Is the Civil War Sesquicentennial Over?

Last week Kevin Levin suggested that the Civil War Sesquicentennial was essentially over.  As he put 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?”

I found this assertion incredible. I guess the military confrontations of 1864, where Ulysses S. Grant oversaw a strategic push that proved the death knell for the Confederacy, doesn’t count. Neither does the election of 1864, or the Thirteenth Amendment (so much for all those people who so adored Steven Spielburg’s Lincoln). And let’s just set aside the Confederate surrenders of 1865 (especially Appomattox) and Lincoln’s assassination. No reason to reflect on those  moments.

Let’s assume for a moment that Kevin’s right. Who or what is to blame for that? I’d suggest it’s a failure or imagination and purpose among some historians, including those who declared that this was not my grandfather’s Civil War centennial. So much for all those efforts to recast public understanding of the conflict, to deromanticize it, to talk about a nation at war and the horrors of destruction and death. It was all over after Gettysburg, right? Heck, the 54th Massachusetts is simply a nod to present-day sensibilities, since the story of the black military experience extends far beyond July 1863. Remember the Crater, I say!  :) And that’s just for starters.  

There’s a lot we can learn from the eighteen months from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to the spring of 1865, but only if we want to drop old-fashioned and even quaint notions of the American Civil War. What about the Democratic claim that the war was a failure? What about the debate over prisoner exchanges? What of the impact of the war waged by William T. Sherman in Georgia and the Carolinas and Philip H. Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley? What about Confederate efforts to continue the struggle, most notably through enlisting blacks, and what of the collapse of support for the war that created such a crisis? What about the struggle to end the war? What, indeed, about Appomattox?

If some historians want to shrug their shoulders now, maybe even declare victory long before April (or December) 2015, or the like, well, that’s sad, and it’s pathetic. It will indeed be their grandfather’s centennial after all, for all of the shouting and self-congratulation to the contrary. For the rest of us who know better, I suggest we have work to do. 

I think Kevin’s trying to pull one over on us, that’s all.  He knows better. But that’s what a controversy blogger does. :)

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33 thoughts on “Is the Civil War Sesquicentennial Over?

  1. I am sorry if the post was unclear, but you completely missed my point. I am not suggesting anything along the lines that there is nothing to learn from the second half of the war. What I was attempting to get at is that for many Americans the EP, Gettysburg, and the 54th at Wagner represents the core of our collective Civil War memory.

    Again, nothing in this post reflects my own personal view about what is worth remembering about the Civil War.

    • First you say that your post was unclear, then you say that I missed your point. Perhaps that’s because your point was unclear.

      I simply quoted what you said:

      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?

      What did I miss? I provided a link to the rest of your post.

      I gather I’m not the only person who read your post as I did.

      As for Reconstruction’s sesquicentennial, that’s not a new discussion, as I’m sure you know, and in any case, we are in agreement that there’s plenty to observe in 1864-65. As I said of you, “He knows better.”

      Somehow to be chided for misunderstanding a post that you admit was less than clear (and which others interpreted as I did) seems a bit off the mark … but I won’t call it deliberately pedantic. :) One would hope that you would be pleased that your post stirred up the sort of reaction that can point us to the sort of discussion we might have to ensure that this is not our grandfather’s Civil War centennial.

      P. S. I mentioned the Crater in my post.

      • I suggested you missed it because it perhaps could have been clearer. Yes, you are the only one that I know of who interpreted along these lines. I simply wanted to clarify my position, which I assume you understand.

        • I’m aware that I’m the only blogger who has shared this interpretation in public (although you might review the comments section here to see that others raised questions about what you said). If anything, your comments (as well as the comments of others) about the Virginia-centric narrative that links our memory of the war to the fortunes of the Army of Northern Virginia and its commander suggest the resilience of the Centennial-era narrative even in the age of its critics. Vicksburg was at least as important as Gettysburg, for example, and the same could be said for Chattanooga.

          • I am aware of at least one commenter who referred to your interpretation of the passage from my post as an “idiotic moronic assertion.” I would agree with this gentleman if if was what I intended to say, which it was not.

            Let me be clear that I am not “chiding” you for anything. I have absolutely no problem whatsoever with you or anyone else critiquing what I write. My intention was simply to point out that your post does not properly represent my position.

            • I understand that you feel that way. I also understand that you now admit that your post did not properly represent your position because it was unclear. Will Hickox also mentioned his surprise with your post in the comments to my Sunday post, and it is that comment to which I was referring.

              Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s move on.

  2. FYI, I wrote a follow-up post that hopefully helps with some of the confusion here: http://cwmemory.com/2013/07/27/where-should-we-commemorate-reconstruction/

    “One reason why the final two years of the Civil War is so difficult to commemorate is that it offers little in the kinds of dramatic battles that still captivate the imaginations of so many. Many of us are seduced by the success of Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia and how close they brought the Confederacy to independence. Whether we acknowledge the inevitability of Confederate defeat or not and with the benefit of hindsight, the final two years of the war appear to be a gradual deterioration of all things Confederate.”

    • I understand what you wrote. It seems to me that it captures the failure of imagination in how to commemorate the final years of the conflict. If “many of us are seduced by the success of Lee,” that says something about the enduring strength of the centennial model. I happen to think that the very historians who have announced that this is not your grandfather’s Civil War centennial can do better.

