This Civil War Buff Has Not Been Disappointed


Did You Buy Your Toy Soldiers?

As we get closer to April 2015 we will begin to read even more in the way of assessment of the sesquicentennial. The problem with these observations thus far, including this article by Wall Street Journal reporter Cameron McWhirter, is that they take a much too narrow approach to measuring the scope of what has taken place over the past few years and how it will likely impact how Americans will  learn about the Civil War in the future. I spent 30 minutes on the phone with Mr. McWhirter, but unfortunately, nothing that I shared made it into the published version.

I did my best to suggest that the sesquicentennial has been anything but “anemic.” It certainly hasn’t satisfied those whose expectations have been shaped by memories of the centennial or an apparently poor economic analysis of what Americans would purchase (toy soldiers, relics, etc.) during the sesquicentennial and in the middle of an economic recession.

Much of this article is anecdotal, which to a certain extent is inescapable at this point. Yes, a Civil War themed ball was recently canceled in Arkansas, but I am willing to wager that hundreds of such events have taken place throughout the country (North and South) over the past few years. And, of course, you can find plenty of Americans whose knowledge of the period is woefully inadequate, but do we really want to suggest that there was a time when this wasn’t the case? These polls tell us nothing. Finally, no one will disagree that Ken Burns’s PBS series on the war was influential, but there have been plenty of documentaries produced and some of the most popular Hollywood movies of the past few years focused on Civil War era subjects.

There are so many more interesting things to look at beyond the number of toy soldiers sold to gauge the sesquicentennial landscape and its impact: NPS attendance, scholarly and popular books, museum exhibits and programs, local commemorative events, educational materials, the use of social media, newspaper articles, controversies surrounding the display of the Confederate flag… The list goes on and on.

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21 comments… add one
  • London John Apr 19, 2014 @ 1:23

    Rather OT, but does anyone know if this sort of thing happens in Mexico? Of course they had rather a lot of civil wars, and could be marking the sesqui of the one between the Republic (Jaures) and the Imperialists, and the centennial of the one involving Villa and Zapata vs Huerta at the same time.
    I think it’s possible to have too much of a good thing in marking anniversarys, and it looks like that’s going to be the case for the centennial of the First World War. 4 months to the anniversary of the outbreak and already it’s starting to seem like what I might tastefully describe as overkill.

  • Julian Apr 18, 2014 @ 7:55

    This is a comment – not by me – from another online civil war forum in relation to the same WSJ article that is of particular relevance here


    One form of media that has been consistent throughout the 150th cycle however are the blogs. These discussion pages have churned out millions of words regarding sesquicentennial events large and small, given a good picture of what’s going on in that bloggers area or region. A national news agency that has taken this lesson to heart is the New York Times Disunion blog, which has brought interesting articles and discussions to a wide audience since the 150th of John Brown’s Raid.

    • Pat Young Apr 18, 2014 @ 12:30

      Good one as well. How Many millions of hits has the Disunion series gotten, or the lesser blogs at other papers like The Washington Post.

  • Charles Gregorski Apr 16, 2014 @ 18:43

    Evening Kevin,

    I am in the process of wrapping up my project for my undergrad capstone course in economics. The project details a predictive econometric model whose goal is to explain where sesquicentennial celebrations are more likely to have occurred. The model incorporates classes of explanatory variables such as battle characteristics, current levels of income, and current demographics on a county-by-county basis. Please, let me know if you would be interested in giving it a read once this first draft is completed. I am hoping to continue improving the reliability of the study and accompanying dataset post-grad.


    • Kevin Levin Apr 17, 2014 @ 1:27

      Would love to take a look at it.

  • Pat Young Apr 16, 2014 @ 2:44

    In NY the Met, the NY Historical Society, and the NY State Museum have mounted multiple large exhibits on the Civil War. These local Sesqui efforts never seem to get mentioned in these “The Sesqui was a bust” articles.

    With all due respect, the Met is a lot bigger attraction than Gettysburg, drawing in five times as many visitors annually Gettysburg. How many millions of people saw its two Civil War Sesqui exhibits?

