The Sunday Question: Is the Sesquicentennial Over?

So suggests Kevin Levin. Indeed, it would seem over for him. As he puts it:

We’ve commemorated the trifecta of our Civil War Sesquicentennial, which in my mind includes Emancipation, Gettysburg, and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Other than the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, what else is there to acknowledge?

Plenty, I’d say, but I’ll offer my opinion tomorrow. How would you answer the question?

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36 thoughts on “The Sunday Question: Is the Sesquicentennial Over?

  1. I am very excited to be participating in a live tweet of Quantrill’s Raid in August, so that is something else to acknowledge (you can follow the threads using the tag #QR1863). That is a really important moment for my own research, as is Price’s Raid, the Battle of Westport, etc. to be commemorated next year. Perhaps the “Big Three” are done, but there are still plenty of things to remember. Many who live on the Kansas-Missouri border are very into Civil War history, so from the public’s standpoint as well, I don’t think things are quite over in that neck of the woods. Perhaps the sesquicentennial will take a more local turn and fewer events will appear in the national spotlight, so really this is a question of: is the “national” celebration over, not is the there anything else to acknowledge?

    • I looked up some articles on this. I’m still baffled at how this will come off. It wasn’t just a raid, it was a massacre of unarmed men and boys. I’m not jumping to any conclusions. I really want to know how this aspect of the Lawrence massacre will be dealt with.

      • It was indeed a massacre, but although roughly 200 men and boys died, not EVERYONE in the town was killed (and only one raider died) so there are characters to play. There are a number of compelling reminiscences (from both men and women) who experienced the raid, so those of us playing characters are sketching out tweets to match our personal experience during the raid, following a rough timeline of events. Some of the characters are well-known (Quantrill, General Ewing, etc.) while others are “regular” folk like the character I play, a woman who tried to save her husband’s life, or Hugh Fisher, a chaplain who was home on sick leave and survived thanks to the ingenuity of his wife. The live tweet will be presenting both sides of the story, as it should, though participants will not be “sugar coating” anything. I’ve never done a live tweet before, so we’ll see how it plays out.

        Those of us who study (and/or have lived) on this border are well aware of some of the complexities surrounding the Civil War, given that wartime animosities are still heated in some parts of the region. Those of us who are Kansans have to remove certain bumper stickers from our cars and behave differently if we are in certain parts of Missouri, lest we get our tires slashed. Not everyone in the region cares (I’d wager that 99% don’t), but there are some radical folks who are still fighting the war. No one I know believes that outright murder is acceptable, but the tired line of “Kansans always perfect angels, Missourians always border ruffian murderers” gets us no where. If you’d like to read more about this, I’d recommend the new anthology _Bleeding Kansas, Bleeding Missouri_ that is coming out in August (available through Amazon). I’m a bit biased, but it will have some really stellar essays about this region’s role in the Civil War.

  2. Just to be clear, Brooks, I was suggesting that the three events referenced above may have constituted the sesquicentennial for most interested people. Of course, I am not suggesting that we will not see important events commemorated over the next two years.

  3. I have said this before, but since you asked, I think that the real legacy of the Civil War is not a bunch of parks where battlefields once were, or sacred relics in museum cases, it is the legal structures of equality. The movie “Lincoln” raised mass awareness of the passage of the 13th amendment. This has none of the ambiguity of the Emancipation Proclamation and can be celebrated, unlike battles. And for me personally, the central legal legacy of the war for modern times is the ratification of the 14th amendment.

    I have been told that the 14th Amendment is too controversial to celebrate. Strange that Americans killing one another is less controversial than Americans recognizing a common civil equality for anyone born here or naturalized. I think, however, that the 14th has a great appeal to the sorts of blacks, Latinos, LGBT, and twenty somethings who were missing at, let’s say, the Bull Run commemoration.

    The Revolutionary Bicentennial was not about battle reenactments, it was about the Declaration of Independence. That captured the American imagination in ways that musket drills never will.

  4. It is most unfortunate but there may be more than little bit of truth in that. Consider the importance of the Chickamauga-Chattanooga-Atlanta Campaigns to the overall outcome of the war, not to mention the 1864 Virginia Campaigns. While Gettysburg stopped Lee’s invasion of the North, it did not bring the war closer to a close which those campaigns in the west did. It may be that Appomattox may the one event that regains some of the national momentum for the 150th.

  5. Kevin’s statement also surprised me. Hopefully he was being a little ironic re: the limits of Civil war pop history. Chattanooga in November brought the war-winning Grant to Washington. In 1864, how about the capture of Atlanta and Lincoln’s reelection, which together effectively sealed the Confederacy’s fate and all but assured Union victory? And to make an obvious point: hello, Appomattox??

