What If the Civil War 150th Began Where It Ended

This year we mark the 160th anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War. You probably haven’t thought much about that, but if you are reading this post it is likely that you have thought a great deal about the legacy of the Civil War over the past few years.

It has me wondering how the Civil War 150th would have been different had it began where it ended. It seems so long ago, but the end of the Civil War sesquicentennial overlapped with the murder of nine Black churchgoers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston and calls to remove Confederate flags and monuments from public spaces. That was just the beginning.

Looking back, the Civil War sesquicentennial seems so quaint in light of the past few years. I remember some of the earliest conversations among members of Virginia’s sesquicentennial committee—which proved to be the most active—that focused on ensuring that this commemoration would be inclusive and focus on history rather than politics.

One of the most controversial questions was whether battlefield reenactments should be staged as they had been during the centennial commemorations. In Virginia, a Republican governor was forced to apologize for a proclamation that framed the Civil War without mentioning slavery and emancipation. This is what passed for controversy before 2015.

The 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg (July 2013)

In his eulogy address for State Senator and Reverend Clementa Pinckney, President Obama gave voice to the overall theme that many commemorative events between 2011 and 2015 embodied. He argued “that the cause for which [Confederates] fought—the cause of slavery—was wrong, the imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil war, the resistance to civil rights for all people was wrong.” One hears echoes of the National Park Service’s theme from the 150th: “From Civil War to Civil Rights.”

Little did we know that within a few short years we would witness a president defending white nationalists rallying in Charlottesville to defend a monument to Robert E. Lee. And who could have anticipated the sight of one of Donald Trump’s supporters walking through the Capitol Building with a Confederate flag as part of an insurrection to prevent Congress from certifying an election that he lost.

What if the Civil War 150th overlapped with the Charleston murders in 2015; the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in August 2017; and the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020, which has led to the removal of more Confederate monuments than at any previous moment in time.

This raises more questions than it does answers. Arguably, more Americans have been focused on the history and legacy of Civil War over the past five years than at any point during the sesquicentennial. It goes without saying that this level of focus is not without its challenges. How would commemorative events have been different? Would state committees and other institutions have just thrown their hands in the air and abandon plans to mark the sesquicentennial rather than risk the inevitable political backlash from their constituents? I just don’t know.

Even without any firm answers this little thought experiment can help us to focus on our responsibilities as historians, public historians, and educators during moments of heightened public awareness surrounding our shared collective past. How do we leverage these moments in ways that both educate about the past and promote healthy public discussion? Can we or should we ignore current political/social/cultural debates at historic sites and other venues in hopes of addressing purely historical topics? Does this distinction even make sense in 2021 and with everything that has transpired over the past few years?

What are your thoughts?

14 comments… add one
  • Frank "Skip" Shaffer Mar 25, 2021 @ 7:49

    As I have said for many years, and been mostly laughed at, for many of the younger, new-on-the-scene historians, scholars and professors and their students, the Civil War and it’s timeline begins with Thaddeus Stevens and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The fact that Thad and Abe are standing on the shoulders of hundreds of thousands of sacrificed soldiers becomes less relevant every year. For them, Brandy Station might as well be an adult beverage. Nevertheless, they are the influencers and are re-interpreting the story and re-framing the narrative.

    With my compliments, I will say that Mr. Levin is in the vanguard of the new re-telling of the American Civil War.

    I am not saying, it’s better or worse, I am just saying………………….

    • Kevin Levin Mar 25, 2021 @ 7:51

      Hi Frank,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I am not going to laugh at you because I have no idea what point you are trying to make.

      • Frank "Skip" Shaffer Mar 25, 2021 @ 7:57

        Shelby Foote is out; and David Blight and you are in.

        Aren’t you supposed to be teaching school?

        • Kevin Levin Mar 25, 2021 @ 8:03

          This is a rather simplistic understanding of Civil War historiography. Thanks for the follow up.

