Assessing the Sesquicentennial

It’s probably too late to say anything substantial about the sesquicentennial at this stage, but two recent events suggest that Americans remain interested in the Civil War and continue to travel to various destinations in impressive numbers.  Fellow bloggers Robert Moore and Craig Swain both attended events commemorating the 150th of Antietam and were encouraged by what they saw.  This past weekend John Hennessy attended and spoke at an event built around the famous August 19, 1862 photograph of slaves crossing the Rappahannock River to freedom.  He estimates that anywhere between 300 and 350 people were in attendance.  Finally, it will come as no surprise that Gettysburg is bracing for a large turnout next summer.

We continue to enjoy a steady stream of Civil War books from both academic and popular publishers.  I also get the sense that public history programs related to the Civil War era have continued at a healthy pace.  All in all, I remain very optimistic.  What do you think?

Note: Later today I will be a guest on Civil War Talk Radio with Gerry Prokopowicz (3pm est).  No doubt we will talk a great deal about my Crater book.  I will post a link to interview once it is available on their website.

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8 comments… add one
  • Chris Evans Oct 2, 2012 @ 7:24

    I remain very optimistic. It was nice seeing the photos of the large crowds at Antietam. I hope it keeps on going on and on.

    I remember the Civil War almost everyday and don’t really need a certain date to think about it.


  • Wallace Hettle Sep 30, 2012 @ 8:08

    Let’s not forget–there’s a Spielberg movie out in a month that focuses on the 13th amendment in January 1865, which is a great moment for him to explore. And the screenplay is by the superb playwright Tony Kushner. Just saw the trailer, and darned if Daniel Day-Lewis isn’t a dead ringer for Abe.

  • Elizabeth Sep 28, 2012 @ 17:23

    I agree maybe it is too early to assess the overall impact, but I don’t think we should rest on our laurels by waiting until the end to see what that impact is (something I even find myself doing). I didn’t mean to sound accosting, so please don’t take it that way.

    I still think it is a valuable conversation to have about “commemoration” and what it means. What is the point of remembering something 150 years later? How is it any different than 149 or 151 years later? And most importantly, what is it that we are remembering? It seems simple, but then plays out much more complex when seriously thought out.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 29, 2012 @ 1:51

      Hi Elizabeth,

      Thanks for the follow-up. I appreciate the comment.

      I still think it is a valuable conversation to have about “commemoration” and what it means. What is the point of remembering something 150 years later? How is it any different than 149 or 151 years later? And most importantly, what is it that we are remembering? It seems simple, but then plays out much more complex when seriously thought out.

      I am not sure how much time you’ve spent on this site, but this is exactly what you will find here.

  • Elizabeth Sep 28, 2012 @ 16:28

    Why is it too late to say anything substantial about the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War? Those four years saw shifts; why can’t these four years see shifts?

    I would like to remain optimistic, as well, but how do we gauge “success?” What is a successful commemoration? Just an increase in program numbers or publication? Are new audiences being engaged? (And my definition of “new audiences” is “those who don’t consider themselves “history buffs”). Can we do anything better in these next few years and how?

    I also wonder about the meaning of commemoration. What does that mean, and what is it we are remembering exactly? There isn’t any one rubric or goal set out at the front end of sesquicentennial and ultimately, there are many organizations trying to move these ideas forward. I am glad to hear approximately 350 people attended a program about slavery and freedom; is that it?

    I think the sesquicentennial events will provide fodder for much conversation for future historians and disagree that it is too late to say anything substantial about these events, publications, and conversations. Now should be the time we are saying some substantial things or we might risk looking back and wondering “what were we thinking???”

    I appreciated seeing non-history focused agencies mention the anniversary of the Battle of Antietam AND recognizing its role in the whole of the Civil War while acknowledging the loss of life on that day. But is that enough to remain satisfied?

    • Kevin Levin Sep 28, 2012 @ 16:36

      Sorry about that. I meant to say it is too early…to assess the overall impact of the sesquicentennial. I agree with much of what you wrote. Again, sorry for the confusion.

  • Richard Sep 28, 2012 @ 12:02

    A couple of weeks ago, i attended an event dediciation a monument to the Black Brigade of Cincinnati, a group that had been formed 150 years to help defend Cincinnati, and it had 200-300 people (I was in a group of historical organizations that had displays so I did not get a great look at the crowd, but they had more people there than they had seats.) it’s not a tremendous crowd by some measures, but for a park monument dedication, it certainly seemed like an impressive turnout.

    Many of the visitors were also African-American. I’ve read that the ineterst of African-Americans in the Civil War has not been great at many sites, so it seemed to be encouraging to see so many show up at this event. I wonder if it is fair to question how many of them attended due to the specific subject of the monument instead of general interest in the Civil War.

    I also should be at the 150th of the battle of Perryvile during the first weekend of October. I’ve heard reports of a large number or re-enactors heading there, and will try to observe how big the crowds are there

  • Ryan A Sep 28, 2012 @ 5:29


    Living in Alabama, access to sesquicentennial events has been limited by distance more than by a “want-to” for me. Last September, I flew to DC to visit some friends and got to visit Manassas 2 months after the 150th anniversary. In late March, I was able to attend the 150th Shiloh reenactment and participate in some in-depth battlefield walking on the Sunday before the anniversary.

    Two weekends ago, I was a part of the Iron Brigade living history at Antietam behind the Dunker Church. I must say that aside from my personal experience, I was surprised and overjoyed at the overflow of visitors to the park. I’ve been to Antietam many times over the years and it’s never been a high traffic NBP. Suffice it to say, it was difficult for us living history volunteers to find parking. It’s encouraging to me to see that much interest generated among the public, as well as having so many quality historians and programs being put on by the park service during the weekend.

    For me personally, it was a very unique and rewarding experience. For the last few years, I’ve tried to phase out my reenacting hobby. I’m 27 and I’m starting to get out of the accurate age range of the soldiers, but mainly, I felt that we were basically being disrespectful to the guys who actually fought and died there by “playing at war.” The Antietam Living History was everything that most reenactments aren’t. We marched and maneuvered over the same ground without pretending to get shot or even fire our rifles. We did several battlefield walks by ourselves with nothing but the first hand accounts of the men who fought there to guide us. It was gaining an understanding of the place that you just can’t do at your average “farb-fest.” It was also free of any Lost-Cause revisionist mantra as far as I could see. One excellent aspect of this was on Sunday the 16th, when I attended a program in the Dunker Church about the local Dunkers and the implications of the battle on slavery and the Emancipation Proclamation. It was history without bias.

    I’m confident that the park service is advancing this 150th commemoration the right way. If Antietam is any indication as to how Gettysburg, Chancellorsville, Vicksburg, Chickamauga, etc., are going to go, I think we’re all in for a very big treat!

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