    • Julian Apr 18, 2014 @ 7:46

      good call Patrick – again an indication that the WSJ despite its global reputation has got it very wrong – and it is not only the iconic large institutions but many smaller public galleries and museums across your country have presented or will present 150th related shows. equally the work of US contemporary artists such as Kara Walker or Alison Smith who reference the ACW have been shown as more edgy 150th events

  • Patrick Young Apr 13, 2014 @ 16:01

    The apples and oranges problem was brought home to me last year when someone giving the usual dreary “no one is interested in the Sesqui vrs. everybody loved the Centennial” on Civil War Talk. The person recalled watching some TV special where an orchestra played Civil War standards back in the early 1960s. That program probably had 15 million watchers. How does that stack up against this video by the band Fun “Some Nights” with a song with nothing to do with the war but a video entirely devoted to it?

    94.3 million people have watched it on youtube alone, but I never hear it even mentioned by anyone in the Civil War Community Inc. Why doesn’t Gary Gallagher reference it in his “anemic” comments. He teaches teenagers, surely he is aware of it.

  • Julian Apr 12, 2014 @ 8:17

    As other posters have said above the selection of evidential sources cited by WSJ ranged from eccentric to marginal to irrelevant if we are seeking to gauge the impact of the war upon a modern audience and thus too the power/relevance of the sesquicentenary. One could look in other places for evidence. For example there are strong Civil War subplots in recent romantic fantasy paranormal films for teens. There is a deathless Confederate vampire, Jasper Hale who is major and positive recurring character in the Twilight series. A reincarnated Confederate is the romantic hero of Beautiful Creatures – he in his modern guise still lives in North Carolina as a older teen – as he was when he died in the war and bears a similar name to his 1860s name and a locket that survived Sherman’s March is a major plot device. Beautiful Creatures did not do so well in the US as compared to the Twilight franchise BUT its audience and reception outside of the US was more significant

    As well as the recent slavery trio of films – some other relatively recent ACW themed films include Abraham Lincoln Vampire Slayer, the lesser known Abraham Lincoln Zombie Hunter – in which the CSA send their dead soldiers back into battle and – not a fantasy genre film – Cold Mountain

    Someone with a more indepth knowledge of video games could contribute more specific information, but North versus South was and still is a highly popular vintage game from the early years if digital gaming – remembered by younger people with as much affection as over 55’s remember the 130th cycle of battle anniversaries. Its origins were from a French language series of comic books on the war.

    One could note too the range of websites n the ACW from online journals of emerging scholars research to SCV chapters. So I think WSJ is perhaps only looking at the culture of aging baby boomers to measure ACW consciousness and from there to consider the impact and reception of the sesquicentenary

  • Brendan Bossard Apr 11, 2014 @ 19:17

    I’ll be the crank, here, and opine that ‘centennials may be overrated anyway. Assuming we have a Big Memorial Event every 25 years, there is about a decade’s worth of babies who will not experience one that they remember until after graduating from high-school or even college, and adults are more likely to be just jaded enough or preoccupied with the business of life to pay attention to it when it rolls around. (I skipped Halley’s Comet, for Heaven’s sake! Maybe–just maybe–I’ll celebrate outliving the normal life-span of my paternal ancestors by viewing it the second time around, if the weather is nice, my pillow isn’t too soft, and my joints don’t creak too much.)

    I believe that it is more important to instill a solid framework of history and a love of it in each generation of children. I couldn’t care less how many years have passed since the Civil War, except as a time reference. I didn’t even think about the Sesquicentennial until I read about it, checked my calendar, and said, “Well, by gum! It certainly has been 150 years!” But I guarantee that my son will learn about the Civil War and from it, because I love history enough that no matter what happens in school, I will make sure he loves it as much as I do.

  • Al Mackey Apr 11, 2014 @ 10:43

    The article was very poorly done, in my opinion. To say its focus was narrow is being kind. For instance, I don’t subsidize or participate in the archaeological rape of the historical landscape that is relic hunting, nor do I have room for or interest in toy soldiers. Even if I did I wouldn’t pay $325 for a toy Pickett. Also, I don’t dislike Sherman. [And since when was disliking Sherman ever an indicator of interest in the Civil War?] Having been in the real military, I have no desire to play act as if I were in the 1860s military. According to this article, then, I’m apathetic about the Sesquicentennial, which anyone who knows anything about me would say is nonsense. He mentioned the 135th Anniversary of Gettysburg but failed to say a word about the 150th last year, where there was a huge sea of people. I suppose it’s typical of the shallow knowledge and even more shallow analysis we see from most journalists trying to cover the Civil War Sesquicentennial, with only a few exceptions.

