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.