stratified.

              He also writes the ethnic make up as unknown. again a quick check of even a phone book would show that it has Italian and Irish as the main ethnicity. Readville is a very Italian Boston Neighborhood and that spills over into Dedham. His determination is completely arbitrary. As is it for every other Massachusetts town . he picked.
              Accusing some towns of being sundopwn towns because they are white when all the towns are equally white rather makes his work useless.
              Massachusetts is according to the latest cesus 6.6% African-American . Most are concentrated in a few urban enclaves. Boston,Springfield, Worcestor and New Bedford Fall River. that leaves precious few for anywhere else. If the towns chosen are somehow ‘sundown towns” then just label the entire state a sundown state. It’s as if he picked names from a hat. When one hasa first hand knowledge of something an author covers and can see that it is at best completely arbitrary it rather leams me to discount anything he might write on subjects I’m not as familiar with

              As for ‘Lies my teachers told me” I have a copy and read it long ago. I found most of his complaints humorous but with more strawmen than a Nebraska cornfield.

              • Kevin Levin Mar 4, 2012 @ 2:52

                I have issues with the methodology employed in Sundown Towns, but that doesn’t translate into “lies.”

  • Woodrowfan Feb 27, 2012 @ 8:15

    You see this in a lot of hobby groups as well. I’ve attended meeting of those who study WWI and they look like the photo you posted. I am also a member of a couple clubs for collectors and go to various collectable shows looking for objects to use in class and most of the people there regardless of the hobby are white males middle-aged and older. Part of it is availability of free time and/or disposable income. But part of it seems to be generational. The only meetings and conventions where you see a lot of young people seem to be related to comics/manga.

    • Seth Owen Feb 27, 2012 @ 13:48

      I think there’s also the factor of the simple eroding effect of time, itself. Another 50 years have passed since the Centennial with another half century of important historical events. As each generation ages and diminishes the concerns and issues that animated it also diminish.

      In just a couple of years, before we’ve even finished the marking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, we’ll be marking the Centennial of the Great War, another huge watershed in American and world history. While I don’t expect general interest in the WWI centennial to be anywhere near that of the Civil War centennial, that’s largely because the Civil war Centennial’s level of interest was unique. Just possibly the Centennial of World War II might approach it, although many of us may not be around to see it.

      Once the last veterans, the last living reminders of any notable event, pass on into the history books, it’s unreasonable to expect sustained interest to remain. Oh, sure, particularly noteworthy individuals can become nearly immortal — even people wholly ignorant of history have some idea who Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon or George Washington were. But only aficionados know much about Alexander’s, Caesar’s , Napoleon’s or even Washington’s campaigns and other accomplishments.

      I think there’s a healthy level of interest in the 150th anniversary — and it’s a much more mature and balanced interest than much of the hagiography we saw for the Centennial. For example, here in Norwich, Conn., they are planning a yearlong celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation, to include casting a memorial bell and a commemorative citywide bell-ringing on Jan. 1, 2013. (For more information see

  • Rob Baker Feb 27, 2012 @ 5:59

    You see it in reenacting as well Kevin. There are very few of the younger generation involved that do not have a connection already. By connection I mean a family member that is also reenacting. Most of the younger guys (teens to twenties) that I have recruited out of college either share a love of history already, or simply enjoy camping with explosives. This is totally outside of the parameter of the SCV. I think you bring up some good points with our association and fascination with the Civil War. I believe, paraphrasing of course, that Shelby Foote called the war the “great adventure in the adolescence of our country.” The problem is that the great adventure is being replaced with other adventures and more present matters that consume the attentions of others.

    I would like to attend or be a part of a conference that looks at this issue in secondary education.

  • James F. Epperson Feb 27, 2012 @ 4:03

    Who you calling old?!?

    • Roger E. Watson Feb 27, 2012 @ 11:38

      It was directly aimed at you, Jim 😉

  • Dudley Bokoski Feb 26, 2012 @ 17:17

    If young people are exposed to history they are often as interested by it as our generation. Unfortunately, many schools have chosen to devalue social studies and the arts in favor of math and sciences to such a degree we are danger of becoming historically illiterate. The consequences of that are very serious, as understanding history is so important to creating a context within which to view present days events.

    I believe we have too often forgotten that computers are a delivery system within education and not education itself. Well meaning school boards, parents, and educators have raised up computers as idols to be bowed down to and not tools to be used. We’ve responded to reports of foreign students proficiency in math and science by taking more and more time away from building the foundations necessary for students to view their world in context and become informed citizens. It is reminiscent of the over reaction to the perceived missile gap with the Soviets in the late 60’s.

    I’m 55 and my parents valued history. We piled into the car every summer and went out looking for it, seldom passing any historical museum or battlefield without stopping. As children of the Depression era I’m not sure exactly why they put such emphasis on history, but my guess is they wanted their children to get a good education and saw history and travel as a part of that. And I am very grateful to them for it.

    I’m not sure how today’s parents define a good education. Maybe they don’t see history as a part of it. But I know children and teenagers enjoy stories and history has some amazing ones. If we get history on the agenda in our schools I feel confident this generation could be as hooked on it as we are. I just don’t know if they will get that chance.