    • Pat Young Apr 11, 2014 @ 12:23

      Al makes a great point. The metrics for analysis need to be reasonably related to the subject being assessed. I think a real assessment of the Sesqui is very worthwhile and I think journalists can play a part in it, as long as their research extends beyond a few folks in hobby shops.

      I also think that comparisons with the Centennial can be appropriate as long as we have some reliable data. To hear some older folks tell it the Centennial was a combination World’s Fair of History and a grand scholarly endeavor. Of course they were, like, 10 years old when they experienced it and at that age everything looks bigger than it really is.

      We should also compare the Sesqui to other major “Anniversary Events” of recent years. I would suggest comparison to the Vietnam 50th, the 200ths of the War of 1812, the Louisiana Purchase, and the Lewis and Clark Expedition. We can compare it to the 150th of the Mexican War which brought in the states that a quarter of our population live in, and other celebrations as well.

      We also need to deal with the apples and oranges problem. If 69,000 people took David Blights Civil War course on youtube or if thousands more took the Stephanie McCurry “Slave South” course on Coursera, how does that stack up with 500 people turning out to hear a talk by Bruce Catton? Does it mean that people are 100 times more interested today than back in the 1960s?

      I would also caution that a lot of stuff gets thrown into the “Civil War interest used to be much greater during the Centennial” silo including anachronisms like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and Ken Burns’ CW, both of which were post-Centennial. What “counts” is important to determine.

  • Alan Skerrett Apr 11, 2014 @ 8:17

    One metric would have been this:
    (1) Take a poll of representative sample of Americans before the sesquicentennial, and ask questions about their understanding of the war. Questions would include, for example, “what was the cause of the war?” or “what decade did the war occur in?”

    (2) Take the same poll after the sesquicentennial is over.

    (3) Look at the results… are better making better, more informed answers after the sesquicentennial, or not?

    If people are not making more informed answers to questions after the sesquicentennial, then I would wonder, have people really learned anything? If people are no better off in terms of their knowledge of the war after 4 years of commemoration, that would be a disappointment.

    Now… that is a very very very very very tall order, to expect that masses of people are going to “learn something” from 150th Anniversary events. In fact, it’s probably an impossible order.

    But if the “knowledge needle” doesn’t move, that might suggest that the people going to commemoration events are folks who are already “into” the war. And there’s nothing wrong at all for those folks to have the benefit of such events. But it would be great to see that the sesquicentennial is not merely by, for, and of the so-called “buffs.” One would hope that more people beyond that core group was learning something new. I don’t see that happening.

    Just to be clear, I’m not saying that the sesquicentennial is a failure if these other masses of people are not engaged. I’ve gone to several 150th events over the past few years and I’ve enjoyed them immensely, as have many others. That counts for something too. I’m just saying, I’d hope for more.

  • Pat Young Apr 11, 2014 @ 5:00

    This week’s NY Times Non-Fiction e-book bestseller list has 12 Years a Slave at Number 1 in its new paid edition. Why doesn’t that count as an indicator of our willingness to honestly examine the causes of the war?

    • Kevin Levin Apr 11, 2014 @ 5:01

      That’s amazing. Thanks for pointing it out.

  • Pat Young Apr 11, 2014 @ 3:57

    ‘Cause the most important barometer of interest in the Civil War is the sale of nicknacks.

    According to the article:

    “Gary Gallagher, a Civil War expert at the University of Virginia, says the anniversary is “anemic” in part because Americans still find the subject uncomfortable. “It’s hard to talk about if you don’t mention race, emancipation and slavery,” he says. ”

    What he neglects to note is that while little toy soldiers may not be flying off the freakin’ shelves the domestic box office for two films dealing with race in the Civil War Era were:
    Lincoln $182 million
    12 Years a Slave $56 million

    The American people don’t find it hard to “mention race, emancipation and slavery”, it is the Civil War Community Inc. that has trouble with that.

