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. 🙂