  • Ray O'Hara Feb 26, 2012 @ 16:56

    When Kevin gave his recent talk to the Olde Colony* CWRT I was struck by the age group, Kevin was easily the youngest person there and I was near the lower end of the age spectrum{I’m 56}
    Even Re-enactments look more like 25 year Post War reunions rather than an actual battle. I suppose lack of free time has some effect, younger folks have other things to do.

    * The Olde Colony is the term for the area that comprised Plymouth Colony when it was a separate entity from Massachusetts Bay Colony. despite the name the OC CWRT doesn’t hold it’s meetings in the Olde Colony but in the Boston suburb of Dedham which was part of Mass Bay Colony.

  • Ron Feb 26, 2012 @ 16:27

    While I agree with your post, at the same time I think that the demographics have something to do with factors beyond our control. Sure, a twenty-something may be interested in the war (like I was), but he or she is busy going to graduate school, starting a career, working hard, and finding a mate. The younger generation then marries and is trying to balance work and family, let alone hobbies. It is unlikely such people will spend an entire weekend studying the war at events, unless hardcore history students or professionals. (Or blogger Civil War enthusiasts like me!) It seems that only older people, most often retired or with high school or college-aged children, have the time to devote to attending historical society and roundtable events. Of course, the new media like blogs, Twitter, and Facebook enable the history community to reach out to different demographics and to attract a more diverse crowd. Museums and National Parks are also headed in that direction. But when it is all said and done, I think that the crowds at Civil War events may just naturally skew towards older persons. I just hope that the crowds will one day have more women and more minorities of the same age. In the meantime, I am sure that the younger generations interested in the war are being reached. They have yet to make their presence known, but when they are a bit older and have the time to do so, I am sure they will, just like the older people you see today.

    • Lindsay Feb 27, 2012 @ 14:50

      I agree with you – as interested as I am and as much as I would like to be at these events with a young family I just can’t right not. As soon as my kids are older I will be at some of these surely – and I’ll still be shy of 40 🙂

  • Pat Young Feb 26, 2012 @ 15:24

    Look, most young people grow up today in a multiracial world, so multi that many of them don’t recognize any sharp racial divisions and many see other folks differences as an invitation to learn.

    I have seen younger people walk into a CWRT, see everyone is white and never come back. All-white environments are seen as anomalous and even threatening by many Gen Xers.

    Particularly alienating at Civil War gatherings are appeals to sign petitions to “preserve” the waving of the Confederate flag over some building in the South. I got sick of being told by my (Northern) CWRT buddies that this was a preservation issue and that “they” (read: blacks) wanted to force us (whites) to be politically correct. Sorry, but if you don’t understand why an African American doesn’t want to go into a building with a Confederate flag over it, don’t tell me you know your history.

    On the other hand, in my law school class at Hofstra University School of Law I give a brief talk on Lincoln and the draft riots and what it tells us about his views on immigration. Each year several students come up to tell me about how they love reading about the Civil War. There is a lot of interest in the war. It just does not find comfortable expression in the usual gathering places.

    One of my former attorneys is from a Salvadoran immigrant family. He told me before his wedding that he became a student of the American Civil War after I got him interested and that he romanced his new wife by taking her to Gettysburg. Another Salvadoran, who is a local official here on Long Island saw me right before a crucial election. Instead of talking to me about modern politics, he wanted to talk about the Civil War.

    When I started writing about immigrants during the war for a general-interest immigration website, I thought that the daily readership of the site would react negatively, or worse yet just skip the articles. Instead, my regulars have been extremely supportive and made the Civil War pieces the most popular part of then website.

    There are very powerful stories from the war that appeal to modern post-Centennials, but they won’t be communicated by shoving a Confederate flag in a Latino’s face. For example, Central Americans have asked me about the way Southern whites were treated by occupiers at the end of the war. They have lived under martial law and empathize with the Southerners even if they don’t sympathize with their cause.

    I have seen adult immigrants break into tears when I tell them the story of Lincoln’s life. They understand the poverty he grew up in and some have said his story gives them hope for their children to rise.

    We also have to make sure we never disconnect the Civil War from its true greatest achievement, the 14th Amendment, which gives non-whites birthright citizenship. Ending slavery was important, but we would not have had the civil rights revolution without the blessed 14th/

    • cg Feb 26, 2012 @ 16:21

      Amen, Brother Young.

    • James Harrigan Feb 27, 2012 @ 8:50

      nice post, Pat, but one comment. You say

      if you don’t understand why an African American doesn’t want to go into a building with a Confederate flag over it, don’t tell me you know your history.

      Agreed. However, I’m as white as you can get, but I also don’t want to go into a building with a Confederate flag over it. I’m also straight, and I despise anti-gay bigotry. The idea that only the direct target of bigotry finds it offensive is a pet peeve of mine (not that I’m accusing you of this attitude, Pat).

      • Pat Young Feb 27, 2012 @ 9:39

        Agreed James.

        I only mentioned it within the more restrictive frame because there is a noticeable absence of non-whites, of any age, at Civil War related events.

    • Edward H. Sebesta Mar 3, 2012 @ 6:31


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