    The problem is that the Civil War Community Inc. is so dominated by old white heterosexual men that they don’t even recognize ways that ordinary 21st Century Americans come to terms with the Civil War Era. The fact that Doris K. Goodwin got so much flak for mentioning Gays at Gettysburg shows how out of touch Civil War Community Inc. (CWCI) is. The fact that people worried that her talk might “turn off” people who think slavery wasn’t so bad is yet another indicator of just how white and old CWCI really is.

    Maybe toy soldiers aren’t selling well, but 100,000 people visited my small Immigrants’ Civil War web offerings. I am guessing that millions have visited CW Memory, Crossroads, CW Trust, etc. Is that ever stacked up against the missing “Civil War Diner Placemats” of the Centennial?

    • Kevin Levin Apr 11, 2014 @ 4:46

      Good points, Pat. I don’t understand the emphasis on Civil War memorabilia in this article. It is impossible to infer anything beyond the fact that interest in these items has declined relative to the last time they sold in significant numbers.

      How about looking into how many apps from the Civil War Trust, etc. have been downloaded over the past few years?

      • Pat Young Apr 11, 2014 @ 4:57

        Yup Kevin.

        Look when I was a boy, every white male child owned a huge set of World War II plastic soldiers. Now I never see them except among collectors. But I do see a lot of kids playing Call of Duty. To note the toy soldier decline without mentioning the tens of millions playing the WWII versions of Call of Duty would be ridiculous in an assessment of interest in WWII, but the WSJ article pretty much does that in assessing the Sesqui.

        This article may tell us a lot about the decline in toy soldiers and cheap keepsakes, but it says nothing about interest in the Civil War.

        • Kevin Levin Apr 11, 2014 @ 4:59

          Now I never see them except among collectors. But I do see a lot of kids playing Call of Duty.

          Great point. Video games and the Internet are a huge part of the sesquicentennial, especially when it comes to gauging the interest of younger Americans.

          • Pat Young Apr 11, 2014 @ 5:22

            Ten years ago when I prepared a report to my funders they always wanted to know how many flyers my non-profit gave out. Now they want to know how many times each of my online pages were viewed.

            Were you to ask only about flyers, you would think that interest had declined from 10,000 to 5,000 flyers distributed. But when you add in that 100,000 people have accessed the same info online you realize that interest has grown ten-fold.

            Why can’t the WSJ figure that out?

      • Eric A. Jacobson Apr 14, 2014 @ 6:12


        I agree wholeheartedly with your comment about the article emphasizing the lack of memorabilia sales as somehow indicative that the 150th has been a failure. What does that have to do with anything, except maybe that folks are not interested in dropping hundreds for a rifle or cannon ball or buying some other tacky product like a shot glass with Lee’s or Grant’s image on it? That being said, and I wish I had been wrong, but I never believed the 150th would bring out tourists in droves as some thought it might/would. We are simply not the same country we were when the 100th was celebrated/commemorated, but that does not mean the 150th has been a failure. In fact, we aren’t the same country we were when Burn’s series reignited an interest in the war.

        Gettysburg and other sites may have seen a drop in attendance over the past 20-25 years, and never saw the increase they expected in the last few, but I can tell you that here in Franklin attendance is up. I can say with near certainty that our success has as much to do with fresh interpretation and adjusting to the needs of modern day heritage tourists as anything. Frankly, the vast majority of visitors today aren’t interested in people dressed up in 19th century garb and guides/interpreters rattling off solely a myriad of battle details. They want something else. They want to connect with something tangible that they can relate or at least understand. They want to understand why the Civil War matters today, and why it is still relevant.

        I have seen many good things occur as a result of the 150th, and I believe the groundwork has been paved from an interpretive standpoint for the next 20-25 years which will allow all Americans, and others, to better understand why we fought this terrible internal war.

        So much of the 100th was, to be perfectly blunt, either corny or skewed that even the masses left wherever they visited with no more an understanding of the war’s impact than they did before they arrived. I believe that while attendance numbers may be lower today, the average guest leaves with a far greater knowledge than they did 50 years ago, even if that means they had to confront some uncomfortable facts.

        Here is to the story of the war – those who fought in it, those who were impacted by it and granted their freedom because of it, all of its various political and socio-economic complexities, and how it shaped a new United States of America – sustaining a vibrant life and enduring long after the 150th when all of us are silenced by time and a new group of historians, scholars, and writers emerge.

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