    From a military history standpoint, the nightmarish slog from the Wilderness to Petersburg and the slightly-less-nightmarish slog to Atlanta will likely pass by without public remembrance, but these campaigns foretold modern warfare, so we can expect some commentary on that.

    • Perhaps the guerrilla war in Missouri in 1863-1864 was more of a foreshadowing of the modern. Had interesting elements of ethnic conflict (Germans v. Chivs), the interplay of the laws of war and unlawful combatants, and the impact of various counterinsurgency strategies. We don’t fight in trenches anymore, but the struggle for “hearts and minds” is a theme in Iraq and Afghanistan today as much as it was in Missouri 150 years ago.

  6. I’m not sure it ever got started. 8 or 10 years ago there was a lot of interest in the sesquicentennial and big events were planned for Charleston, Washington, Gettysburg, Fort Sumter, Appomattox, Atlanta and elsewhere. I’m sure you folks remember the pre-event publicity on CW groups between 2002 and 2009 or thereabouts as well as I do. Most of them never materialized. Some say they fell victim to political correctness. I think they fell victim to a general lack of interest in this country regarding the CW. In 2011, Fort Sumter got all of 20 or 30 seconds on the evening news, other blips for Gettysburg and the EP, a few movies and as usual PBS chipped in with some good programs. As for mass media, I saw nothing on Shiloh, Antietam, First or Second Manassas or Vicksburg. More men died at Antietam than on any other single day of the CW and it got nothing. Let’s face it, most people today do not know much at all about the CW nor do they care to know.

    The big Gettysburg symposium was largely attended by professional historians, interested amateurs and re-enactors. Let’s be honest — we’re preaching to the choir. In Michigan, U.S. History starts with the end of WWII. Oh sure, here and there a history teacher with a special interest in the CW will manage to bring some of it in to his or her class, but by and large it’s not covered at all. Go through the halls of your local high school (if they’ll let you) with a clipboard and do a random survey. Ask every 10th students who passes, “Where was the Battle of Gettysburg fought?” “Who was Robert E. Lee?” “Who was U.S. Grant?” “Who fought the Civil War?” ” Who won?” “What were the major causes of the Civil War?” “What great document did Abraham Lincoln issue?” Trust me, I have done this. You’ll get blank stares.

    I think it’s difficult to get much interest in sesquicentennials of any kind. But it’s especially difficult when vast numbers of this country’s citizens are more interested in who won “American Idol” or “DWTS.” U.S. History? Civil War History? Bah, Humbug! It’s not on my radar. FWIW, I was surprised that you thought the trifecta was the EP, Gettysburg and the 54th Massachusetts at Fort Wagner. I would have put Vicksburg in there instead of the 54th Massachusetts. And possibly Fort Sumter in place of the EP.

      • No, I was not at GB this year. Why would I choose to deal with the crowds, traffic, no place to park, no place to eat, etc? I have been there three times in the past twenty years and that’s enough. To be there on the 150th anniversary was no big deal to me. Sorry, but that’s the truth. As for the rest, I was relying largely on what Al posted on his blog regarding this year’s activities and FWIW I think he did a nice job of reporting what took place. And you’re right about it being Kevin’s trifecta, not yours. But the symposium at GB largely attracted professional historians, avid amateurs and re-enactors. Where was the great response to one of the pivotal moments in American history from run-of-the-mill Americans? Taxi drivers from NYC? Auto workers from Detroit? Farmers from Kansas? They weren’t there. Maybe they were too busy watching “America’s Got Talent” and “DWTS.”

        • Bob, I was at the symposium offered by the Sacred Trust, and there were precious few professional historians there who were not speakers … and most of them had other things to do when they weren’t speaking. The audience, both present and on television, was much larger.

          The sesquicentennial was not as nearly as crowded or congested as you suggest, which is why I wondered about whether you were present.

          Where were the reactions from the average American to the CW centennial? To 1976’s bicentennial? Come on, Bob. you’re not setting forth much of a case here. If you are going to argue failure, you have to demonstrate what success looks like, and demonstrate it by comparison to past events.

          • I read Al’s notes and comments on the symposium and from what I can tell it was a great event. My point was that it attracted people who already have an abiding interest in the Civil War and the events of those four years. I will have to do some research on the CW centennial — events, participation, etc. I was in college at the time and was more concerned about civil rights, Viet Nam and getting a job than what happened 100 years ago. Sesquicentennials don’t generate as much excitement as centennials or bicentennials.

            I do recall the bicentennial in 1976 very well. I was playing with the St. Joe Municipal Band at the time and remember lots of parades, concerts and fireworks that were very well attended by huge crowds of people. I’m not arguing failure here. What bothers me is a malaise on the part of the general population when it comes to the CW. As Bryant Henderson asked below, “are we ignorant or just apathetic?” I would suggest that we are both and I find that pretty sad.

