Is the Civil War Sesquicentennial a Very Gloomy Birthday?

Exterior of National Building Museum

Thanks to The Journal of the Civil War Era for making available online a forum from their most recent issue on the future of Civil War historiography.  The essays are all worth reading and I especially enjoyed Stephen Berry’s “top ten” predictions on how broader trends within the field will shape Civil War studies in the near future.   Included in the list is a note of skepticism surrounding the reach of the ongoing sesquicentennial, though it is unclear as to how exactly this will influence academic historians:

#1: The Civil War Is about to Have a Very Gloomy Birthday

Despite some very noble efforts, the Civil War at 150 will be remembered as having been met by a collective national shrug, even in the South. Apparently Americans are happy enough to celebrate their past but not that interested in commemorating (or, better yet, understanding) it. The reason is not far to seek: the war and its racial legacy remains a can of worms most states don’t want to open publicly. Why shine a light or build a stage just so neo-Confederate dead-enders can perform their ludicrous one-man shows? In a house full of roaches, it is better to leave the lights off.

This is unfortunate in a sense—a “teachable moment” is about to go begging. But by comparison to the centennial celebrations, ambivalence is a victory. Ambivalence is the proper response to war. War is about damage, even at its most heroic, even when certain people and things deserve to be damaged. The destruction of slavery was a good thing and a great thing. Having to fight our bloodiest war to the end is neither good nor great. It is just sad. And remembering that the end of slavery was only the beginning of a longer battle for the kind of freedom that really matters is sadder still. Soon enough, if not already, the Civil War will be understood not as a test this country passed—a kiln in which the nation was fired—but as a test we failed when we couldn’t, short of war, give up our original addiction to “black gold.”

This “victory” of American ambivalence belongs to us, to academe. We have killed, or are killing, the war our fathers and grandfathers built. But no one, including ourselves, feels like celebrating, because it is already clear that our version of the war is an unlovely mess—sordid means serving varied ends, some good, most unforeseen; our version is a longer slog, less politically correct, less inspiring, and more befitting a chastened nation.

And this from Ari Kelman in his TLS review of four recent Civil War studies:

As birthday parties go, this one has been a bit of a downer so far. The American Civil War was 150 years old last year, but it went on for four years, so there’s still plenty of time for history buffs in period costumes to re-enact blood-soaked battles; actors to give President Lincoln’s and Frederick Douglass’s speeches, grafting new wings on to a bygone era’s soaring oratory; and writers to churn out volumes chronicling the history of the nation’s deadliest conflict. But, up to now, the reaction has remained oddly muted, suggesting that people in the United States, though apparently still obsessed with the Civil War, remain uncertain about how to remember this troubling event collectively: as triumph or tragedy, as rebirth or mass murder, or as something else again. Or maybe it’s just that Americans are notoriously suspicious of foreign languages, and just what kind of fancy word is sesquicentennial anyway?

Why the doom and gloom and why does this attitude consistently come from within the academic community?  Perhaps these characterizations of the general public’s interest reflects their own increasingly defensive posture in response to the marginalization of history and the humanities generally in our society.  What is never included in these prognostications is any sense of what exactly is being measured.  What would a successful commemoration 150 years later look like?  What exactly do Berry and Kelman need to see to help steer us away from the cliff and collective amnesia?

Perhaps I spend too much time reading through my Google News filter about events related to the sesquicentennial.  It’s impossible to keep up.  The amount of new educational materials related to the Civil War is staggering; museums large and small are creating exhibits; teachers have a wide range of workshops to choose from and visits to NPS sites are up.  I could go on and on.  My view: The Civil War Sesquicentennial looks just like you would expect it to look like.

[Image source]

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31 comments… add one
  • Edward H. Sebesta Mar 3, 2012 @ 6:54

    History is not being marginalized. There is a booming tourist industry of museums. History is a major selling point for tourism. I have recently read several books on museums and their presentations. There are museums on all aspects of history, including industrial history which attracts interest. Scholars note the rising, booming, interest in the past.

    I would say that it is Civil War history itself for which interest has been declining. The high schools text books teach a Civil War in which a whole lot of fighting is going on, reenactors are interested in a Civil War history to escape the present and modernity in which manly men fought manly wars. The Civil War history profession has a significant Lost Cause contigent and the majority of the remainder are content to give it a free pass.

