What I wouldn’t give to be in Richmond, Virginia this coming week for the 150th anniversary of the city’s fall and liberation. There are a wide range of events planned by the National Park Service and a host of other organizations. It’s a fitting way to end the sesquicentennial in Virginia given its track record over the past few years. No state has done more nor has devoted more resources to the sesquicentennial.
In the Richmond Times-Dispatch this weekend Katherine Calos interviewed a number of people involved in sesquicentennial planning throughout Virginia and Richmond specifically. Their thoughts reflect the many differences between the centennial and sesquicentennial and the continued challenges associated with its interpretation and commemoration. Ed Ayers (President of the University of Richmond and historian)
People are beginning to see, in a way they didn’t see before, that you can’t walk around history. You can’t walk away from history. You have to walk through history to get to any future that’s worth having. I think that’s been Richmond’s Journey in the last five or six years. Finding people like the National Park Service and the new Civil War museum and Elegba Folklore Society all together, it’s an accomplishment. I’m prepared to be proud of us.
Lincoln said it was somehow about slavery and that somehow was constantly changing. It was about slavery in 1860, but it was differently about slavery in 1865. It was about slavery the whole time, but the war’s relationship to slavery kept changing… For the United States, the war is steadily more about slavery. For the Confederacy, it’s steadily more about independence… You can say the Civil War is rebooted every year. It’s reconfigured. There’s a new constellation of issues and possibilities in reach for both the North and the South. I think if we have a more supple understanding of the war, then we find that some of the boxes we put ourselves in have opened up.”
The good will is palpable. The cooperation and collaboration and mutual respect is real. I’m not sure we’ve had that before. It would be ironic if the commemoration of the Civil War is the thing that pulls us together and reframes the debate in a way. The more the city does, the more it takes charge of its own history, the less vulnerable we are to people coming in and trivializing our history. I think what we’re working on now is creating ballast to stabilize the story so outside groups can’t come in and hijack our city history for their own purposes.
Beth Stern (chief of interpretation at Richmond National Battlefield Park)
I think the sheer volume and variety of experiences is one of the hallmarks of this commemoration. Every time we share the visitors guide with folks they go, ‘Wow! There’s a lot here. I think it echoes and mirrors the complexity of the experience itself. As I’ve watched the process unfold, we’re very conscious that this is a communitywide commemoration, owned by the community and not by one institution or one individual. The theme we’ve adopted is Richmond’s Journey. … When people say there’s still some work to do, that’s part of the journey.
John Hennessy (chief historian at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park)
If we were trying to plan the sesquicentennial simply to engage the most number of people in some way, we probably wouldn’t have taken the considered and conversational and thoughtful approach that we did.
H.V. Traywick Jr. (author and apparently the last living Confederate)
The sesquicentennial, I see as being a ham-fisted morality play all about slavery and Southern guilt and Northern righteousness. To me it was a war of invasion, conquest and coerced political allegiance exactly like 1776 and for very much the same reason… It was a war of attrition. It was total war waged against us. They blockaded the coast, burned houses down. It was a horrible war. We were fighting for our independence.
S. Waite Rawls III (co-CEO of the American Civil War Museum)
The story of slavery, the story of contrabands, the story of the USCT (U.S. Colored Troops), has come to light in a way that’s a great pleasure. It was a great absence during the centennial 50 years ago and occupies a great place this time. [During the centennial, people on both sides were depicted as] honorable, patriotic, courageous people. In this one we’ve got good guys and bad guys, and all the Confederates were bad guys and all the Yankees were good guys. Oh, man. They were people. There were good guys and bad guys to go around on both sides.
Ana Edwards (chair of the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project)
The shame comes from different areas. The guilt comes from different areas. There’s lots of anger. A lot of that is right and correct. It has been a tremendously difficult context in which to live. We are still living in this history. The closer you come to it, the more you realize that… Progress is very difficult. As long as we keep referring to it as ‘in progress,’ we’re OK. When we refer to it as ‘accomplished,’ we’re trapping ourselves and fooling ourselves. People will find new pathways. Even if sometimes we think we haven’t done what we wanted to do, or haven’t seen the kind of victory we want to see, there will be other people who take the motivation and carry it forward. We are part of a process of struggle, and it’s a good struggle to be part of.
I do hope some of you will have the opportunity to participate in this closing chapter of our sesquicentennial.