            • I venture that as a lot of hoopla, the bicentennial of 1976 fared well. Did it really do more than that?

              I think we imagine a golden age where people were far more interested in what we think people today should be interested than was in fact the case at the time.

          • Ran across this book on the CW centennial — “Troubled Commemoration” by Robert Cook. http://www.amazon.com/books/dp/0807143650 From this and other sources, the centennial collided with the civil rights movement and there was talk of cancelling the whole thing after a black member of the New Jersey Centennial Commission was refused a room in an all-white Charleston hotel. White Southerners saw it as a way to justify and glorify the Confederacy and there was much controversy. Here’s an editorial on the centennial celebration from the New York Times, April 2011. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/04/13/my-civil-war-centennial/?_r=0

    • Actually, here in Dayton, Ohio, Gettysburg was covered in various media formats and two of the cities used Gettysburg as their Fourth of July celebration themes as well. The Centerville-Washington Township Library used the Gettysburg Address as their theme and then had everyone on the float dressed in Lincoln beards and top hats.

  7. Perhaps a valid question might be, “When will the Civil War Sesquicentennial Begin”? I have been very disappointment that it has been ignored by the men and women who in particular are our political office holders. I fear that a major factor in their “ignoring” is their “ignorance” of history in general. The media might respond to some commentary, etc, by our politicians, but in the absence of that, the contemporary American media will pay it no mind of their own accord. To find any live coverage of Gettysburg 150, I had to go online to Breitbart Media (!!!) of all things! As for the great majority of the population of the US, are we ignorant or just apathetic? We don’t know, and we don’t care.

  8. “The Death Knell of the Confederacy” Chickamauga and Chattanooga (I’ve already got my tickets). Plus there is still the fall and burning of Atlanta, and the “March to the Sea.” People down south are still upset about that sort of thing, I’d imagine they will remember/see it. Kennesaw Mtn. is sure to have a 150th dedication. There is also the Battle of Franklin, and of course Appomattox.

    I think we may be on a downward slope for those most interested in the sesquicentennial. But I’d imagine it is far from over for many.

  9. Maybe the other folks here are less interested n mass media than I am, but I heard more discussion of the Civil War in the last year than I have at any time since Ken Burns’ documentary first aired. After “Lincoln” was released not only did 20 million Americans go to see the film, but newspaper columnists and talking heads fell over each other to try to tie the film to current events.

    The TV series “Copper” is hugely popular with my readers. It is up to Lincoln’s Second Inauguration now. The film “Django”, less violent than “Copper”, was also fairly popular.

    The fact that these pop culture offerings come from Spielberg, Levinson, and Tarrantino, and that they depict a decidedly more “ethnic” and less battlefield oriented perspective may be why no one has mentioned them. But, I can’t think of anything from the CW100 that compares to them.

    My guess is that the folks I encounter on Civil War blogs are a vastly different demographic from the people I meet in everyday life. This struck me in particular when Kevin’s blog discussed DKG’s speech at Gettysburg. A number of commenters were particularly angry that she spoke about LGBT rights in connection with the Civil War. Frankly, for the people I talk to every day that would have been something that they would have found cool.

    • The Washington Post has been publishing special sections every few months on the Civil War in honor of the Sesquicentennial. Two of our local papers here ran a Gettysburg 150 column every day from June 1 through July16. Pennsylvania newspapers went hog wild for the Gettysburg Campaign. There were plenty of special sections and special stories. I have several special magazine issues on Gettysburg. I’d say the Sesquicentennial is being pretty well covered in the media.

      • The NY Times published major articles on Gettysburg and Vicksburg in the front of the paper, a travel piece on Gettysburg, an article on reenacting, and a dozen blogs on the two battles. News day did a long piece on the Draft riots. Newsday had two long articles on Gettysburg reenactors. Both papers reviewed Guelzo’s new book for the battle’s anniversary. These are just the two papers I read each day. Seems like a decent focus on the war in the first two weeks of July.

  10. Imagine what it will be like around 2100?

    “Um, the second world war? That was the one where the Germans and Japanese attacked everyone else. Then the Russians, Chinese, and Indians defeated them. The end. Oh, yeah, the Americans and British made guns and stuff and gave it to the Russians, Chinese and Indians….I think. Or was that the first world war? It is so hard to keep straight…weren’t the Australians allied with the Germans in that one? Or was it the Japanese? I dunno, all that ancient history is boring….say, did you see that Mumbai is going to face Beijing in the Lunar Cup? And please pass the soya.”

    Best,

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