    Civil War history is disconnected from Reconstruction.

    The next generation which is multiracial in a multipolar world isn’t really going to be interested in this type of Civil War history. Rationalize all you want about this, but interest in the Civil War is going to be percieved as an arcane interest by old white guys who probably are cranky about the modern world.

    The Civil War and Reconstruction are critically important events in American history. Too important to be left to Civil War historians.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 3, 2012 @ 7:05

      The high schools text books teach a Civil War in which a whole lot of fighting is going on, reenactors are interested in a Civil War history to escape the present and modernity in which manly men fought manly wars. The Civil War history profession has a significant Lost Cause contigent and the majority of the remainder are content to give it a free pass.

      I already suggested in response to previous comment that your characterization of history textbooks is way off the mark. As for the history profession, I have no idea what you are getting at. Perhaps a few specific references will help.

  • London John Mar 2, 2012 @ 5:47

    “just what kind of fancy word is sesquicentennial anyway?”
    Good question, actually. Where did the idea that the 150th anniversary (of anything) is significant come from? Were there sesquicentennial events in 1926, does anyone know?

  • Dudley Bokoski Feb 28, 2012 @ 16:08

    “Why shine a light or build a stage just so neo-Confederate dead-enders can perform their ludicrous one-man shows? In a house full of roaches, it is better to leave the lights off.”

    A bit over the top, perhaps?

    So, the reason states and the general public aren’t commemorating the Civil War more actively is because they fear a very small subset of the general population will subvert the discussion?

    Take this in context. If you rounded up everyone Mr. Berry considers a neo-Confederate, this powerful assemblage who by estimation have cowed state governments into preventing this “teachable moment” from occurring, how many people are we talking about?

    I think your answer is in the recent picture of the march in Richmond.

    The problem, I suppose, with teachable moments is sometimes society looks at those who proclaim them with disinterest. At those times it helps to have straw men, however few in number, to rail against in order to show yourself a true defender of whatever faith it is you subscribe to.

    Most of us will take the Civil War on our own terms and find our teachable moments in books and museums and battlefields. The gloom, we’ll leave to Mr. Berry and the “academe”.

  • Billy Bearden Feb 28, 2012 @ 12:09

    In a time where political correctness, newspeak, ubersensitivities, special interest groups outside the usual suspects is the norm, in a place where an innocent “Chink in the Armor”comment will end a career, or Hank Williams Jr gets fired for a opinion blown out of context, or the benign General Lee #01 cannot make a simple lap around the track, or a group of blacks are barred from giving a lecture at St Paul’s in Richmond, it is really simple to see why things are “gloomy” – not just in historical applications, but for our entire country.

    Those on this list have helped shape the country the way it is today. Congratulations on your victory!

    • Kevin Levin Feb 28, 2012 @ 12:23

      You really need to do better. The language of victimization and defeatism is really getting old. Next.

  • Ray O'Hara Feb 28, 2012 @ 11:11

    States with Civil War Sites will use it to try to boost tourism and as such they will be careful to avoid offending anyone.
    But on a national level there are no officially coordinated events, no central examination of what it was all about, what caused it and what it achieved.

    There will be missteps of course as the old narrative raises its head.

    An increasingly desperate SCV and UDC are seeing this as their last stand. They see the CSA flags being banned as happened in Lexington Va. and venues shunning them as we saw this weekend in Richmond with St Paul’s Church and their response is to become more militant with parades and chants of death to Yankees.

    We also see the Libertarians trying to hijack the war for a modern political agenda. To the likes of Ron Paul. Lew Rockwell, DiLorenzo and their disciples the war is about an oppressive Federal Government stealing our freedom. {they are imo the worst offenders against history}

    But we don’t see any real examination of events and constitutional issues raised by the Southern actions and Union reaction.

    Ft Sumter, an event that might have been used to examine cause was allowed to pass, This year we have the EP coming up and I think it too will pass without a real discussion.

    p.s. 2012 is also the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 28, 2012 @ 11:58

      States with Civil War Sites will use it to try to boost tourism and as such they will be careful to avoid offending anyone.