  • bryanac625 Mar 24, 2021 @ 6:50

    separate ways. We all left the stage but one soldier remained. He sat down to write a letter to his wife about his experiences in the war and also wrote in anticipation of what was to come now that slavery was dead. I had great experiences with small living history events and at big battle reenactements (doing New Market Heights and being a part of over 1000 UnionI think in many ways the Sesquicentennial did begin as it ended. The Tea Party was going strong, as well as the birther conspiracy (I checked and the Washington Post documented several birther statements Trump made in 2011 alone). There were episodes of police killing unarmed Black men (Reginald Doucet- January 14, 2011; and Raheim Brown- January 22, 2011) as well as the senseless murder of a Black man (James Craig Anderson) by a White Supremacist. I admit I had to look all of these names/incidents up… and not because I’d forgotten them after 10 years… but because I’d never heard of them before. And the sad part, of course, is that these incidents of anti-Black violence/racism/hate crimes happen every year. What is different about the time since 2015 is that the monument removal movement and the words “Black Lives Matter” have grown considerably. I certainly think there were people who objected to Confederate monuments and protested police brutality before 2015; but the voices have become much louder in the age of social media.

    So far as the 150th, I enjoyed the Civil War Sesquicentennial and I was very glad to participate in several of the events as a reenactor. I wasn’t reenacting when the Quasiquicentennial was going on but I definitely believe there were more racially inclusive events in the 150th than there were in the 125th. I did battlefield events but one thing I participated in that I enjoyed very much was a stage play at an African American Church. The play was a timeline of Black history and we (I’m with Company B, 54th Massachusetts reenactors) did a scene where it was after the war was over and we were mustering out. We all said goodbye to each other and went our soldiers at dress parade at the Cedar Creek 150th, both in 2014) but that moment in that play really meant a lot more than I expected it to. And The Alliance to Preserve The Civil War Defenses Of Washington, DC (I’m on the board) has commemorated Fort Stevens Day every July since 2014 to observe the only Civil War battle that took place in Washington, DC, July 11-12, 1864. I am the recruiter of reenactors for Fort Stecens Day. I also put together a survey for the event and I will always treasure one of the responses we got- “This event is far more diverse than most Civil War reenactments I’ve been to.”

    Today, what I try to remember is that even if the Civil War 150th is over, the Reconstruction 150th is not. In 2015, I watched a discussion where historian Chris Myers Asch wondered if there would even be a Reconstruction 150th, but of course he quickly answered his own question. Some time around that, I was on the now defunct site cwreenactors.com and I saw where somebdy wanted to know when the 155th events would be starting…. apparently, someone who either didn’t know or didn’t care at all about Reconstruction. It would be nice if that guy was in the minority but far too many people are in the same place.

    By the way, I was going to participate in events to recognize the anniversary of the 15th Amendment (and the 19th Amendment) last year but COVID put a stop to all of that.

  • Craig L. Mar 23, 2021 @ 23:36

    The end of the Civil War Sesquicentennial culminated for me with the deaths of my mother-in-law at age 93 in Milwaukee in December, 2014, and my father at age 87 in Seattle in April, 2015. I had visited Milwaukee at least half a dozen times in the previous twenty-five years, but nearly all of the visits lasted two weeks or less so until then I had never really experienced a Wisconsin winter. My wife and I spent more than three months preparing her mother’s house for sale and didn’t arrive in Seattle until three days after my dad had passed. He was born and raised in Wisconsin but lived mostly in Chippewa Falls, an hour’s drive from the Twin Cities.

    My dad had no sense of any connection to his family’s original homestead an hour north of Milwaukee where they had settled upon arrival from Prussia seventy years before he was born. He also had no sense of any family connection to the Civil War until I shared with him what I had gleaned from the internet. He did attend junior high school in Pascagoula, Mississippi, when he moved there for several years with his mother, her parents, her brother and sister-in-law and their daughter, his first cousin. He distinctly remembered going to a movie theater to see ‘Gone With The Wind’ in Mobile in 1940, several months before it was officially released and before they remade the ending. He was genuinely surprised to learn from me that he had a Civil War ancestor and even more surprised to hear from me that our Civil War ancestor had participated in the Siege of Mobile at Spanish Fort and Fort Blakely. Five years after seeing GWTW he joined the maritime service as an able bodied seaman and in 1945 returned to Mobile to man his first ship.

    The run up to the Sesquicentennial had been ongoing online for five or ten years when the Sesquicentennial actually began in 2011. I began to suspect I might have a Civil War ancestor around 2003 by Googling my own surname, sometimes fifty or one hundred pages into the search results. I had about three hits, consisting of an emigration record from a German database used mostly by former West Germans looking for ancestors from an area Frederick the Great and his descendants had called the Neumark or East Brandenburg for more than two centuries before WWII, a transcription of grave markers in a cemetery a few miles northwest of Chippewa Falls and a roster of soldiers enlisted in the 27th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment from Sheboygan County along the shore of Lake Michigan. Census records, available through Ancestry.com, allowed me to establish definitive connections between the three core documents I had pulled from the internet and by 2005 I began my blog, adding new documents and explaining their relevance to what I had assembled. One item I added was a set of photos, taken by a volunteer, of my great great grandfather’s grave at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis. He was hospitalized there in July 1865 for several weeks, died there from pneumonia secondary to yellow fever, and has been buried there ever since in the Civil War section of the cemetery.