    • Kevin Levin’s an important Civil War blogger as well as a fine teacher and scholar. Nothing over the last several days has changed my assessment of him. When Kevin posts, people read and consider what he has to say, whether or not they agree with him. It is precisely because of that status that I chose to reply.

      Even people who agree on a great many things often find something where they disagree, sometimes with intensity and passion. Moreover, one does not venture into the blogosphere as a leading voice without anticipating that not everyone will agree with what they say. If one thinks otherwise, then one should not participate.

      I think this is an important conversation that should quickly outgrow its roots, because we really need to understand what we think should be remembered and understood about the war, and what that says about us.

  3. Huzzah! The Sesquicentennial lives! At the double quick! Forward march! And just step right over Kevin as you advance. :)

    Or… when the Sesquicentennial roll call comes mark Kevin down as absent without leave. :)

    I josh, I josh.

  4. December 2015 you say? Will there be no diehards who will hang on until August 1866 to commemorate the 150th of President Johnson’s proclamation declaring peace and tranquility had been restored?

  5. I notice that Ulysses S. Grant is missing from the “trifecta.” Like he disappeared from history as recalled by the average American. Oh, he might appear at Appomattox if such is remembered, but his amazing career and his non-racist attitudes also need remembering. Just sayin.

  6. A post provokes discussion. Shocking.

    Actually, one of the fields that should get a lot of attention over the next year and a half is the ACW has a historical case study of conflict resolution – the 1864-65 period of the war offers a master class in how to end a war, while the Reconstruction era does the same for post-conflict studies.

    Best,

    • I agree. I think it is better to concentrate on efforts to enrich public understanding as well as intellectual discussion than on wondering whether the public has had enough of an already worn and dated tale.

      • Be interesting to check with the AWC and C&GSC to see what they are doing; I know the AWC has had a number of lectures in the past month regarding Gettysburg, but given the sort of operations the AUS has been involved in during recent decades, the post-Appomatox period of the ACW is almost more pertinent.

        I think you have some connections, true?

        Best,

  7. I think the biggest problem is that for the last two years of the war it took place in the South and for the majority of the time the Confederacy was losing. We’ve already seen the argument about “What if Jackson had been alive and well at Gettysburg” and that will be repeated over and over again. The IF factor will kick in big. Let’s see the celebration of the taking of Atlanta or Sherman’s March to the Sea. How about the storming of Lookout Mountain? Will the massacre at Fort Pillow be commemorated? Will Grant’s strategic vision be celebrated? Somehow I don’t think the last two years play well in the South judging by the actions and words of a certain group who have a hard time figuring out why this war was fought and why the South lost.

    • The Confederates have some victories. Coming up is Chickamauga. Then in 1864 there is the Red River campaign, Sigel losing in the Shenandoah, Beauregard bouncing Butler, and Grant not taking Richmond like he thought he would.

  8. I’m curious to see how much discussion there is about Sherman next fall. Will the sesquicentennial of his March lead to insightful comparisons with 20th century wars, the South damning him for being the devil incarnate, or will it be overlooked by public consciousness?

    Part of the problem with 1864-65 is the battles and battlefields. Everyone’s heard of Antietam and Gettysburg, most have heard of Shiloh and Vicksburg and Bull Run. How many average folks are familiar with Kennesaw Mountain or Bermuda Hundred or Bentonville? The Wilderness was nearly turned into a Walmart and doesn’t even have a real visitors center. Cold Harbor shares a tiny visitors center with Gaines Mill. The Atlanta battlefields have all been consumed by urban sprawl. Once he leaves Atlanta, Sherman barely fights another major battle for the rest of the war. The Petersburg has a good NMP, but the different battles all blur together in one long survival contest in the trenches that went on forever (at least until WW1 redefined that idea). So yes, there is plenty of important stuff in 1864-65 but at the same time I can see how it gets overlooked.

    • The burning of Atlanta is the most famous scene in Civil War cinema. The two most popular recent films on the war, Cold Mountain and Lincoln focus on the 1864-1865 period. Most non-CW folks i know get no charge from Bull Run, but they can understand really angry black people fighting to free their families, or the dislocation in a region that is in the late stages of losing a war.

    • It sounds like you have not visited a lot of battlefields from 1864-65 if you think they are a problem. Spotsylvania is extensively preserved and interpreted by the NPS. Five Forks, Sailor’s Creek, and Appomattox Court House are excellent sites. Have you been to the Shenandoah Valley? New Market, Second Kernstown, Third Winchester, Fisher’s Hill, Tom’s Brook and Cedar Creek offer extensively preserved areas for visitation and interpretation. The Resaca Battlefield is an awesome resource in North Georgia. The folks down at Pickett’s Mill would be disappointed to learn that they have been consumed by sprawl. The fields are there, and I suspect that each of these battlefields and many more will have significant regional and local 150th Activities. We have to remember there is only one Gettysburg. Its pull was infinitely greater even among the veterans who fought the war, so can we expect it to be any different in the 21st Century?

  9. Pingback: After Gettysburg… | HistoricaLese

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