      The National Park Service has been “offending” people for at least the past fifteen years in response to shifts in interpretation, but you don’t see them backing down.

      But we don’t see any real examination of events and constitutional issues raised by the Southern actions and Union reaction.

      You need to get out more, Ray.

      • Ray O'Hara Feb 28, 2012 @ 12:20

        very Simpsonian answers. {feel free to delete this}

        the NPS has added minor displays on slavery, not much of an effort.

        and what events are scheduled to discuss these issues of Constitutionality.
        What do we see. Man of the Year for 1862, as vanilla an event as could be hoped for.

        {actually feel free to not post this, I won’t be offended, but your reply was rather flippant and didn’t point to any examples that might set me onto such events. All I see is blogs and face book pages with the usual people numbering into the dozens}

        • Kevin Levin Feb 28, 2012 @ 12:22

          Like I said Ray, you really need to get out more. You simply do not know what you are talking about if you think all the NPS has done is “added a minor displays on slavery.” You want examples? Just go back through the archives of this blog. 🙂

    • Jim Dick Feb 28, 2012 @ 15:04

      I absolutely love the comment about the libertarians trying to hijack the Civil War for their political ideology. I run into more people that fit that particular description than any other group. They are as you say, the worst offenders against history. Not only do they try to spin the Civil War to fit their ideology, they do the same with the Revolution.
      I actually have one guy in a graduate level class on the Antebellum period citing from and another site that is a Holocaust denial site. Just based on his written work alone which is almost entirely uncited and looks like it was copied and pasted from any SCV/UDC blog roll , I don’t see any way he could be passing the class but there is no way I can tell.
      It made me wonder what they’re teaching in some schools until I realized he earned his bachelor’s 30 years ago.

  • Lyle Smith Feb 28, 2012 @ 10:33

    This article by the late Christopher Hitchens isn’t about the Civil War, but is about World War II and reconciliation between America and Japan… but many of his thoughts apply, I think, to our memory of the Civil War and probably why the sesquicentennial is ambivalently passing by.

    The closing paragraph:

    “And my point? Well, my point is that under the azure blue skies that prevailed all of last weekend, you would not have known that any of the bitterness and misery had ever taken place. There were old people present, Japanese and non-Japanese, who had a real memory of it. And there were young people to whom, if it occurs at all, it must seem prehistoric. But there was no awkwardness; no “making nice,” no pretense of a false coexistence. All could meet under the great roof of a secular multiethnic democracy, and all did, sharing the food and the music and admiring one another’s children. And if this of all reconciliations can occur, without it even having to call itself a reconciliation, then perhaps we are not all heading for hell on a sled as fast as we sometimes think. Ernest Renan said that to form a common nation, people had to agree to remember a few things but also to forget a few things. Without undue amnesia, and without being mandated or enforced or policed, this maxim seems to have been followed naturally in this case.”

    • Kevin Levin Feb 28, 2012 @ 10:34

      Thanks, Lyle.

    • Ryan A Mar 1, 2012 @ 8:03

      Reading that paragraph gave me a thought. Living in Alabama, you are confronted with reminders of the war often – maybe once every week or two in some way shape or form. Obviously, remembrance of the war in this state was more considerable in the 50s and 60s for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the emerging Civil Rights movement. And while interest in the war from everyday folks here has cooled in the last 4 decades, it still exists in both its scholarly and “personal” forms. But I think that the biggest reason that Southerners and even transplanted Southerners still cling to the idea and memory of the war mainfested in organizations like the SCV is that the South had to endure living in the same country as their vanquishers.

      Except perhaps for veterans, Americans as a whole don’t hold grudges towards Vietnam or the Vietnamese people as a result of the defeat (or withdrawal) in 1975. Americans like Andrew Zimmer can go to Hanoi and sample the spicy and “exotic” foods for the Travel Channel and no one bats an eye. Are there Germans who presently resent and loathe Americans for the defeat in 1945, or better yet in 1918? I tend to think not so much.