    The Veterans Affairs hospital at Jefferson Barracks has long been the headquarters for all of the VA west of the Mississippi. Jefferson Barracks became a National Cemetery during the Eisenhower administration. My dad earned a doctorate in Clinical Psychology at the University of Kansas in 1956 and his first job out of school was at the Topeka VA, where he had worked for several years on research projects while still a grad student, but working there as an employee required an orientation which took place at Jefferson Barracks. He took a train from Topeka to Wisconsin to attend his mother’s funeral and returned by way of St. Louis for his orientation where he had the privilege of attending lectures by Margaret Mead and Karl Menninger. I remember greeting him at the train station with my mom and my two sisters in Topeka when he returned from that trip. I was three years old. The Civil War Centennial was still nearly five years away. Our celebration of it came in the form of a move from Topeka to the west coast and a state hospital ninety miles north of Seattle.

    My youngest nephew was born in January, 2011. He’ll be fifty when the Civil War Bicentennial officially begins, the same age as me when I first began to suspect I might have a Civil War ancestor.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 24, 2021 @ 1:36

      Thank you very much for sharing this, Craig.

  • Walter Kamphoefner Mar 23, 2021 @ 12:42

    Before anyone starts in about Cancel Culture, it’s worth remembering that Lost Cause Political Correctness began even before there was a Lost Cause. Missouri once had a Van Buren County, but when the former president ran again on the Free Soil ticket in 1848, he was anathema to pro-slavery Missouri forces, who renamed it for Lewis Cass, promoter of Popular Sovereignty (which Missourians from Cass County supported only if it would expand slavery). Texas once had a Walker County dedicated to Robert Walker, who sponsored the joint resolution for Texas annexation. But when he proved to be a Unionist, Texans in 1863 rededicated it to Walker Texas Ranger (Samuel). And why are there so few monuments and other public commemorations of Longstreet? It had nothing to do with what Lee’s most trusted lieutenant did or didn’t do at Gettysburg, and everything to do with what he did during Reconstruction.

  • MICHAEL w MASTERS Mar 23, 2021 @ 6:50

    i was involved in World War One centennial commemorations., these have been a useful teaching moment for reflecting on who America was at the time and the sort of America Black veterans came back. there was no interest in connecting with centennial of the vote for women or other changes. given that, commemorations felt like overgrown boys who want to play at and talk about soldiers. the Civil War 150th had some of that, i think

    • Kevin Levin Mar 23, 2021 @ 8:11

      Thanks for the comment.

      the Civil War 150th had some of that, i think

      It had some of that, but the sesquicentennial featured a wide range of commemorative events that were creative, entertaining, and especially educational. In fact, the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission, which was by far the most active commission, made it a point that their events were not going to be purely entertainment.

  • Diane Hyra Mar 23, 2021 @ 4:56

    During the sesquicentennial years when I attended teacher institutes run by an organization you know, I was struck by the lack of any discussion on what was occurring at the time in regards to violent racism. I voiced my displeasure in the end-of-institute surveys. It was clear the organization was unwilling to tackle what it must have considered controversial topics. Every summer, another lost opportunity. Here were gatherings of teachers, most of whom taught middle or high school, who would be returning to classrooms with students old enough to have opinions of their own and who would need a safe place to discuss those opinions and the events of the day. Your post brought that back to me this morning.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 23, 2021 @ 5:08

      Hi Diane,

      Thanks so much for this comment. I hadn’t thought much about this aspect of the sesquicentennial, but this highlights the limits to which professional development programs were willing to go in linking the past and the present. I don’t know to what extent it has changed over the past few years, but I suspect it has. One of the programs that I work with every summer has addressed many of your concerns directly, but as you might expect, there are so many challenges associated with it.

  • Brandon Marie Miller Mar 23, 2021 @ 4:06

    Can we look at the political climate of 1861 and through Reconstruction without direct reflection on where we are today? I don’t think that’s possible now.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 23, 2021 @ 4:12

      I agree. Nor should we try to avoid it at historic sites and other venues.

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