Did the Civil War Sesquicentennial Ever End?

I am getting ahead of myself, but over the past few days I’ve been thinking about writing a short book on the Civil War sesquicentennial once I finish my book on the Black Confederate myth. I covered so much of the sesquicentennial on my blog that it would be a shame for it to remain there without trying to work it up into a narrative that has a bit more analytical depth. It would be a concise book around 150 pages. This is not the first time that I have thought about such a book, but now seems like an opportune moment to take it on.

One of the questions that I’ve pondered as I finish up the introduction to my edited collection of essays is whether the Civil War 150th ever really ended.

I don’t want to place too much emphasis on this question, but it is clear that  question surrounding Confederate iconography, which were present throughout the commemoration were given new life following the Charleston murders in 2015. We now know that part of what shaped Dylann Roof’s racist worldview was his identification and embrace of Confederate iconography and we know that he visited National Park sites connected to the Civil war at the tail end of the Civil War 150th.

One thing is for certain, the Civil War 150th introduced a public narrative that directly or indirectly pointed to the question of how communities remember the war and its legacy in public spaces. The horrific murders committed by Roof brought this debate out for all to see. When and how it ends has yet to be decided.

What do you think?

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12 comments… add one
  • Forester Feb 24, 2017 @ 9:12

    I’m sure there is a lesson to be learned from Roof’s actions, but it still seems too early to properly interpret. On the one hand, it seems to prove that racism is still alive and active today. On the other hand, Roof failed to start the race war he thought was coming, showing that he really was just one crazy man with no support or followers. Even the most dyed in the wool Southrons condemned his actions. But on the other hand, we did see a surge of white supremacy that some believed contributed to Trump’s election. The rise of the Alt-Right could definitely be seen as part of the cultural zeitgeist that influenced Roof.

    There is also a “chicken or the egg” debate to consider. Did the Confederate Flag, Civil War memory and park service sites influence Roof’s racist worldviews ….. or was he already racist and therefore interpreted what he saw through a racist lens? I read your blog about his visit to Fort Moultrie, but I can’t help but feel that any NPS interpreter would be horrified by what Roof took away from his tours. Could they have prevented his massacre, or was he too far gone to be influenced?

    I know there is probably a “takeaway” lesson in all of this, but it’s really hard to interpret right now. Maybe on the sesquicentennial anniversary of the sesquicentennial, someone will have all this sorted out.

    • Msb Feb 24, 2017 @ 13:17

      “One crazy man with no support or followers”
      Well, except for the guy who was just arrested for wanting to do something like Roof, and the guy who shot two Indians, and a white co-worker who tried to defend them, because they (the Indians) looked “Middle Eastern”. That’s one would-be copy-cat and one brother in arms. And let’s not forget the recent vandalism of a Jewish cemetery and the joker(s) who call(s) in bomb threats against Jewish institutions every week. These people don’t need to pledge allegiance to Roof; like Roof, they’ve pledged it to white supremacy.

  • Craig L. Feb 23, 2017 @ 19:31

    We celebrated the sesquicentennial of the Civil War by electing an African-American president. We nearly followed that with the first female president, but opted instead for the first mentally ill president. We now have perhaps four years or possibly even eight years to focus on and closely examine high profile, charismatic mental illness.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 24, 2017 @ 2:31

      Obama was elected three years before the official start of the sesquicentennial.

  • Bruce Vail Feb 23, 2017 @ 5:42

    No, it did not end.

    The modern understanding of the war seems to be that it did not end in 1865, but that the struggle continued in other forms. I think that is what makes the sesquicentennial different than the centennial — that we no longer have a sense that Appomattox was the end of anything.

    The Roof murders were a horrible event but will soon be forgotten entirely. I wouldn’t dwell too much on Roof in your new book,.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 23, 2017 @ 7:56

      Good points, Vail. I tend to agree with you re: Roof, but at the same time I think it is indisputable that his actions forced the conversation on the public in a way that the events comprising the sesquicentennial could not.

  • Forester Feb 22, 2017 @ 10:52

    Why would it be “over”?

    Martial Law lasted until about 1870, right? I would say that this is the sesquicentennial of Reconstruction. 1867 was a turbulent year, with the Reconstruction Act, debates over the 14th Amendment, KKK violence, ect. The Klan would still be a major problem until Grant cracked down on them in 1871, and I think those are all 150th anniversaries that shouldn’t be overlooked. Plenty of material to teach about.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 22, 2017 @ 10:58

      I think most people would point to the commemorations of Appomattox and other events in spring 2015 as marking the official end of the 150th. I am simply asking whether we should think otherwise. Please read the post again.

      • Forester Feb 22, 2017 @ 11:45

        I wasn’t trying to debate with you, please don’t misunderstand. I was trying to say that we should NOT think the 150th is over because the postwar years were extremely important and should not be overlooked.

        I’m aware that most people think the sesquicentennial ended in 2015, which is tragic because I believe that events and public speaking engagements should continue until 2020 at least.

        The only thing I ever wrote during the sesquicentennial was a piece for the local newspaper on the 1866 riots, a whole year after Appomattox. I was disappointed that people weren’t talked about reconstruction, so I jumped in and did my part to contribute. I’m now working with some people at Old Dominion University to produce a short documentary on the postwar violence, and I want to make a half-hour long film on Virginia’s readmission to the Union for release in 2020. I’m more interested in the topic now than I was during the actual anniversary in 2011-2015.

        Recent events like Dylan Roof and the rise of the Alt-Right fit perfectly with a discussion of Reconstruction. Events and lectures on the 150th of Reconstuction could be an excellent way to bring history and current events together making something both educational and relevant

        • Kevin Levin Feb 22, 2017 @ 12:00

          Thanks for the clarification. I agree with your point. The public debate about Confederate iconography is just as much about Reconstruction and Jim Crow as it is about the war itself.

  • Ken Noe Feb 22, 2017 @ 8:30

    I thought I had tied up my Sesquicentennial lecture with lessons learned and morals enunciated. Then Dylan Roof appeared and the ending changed dramatically. Something is ongoing, but to me it seems more to echo the debates over legacy and meaning that developed in Reconstruction. The question of who should control public space seems key again. Maybe we’re still marking the sesquicentennial of “the Long Civil War.”

    • Kevin Levin Feb 22, 2017 @ 8:35

      Hi Ken,

      I agree with the thrust of your assessment. It certainly echoes the outline of the debate that gained fuel during the Civil War 150th, but the fact that we are now engaged in this vibrant public discussion ought to be understood as an integral part of the commemoration.

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