      True reconciliation and understanding of the causes and results of the war may never truly come, but I think that a major reason that it hasn’t must be that Southerners shared this country with their Northern enemies after the shooting stopped in 1865. Distance can cool tensions just as easy as time can. For instance, in this state, you have to make a choice – Auburn or Alabama. The rivalry injects itself into every facet of existence and has led to stabbings at Auburn fraternity houses by Alabama fans, and most notably the poisoning of our two 75+ year old live oak trees by an irate and mentally unstable Alabama fan after we won the national championship in 2010. We play each other every year and the fans interact with each other 24/7. The vitriol that flows freely between the two fan bases has never been higher – but a big reason that it has always been so fierce is that we are constantly around each other. To be confronted by your enemy or rival on a daily basis means you are constantly reminded of your dislike or in some instances hatred of the other. You can never forget what you see every day.

      Maybe this was and is the biggest factor concerning remembrance in the South to this day. Just a thought.


  • Bill Backus Feb 28, 2012 @ 7:00

    Interesting take on the 150th. However it seems that these two authors might be over-analyzing a little bit on their part.

    It seems that both have either ignored or at least down-played the state of the economy in the country. While better than it once was, most government agencies on the three levels (Federal, state, local) and the average American family are still hurting. I live and work in Northern Virginia which has been insulated from the economic downturn so we’ve been fortunate enough to still be able to plan and host Civil War programs. That’s just not the case in most other places. Throughout the country governments are having great difficulty balancing budgets, debating which core program will lose funding. Its not surprising then that many areas is reluctant to fund a 150th committee when officials have to choice whether to cut funding to emergency services or public schools. Also you have to realize that tin most states there won’t be any, if at all, economic benefit from putting money towards the 150th commemoration. Again Virginia is different in that we’re trying to use the Sesquicentennial to draw heritage tourists to our historic sites and battlefields, which stay longer and spend more. New York or Illinois aren’t likely to reap those economic benefits.

    Also we need to remember that it’s getting progressively more expensive to travel in this country. Just look at gas prices recently. They’re rising like crazy but there’s no increase in wages, so it’s more and more expensive for people to travel longer distances.

    From the limited number of 150th events that have been put on one can argue that we’ve been fairly successful given everything in this country. Most historic sites and battlefields are engaging the visitor with New Social History, something that many people haven’t experienced before. Now if the economy was better and gas prices were down, we would get more interest but with the current hurdles that we all have, we’ve done a fairly decent job thus far.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 28, 2012 @ 7:47

      Hi Bill,

      Good point re: the economy, but it’s hard to imagine what more would be done in a healthy economy. I am seeing a really nice range of commemorative and educational activities so perhaps there would be more of it. As for where programs of different sorts, I am finding them across the country, though the most can be found on the east coast.

    • ari Feb 28, 2012 @ 9:59

      The point about the economy is a good one, and I tried nodding in that direction in my review but came up short on space. That’s not a good excuse, I know, but there it is.

      • Kevin Levin Feb 28, 2012 @ 10:01

        Hi Ari,

        Nice to hear from you. If space was an issue I would love to hear more about why you think the sesquicentennial is a bust. Thanks and I can’t tell you how nice it is to have Edge of the American West back.

        • ari Feb 28, 2012 @ 10:05

          I don’t think it’s a bust. Come to think of it, I don’t recall saying that in the review. I do think, though, that Americans have always had a very hard time figuring out how to remember the war collectively. And I think, further, that historians and elected officials haven’t done them any favors in this regard.

          • ari Feb 28, 2012 @ 10:08

            Finally, thanks for the kind words about the blog. I actually re-started and then re-stopped blogging. I had to get my book done and now I have to get my other book done. Again, it’s a lousy excuse, but it’s all I’ve got. That said, we’re moving the blog over to the CHE’s lineup, so maybe that will motivate me to get back into it. I certainly hope so.

      • ari Feb 28, 2012 @ 10:03

        Also, Kevin, I’m not sure what you’re talking about when you mention my “increasingly defensive posture”. I get more and more stooped, it’s true — my grandmother, were she still alive, would have a fit if she saw me — but that’s a byproduct of aging not a reaction to the (wildly overstated and typically, as in this case, unsourced) “marginalization of history and the humanities generally in our society”.

