Remembering and Forgetting (or Ignoring): The Sesquicentennial

One of the most memorable (and oft-cited) observations contained in David W. Blight’s Race and Reunion is that the notion of historical memory is as much about forgetting as it is about remembering. The recent discussion about the fate of the Sesquicentennial post-Gettysburg (see an interesting view from Robert Moore) as well as what we remember and forget about Gettysburg itself (see this fine and typically thoughtful post by John Hennessy) serve to remind us of something that has struck me in the past months about Sesquicentennial memory.

I have heard it declared by several people (including some good friends) that this is not your grandfather’s Civil War Centennial. I would hope not, for all sorts of reasons. Yet by now that observations has become trite and not a little self-congratulatory … and we might want to subject it to some critical thought. Continue reading

Do You Remember the Civil War Centennial?

We’ve been talking a great deal about the impact of commemorations tied to anniversaries. One question that’s been raised repeatedly is whether these commemorations make any difference, and what, if anything, is their lasting impact.

A good number of readers of this blog are old enough to have some memory, however vague, of the Civil War Centennial of 1861-1865. Sure, those folks (including me) were young then, in some cases children. Yet we all know that in some cases one’s interest in history is ignited in one’s childhood.

So … what are my memories of the Civil War Centennial? Admittedly, they are meager, and yet they are there. I visited Washington, DC, in 1966 and Gettysburg in 1967, when one could still find centennial-themed souvenirs.  However, as for the years of the centennial itself, the major items (for me) were …

(1) three issues of National Geographic, one for April 1961, another for July 1963, and a third for April 1965, covering the war (and including a rather large map). I remember reading these articles repeatedly and closely, and I really wanted to visit Bender’s Gift Shop after I saw a photo of its store window in the July 1863 issue. There were also some really engaging maps in the July 1963 issue detailing the Vicksburg campaign and Gettysburg.

(2) American Heritage‘s Civil War volume, featuring the statue of General Warren at Gettysburg on the dust jacket. I have to admit that while I read Bruce Catton’s text, I found the illustrated sections and the maps far more engrossing.

(3) items bought at the 1964-65 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadow, New York. I recall a pen with a saber for a clip. Time and again we would get off the train, turn right, walk by the Maryland exhibit, and make our way to the Illinois exhibit, complete with Walt Disney’s animated Abraham Lincoln. Here and there one would pick up other mentions of the Civil War, but meeting Mr. Lincoln was the best.

(4) toy soldiers, from a range of manufacturers, headed by Lido, Britains, and MPC Ring Hand (with the detachable equipment that never quite worked well). I did not get Marx plastic figures until later, although I did pick up a fairly complete collection of their Warriors of the World series.

(5) the usual Paris musket and a far more realistic-looking Remington toy revolver (we played Civil War in the back yard and nearby woods, as well as a roster of other conflicts).

Other than introducing me to the Civil War as a war, these items were useful primarily as a way to stir the imagination and curiosity.  They served as fun items in themselves and as a gateway to further inquiry, although I’m sure someone could make more of it (why, no home front? no USCT? no burning of Atlanta playset?).

What about you?

On Commemorating Charges

On July 3, 2013, I was present near the Brian Farm when I watched thousands of people cross the fields from Seminary Ridge to Cemetery Ridge in an observance I’m still not quite sure how to characterize … and I don’t yet know what to make of it, perhaps because there are several ways to view the event. Maybe I’ll share my mixed feelings (and some confusion) at a later time, but for now I want to ask a different question:

How should we commemorate the actions of May 12, 1864, at Spotsylvania; June 3, 1864, at Cold Harbor; and November 30, 1864, at Franklin?

Would one follow the model provided at Gettysburg? What about the model offered at Fredericksburg the previous December? Or what would you suggest?

After all, the men who participated in these actions were just as courageous as the ones who fought on July 3, 1863.

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. 🙂

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?