Is Interest in the Civil War Declining?

The current issue of Civil War Times magazine asks a handful of people whether interest in the Civil War has declined in recent years. This appears to have been prompted by a recent Wall Street Journal article that answered this question in the affirmative. Needless to say, there were a number of problems with its analysis.

Of course, part of what is necessary in answering this question is first clarifying what encompasses the history of the Civil War. What exactly do we have in mind when we are referring to Civil War history? Are we talking about military/political history? The history of slavery and emancipation? Should we also include the history of Reconstruction? What about the memory of the Civil War and Reconstruction?

I was surprised that the ongoing debate about Confederate monuments and memorial was not front and center among the respondents in gauging the public’s interest, especially since the horrific murders in Charleston in 2015 and the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017. I would argue that it has fueled interest in the history and memory of the war. In fact, it may not be a stretch to suggest that interest in the history and memory of the war has eclipsed what we saw during the Civil War sesquicentennial.

Instead the editor offered the following in the introduction to the responses: “The ranks of reenactors are noticeably thinning, and monument controversies bring distaste to the study of the conflict and encourage fools eager to deface memorials to both North and South.”

“Bring distaste to the study of the conflict.” Seriously? This is an unfortunate response from the editor of a Civil War magazine. Sure, we have seen monuments vandalized, but it should not overshadow the extent to which this controversy has engaged communities across the country.

As any historian of Civil War monuments will tell you, vandalism is nothing new. What is new are the many community discussions and workshops that have forced people to confront the history and memory of our civil war since 2015.

Yes, these discussions are often heated and I have found myself at times frustrated by the way history is often manipulated by people on both sides of this controversy, but make no mistake. These discussions/debates reflect a clear interest in the Civil War era and historians, public historians, and educators should welcome it.

I am writing this having just completed an 8-day book tour that brought me to museums and universities in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. The crowds have been large and the audiences incredibly enthusiastic. It has left me convinced that there is a real hunger out there for Civil War history and memory.

To be honest, I am not sure why we are even asking whether there is still interest in the Civil War. We should be talking about how best to engage the public.

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9 comments… add one
  • Craig L. Dec 7, 2019 @ 20:46

    I first began to suspect that I might have a Civil War ancestor in 2003 at the age of 50. It took another two years to confirm that suspicion in my own mind and four years of blogging online to nail down the evidence that the William Lubach listed on the roster of the 27th Wisconsin was in fact my great-great grandfather. I have two younger brothers in Washington state, one nephew there, and a second-cousin in California who have also inherited my Civil War ancestor’s surname and could potentially pass it along to a succeeding generation. But my brothers’ wives and that of my second cousin are now past child-bearing age, so when the Civil War bicentennial begins in 2061, my nephew, now eight years old, will likely be the only remaining descendant of my Civil War ancestor bearing that ancestor’s surname. My nephew, if still alive at that point, will celebrate his 50th birthday in January of 2061.

    I suspect that at least part of the reason that I didn’t learn I have a Civil War ancestor until age 50 is that it may have been a family secret, perhaps one maintained at the request of the church in which my parents were raised and in which my father’s parents served. My grandfather was a minister in what was known then as the old Evangelical Association, substantial portions of which eventually merged with the United Methodist Church. My grandfather was fourteen years old in 1897, the year that my great grandfather died in a sawmill accident in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. Instead of attending eighth grade he went to work at the sawmill and became the primary breadwinner in his family, supporting his mother, four younger sisters and a younger brother. He agreed to do so on the condition that when his younger siblings were old enough to work they would support the family while he attended college. Thirteen years later that’s exactly what happened. He enrolled at a school in a Chicago suburb in 1910 where he earned a high school diploma in what would now be called a G.E.D program in his first year, a college liberal arts degree in the next three years and then two years at the seminary around which the college was built and he emerged in 1915 as an ordained minister. The eldest of his three sisters was disabled in childhood by a bout of rheumatic fever, but the three younger sisters all became school teachers and the younger brother went to work in a shoe factory.

    I have five siblings, an older sister, two younger brothers and two younger sisters. I also have two nephews and three nieces. I used my blog from 2005 until 2009 to ensure that my father, who has since passed, and my siblings were fully informed of the Civil War ancestry we share. Unfortunately for me none of them have taken it to heart. Some made note of it early on as a sort of weirdly interesting or novel curiousity, but not something that really resonates for them in the lives they are leading.

    The 50th jubilee marking the anniversary of the end of the Civil War took place in 1915, the year my grandfather was ordained. His first pastorate was in Lomira, Wisconsin, less than twenty miles from the fieldstone church at New Fane, built from field stones pried by hand from the rocky soil of the Kettle Moraine, where my great, great- great and great-great-great grandparents homesteaded their first farms in Wisconsin upon arrival as immigrants in 1855 and 1856 from Zehden, now known by the Poles as Cedynia (on the east bank of the Oder in East Brandenburg, Prussia, about 50 miles east by northeast from Berlin). The church is enclosed by the Kettle Moraine State Park, still standing, and very much in use by the Missouri Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. The church was planned during the Civil War, but construction wasn’t completed until 1871, so I imagine the congregation may have plans for a sesquicentennial about a year and a half from now.