        • Kevin Levin Feb 28, 2012 @ 10:09

          That was a poor choice of words on my part so I apologize. I just got the sense that you were dissatisfied with the amount of attention given to the sesquicentennial. I wasn’t really singling you out and the claim is not sourced, but I do seem to be reading more and more about the devaluation of the humanities. I certainly did not mean to offend you in any way and I do appreciate you taking the time to respond.

          • ari Feb 28, 2012 @ 10:14

            Oh, goodness, I’m not offended at all. I’m sorry if I gave you that impression. The thing is, there have been lots of stories lately discussing the downtrodden state of the humanities. But the numbers — enrollments, numbers of majors, etc. — suggest just that there isn’t much cause for concern. As for history, I think it’s an open and very interesting question. My guess — and it’s only that: a guess — is that the field is changing, becoming more open, but isn’t actually losing cultural purchase. And I think that openness is a most welcome development. Have said that, I do think it will create a certain kind of status anxiety among professional, or academic if you prefer, historians.

            • ari Feb 28, 2012 @ 10:16

              As for being dissatisfied with the nature of the celebration, I’m mostly fine with it (the Secession Ball in SC left me cold, obviously, but that’s another matter entirely). Again, I just think it’s worth pointing out that remembering the war remains complicated, that elected officials and professional historians typically aren’t helping much in this regard, and that this is so because, borrowing words now, the Civil War is a “history front” in a broader “culture war”.

              • Kevin Levin Feb 28, 2012 @ 10:19

                No disagreement there. I’ve said more than once that part of the problem is that we have a mainstream media that feeds off the old narratives of black v. white and north v. south. No surprise that the Secession Ball made the news, but hardly anyone showed up. Much of what went on in South Carolina that month to commemorate the war deviated sharply from the traditional commemoration.

  • Pat Young Feb 28, 2012 @ 5:57

    People who compare the 150 to the 100 are typically white men in their 50s and 60s who found the Centenial, whatever it’s historical limits, drew them into study of the war. In fact, only a small portion of the American public were involved in 100 th anniversary activities. There were few popular culture artifacts that came out of the period that had a mass reach. A lot of guys my age remember seeing a particular comic book or album of Civil War songs from 1961 to 1965, but I’d guess those of us who got them were an odd minority.

    When I ask my non-CW friends what they remember from back then, they typically say Vietnam, the Kennedy killing, rock and roll, pot, etc. None recalls any tv show, movie, or song about the CW released during the 100. A few name The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, either in it’s original by The Band or in the Baez version, but that was recorded four years after.

    What I’m getting at is that those of us who remember the 100 are those who remember it. The rest of America ignored and forgot it.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 28, 2012 @ 6:06

      Good points, but I am not sure that it Berry and Kelman are using the centennial to frame their comments. Neither of them fits your initial description.

      • Pat Young Feb 28, 2012 @ 6:35

        I guess that I am a prisoner of google and have seen too many of my Civil War searches end in bloggers moaning about how much cooler 1961 was than 2011.

        On Berry’s point, Americans can’t be expected to celebrate a war, but they can be expected to celebrate a new birth of freedom.

        Modern Americans understand the limits of glorifying military bravery. No one thinks Afghanistan would have gone better if only our soldiers had been braver.

        The most important artifact of the Civil War is the 14th Amendment. While the Emancipation Proclamation freed (some) slaves, it also left non-whites in the position of subject peoples. The 14th is as important for Latinos and Asian Americans as it is for African Americans.

        Berry is right that we as a people are more interested in celebrating our past than commemorating it, but the 14th is something that three out of four Americans can celebrate without much ambiguity.

        Can Americans get behind a celebration not of the war but of a legal and social revolution?

        Just think back to the Bicentenial and the succeding rise in interest in the Founders. Most of the popular interest was not in battlefield tactics, but in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

        When I speak to Latinos about the Civil War, I tell them that the Gettysburg Adress is their Declaration of Independence and the 14th Amendment is their Constitutional Convention.

        The fact that it took a century to cash the promissory note of liberation is an indication of just how visionary some of the men and wmen of the Civil War generation were.

    • John Buchanan Mar 1, 2012 @ 6:05


      Are you referring to my cherished LP “Songs of the Civil War” by the Smith Brothers?

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