    My dad’s two older sisters were both born in Lomira about two years apart. I suspect that between their births my grandfather officiated at the wedding of two of his first cousins. The cousins were sisters who married two brothers from another family, quite a common practice among Prussian immigrants. (My great grandfather and his sister also married a sister and brother from another family.) The brothers my grandfather’s cousins married were grandsons of a soldier, Henry Hicken, who served in the 27th Wisconsin with my great-great grandfather. I have a theory. I suspect that Henry Hicken was the last man to see my great-great grandfather alive. I think Heinrich and my great-great grandfather, Wilhelm, both got yellow fever in the swamps along the Tombigbee River in Alabama north of Mobile. They were still healthy when they boarded the steamer, Clinton, on June 1, 1865, but quite ill by the time the ship docked at Brazos Santiago on the mouth of the Rio Grande a week later. Instead of marching on Brownsville they were evacuated by ship to New Orleans and then by riverboat to the hospital at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, arriving there in late June. Wilhelm died there at the end of July. Heinrich recovered and returned to Beechwood in Wisconsin to deliver the terrible news. The only way to confirm my hunch will be to order up the papers from the National Archive. I haven’t done so yet. I’m afraid to look.

  • Sandi Saunders Oct 10, 2019 @ 3:42

    I think the answer is both yes and no. As long as there are historians, the Civil War will be a studied and still interesting subject, so no. Americans love America and our history. BUT, as many people grapple with the myths and propaganda that took the place of history for far too long, and they continue to be challenged by such minds as our host, the public interest in that side of the Civil War will wane, so yes.

  • Tim Russo Oct 5, 2019 @ 22:20

    “there is a real hunger out there for Civil War history and memory” – I think you are correct. I just read your interview in Slate, and found some commonality in your efforts and my film/novel project about the charge of the First Minnesota at Gettysburg.

    You mention that Confederates would mock their camp slaves when they showed fear in battle, as you put it “because it’s a way of reinforcing their own sense of Southern honor”. Uh…..Union soldiers did this too with their own African American “body servants”, even in the First Minnesota, on the march to Gettysburg. I have found no more difficult task for this film/novel project than identifying the African Americans who were with the regiment at Gettysburg, but I did find one, thanks to this mocking.

    An escaped slave named Tobe somehow became the officers’ body servant of the First Minnesota, and years later in testimony about the charge, William Lochren, then a sitting judge, who was in the charge, leapt into what can only be described as a Jim Crow style guffaw about Tobe running from shelling (1893 Third Series of “Glimpses of The Nation’s Struggle”). If you’d like to see it, email me, it’s quite a stunner.

  • Robert (Bob) Farrell Oct 3, 2019 @ 10:53

    Glad to read your comments…. I was questioning beliefs but am glad to hear that the Civil War years are still relevant

  • Rob Wick Oct 2, 2019 @ 13:28

    Seems to me they asked the wrong people to weigh in. Not that their comments aren’t cogent and informed, but if I was trying to figure out the state of the war in regards to the public, I would ask the public. Especially given that the commentators are those who make it their life’s work, so their perspective is different from the average park visitor. In other words, put a display up at various sites and ask people to contribute their thoughts and ideas as to what they feel and why. What Harold Holzer or Peter Carmichael think is important–and I found their comments interesting–but what a family of four who will make the decision where to visit seems more relevant to the issue at hand, if, indeed it is an issue.


  • Michael Aubrecht Oct 2, 2019 @ 7:03

    Kevin, here is how I gauge interest in our area.

    Of course living here in Fredericksburg we have the four major battlefields. There are also other sites worth seeing like Ellwood and Chatham and the Stonewall Jackson Death Site (newly re-named). I drive past Massaponax Church every day. Of course this is the site where Grant had his meeting that was photographed so famously. Every day, and I mean every day, I see people in cars stopping to take photographs of the church and read the information that is on the marker. Often there is a line. Now if a “secondary” site like this packs them in then there is certainly an interest in the area’s rich Civil War history that even goes beyond the standard battlefield tours.

    Michael Aubrecht

  • Rick Frese Oct 2, 2019 @ 6:57

    The ‘thinning ranks’ among reenactors may be more age-related, as is the case with membership in service organizations, veterans groups, etc. People are less socially engaged and more family and job focused. Public participation is on the decline.

  • James Harrigan Oct 2, 2019 @ 6:54

    wow, that editor’s comment is seriously clueless. He seems to come from a place where “interest in the Civil War” means a focus on battles and generals. Sorry-not-sorry that he finds “monument controversies” in poor taste. He’s probably right that interest in what HE cares about is waning, but Kevin is no doubt correct: public interest and engagement with slavery-war-Reconstruction is very high, and not going away any time soon.

    • London John Oct 3, 2019 @ 13:20

      Strongly agree. The importance of including Reconstruction cannot be over-estimated. My impression is that new understanding is still being created.

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