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?

13 thoughts on “Do You Remember the Civil War Centennial?

  1. Bob Nelson July 30, 2013 / 12:17 pm

    Fantastic personal memories. Thanks for sharing. As for me, I don’t remember the centennial at all. I was a student at North Central College from 62-66 and my primary concerns were working, my senior clarinet recital, organizing a couple of major tours by the college choir, looking for a job, major discussions in the dorm about enlisting to “save the world from Communism” and civil rights, the specter of Viet Nam, JFK’s assassination and more. Did not get interested in the CW until I saw Ken Burns’ series and decided to research a little medallion I had purchased years before, which read, “Frederick Raelly, 17th Ind. L.A.”

  2. Al Mackey July 30, 2013 / 12:38 pm

    I have a very vague recollection of a set of Civil War plastic soldiers with a cannon and a small brown plastic earthwork. I mixed it in with my WW2 plastic soldiers. It was great for putting the soldiers firing the bazookas behind it.

  3. Dave Jordan July 30, 2013 / 5:14 pm

    Those awful ring hand soldiers were relegated to being rear echelon troops after I got my Marx Civil War set. I also got the Paris musket, and a Confederate uniform one Christmas. The maps in Catton’s book with the birds-eye view of the men, flags, buildings, etc and little numbers identifying the critical portions of the battle were wonderful. How about the Civil War News bubblegum cards from Topps? It’s a wonder my mother let them into the house.

    I was born in Atlanta in 1955. In April 1962 they had a reeanctment of the Great Locomotive Chase using both the General and Texas locomotives. My dad loved trains, so we went to that. It was pretty cool for a seven year old. The next year my cousins from North Carolina came down to visit and we went to the Atlanta Cyclorama. When the narrative came to the portion of the painting showing the Union troops shooting the horses of DeGress’ battery so the Confederates couldn’t remove the guns, I was horrified. I thought the Yankees must be the meanest people in the shoot those innocent horses.

    • Brooks D. Simpson July 30, 2013 / 6:19 pm

      Well, the horses were innocent.

      I have a vague memory of the cards, because if we had them, they didn’t stay around. However, we did play the board game Battle Cry, which sortta kinda looked a little bit like the Civil War.

  4. Patrick Young July 30, 2013 / 6:52 pm

    I used to think that the Centennial was a big influence on me, then I realized that I was three when it started. A lot of my interest came in 1965-1967. On the schoolyard we split into two gangs, Union and Rebels. I was blue, but we lost most of the schoolyard fights. I remember there being Civil War songs sung by glee clubs and by Johnny Cash on TV.

  5. Will Hickox July 30, 2013 / 10:05 pm

    I was born long after the Centennial, but these recollections are quite interesting and amusing. I can’t help but contrast what seems to have been a widespread recognition of the anniversary in the ’60s (granted, some of it sullied by Lost Cause nonsense) with the prevailing ignorance during the 150th. I guess a 100th anniversary is more momentous than a 150th. Still, as others here have pointed out, the war doesn’t seem to be remembered at all by a vast majority of Americans.

  6. Bert July 31, 2013 / 3:41 am

    Like some here, I was VERY young during the centennial, and mainly remember the related toys that came out then. It must have been somewhere near the end of the centennial period when I got a small Civil War cannon (a spring loaded thing that shot a baseball-sized plastic cannon ball). IIRC, it was named the “Johnny Reb” cannon. Now I look back and smile at the marketing – a name chosen based on where the greater interest in the lost cause of the Civil War would promise more sales. 🙂

    I’m glad you mentioned the World’s Fair in Flushing, Brooks. I had forgotten all about that until you mentioned it, but I also have dim memories seeing Mr. Lincoln there. Amusingly, the clearest memory of that day is my first ride on the New York City subway. 🙂

  7. Patrick Young July 31, 2013 / 6:40 am

    We can contrast the muted commemoration of the CW150 with the outpouring of national pride around the anniversary of the War of 1812 last year or the amazing bicultural commemoration of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo marking the close of the Mexican War.

    The fact is, the Civil War anniversary is getting more attention than any other historical anniversary, for which no living participant exists, other than the 1776 Bicentennial since the CW100.

    Both the Louisiana Purchase and the Mexican War, each of which brought in huge new tracks of land that are lived in by tens of millions of Americans, were arguably of an importance approaching the Civil War. One had it bicentennial and the other its 150th in recent years. What events and pageants commemorating those did you attend?

  8. Patrick Browne July 31, 2013 / 6:58 am

    I was not around during the centennial, but I did get hand-me-down plastic Civil War soldiers from my brothers during the 70s. I guess those were around for a while. There is a member of my reenacting unit who tells a great story about watching the centennial reenactment at Gettysburg as a kid. Guys wearing blue sport coats and carrying M1s. I’d be interested to hear if anyone else saw those early reenactments and what they looked like.

  9. Nathan July 31, 2013 / 8:22 am

    At age 14, I visited my first battlefield (Vicksburg) during the centennial and bought the various 4 cent commemorative battle stamps. American Heritage and Bruce Catton were premier.

  10. Al Hintz July 31, 2013 / 12:23 pm

    I still have my Battle Cry board game in somewhat mint condition. I always wanted to be the Confederacy but the odds were stacked against you because of too few railroads. Let me know if you ever in Gettysburg and we will play for old times sake.

  11. neukomment July 31, 2013 / 6:59 pm

    I was 12 years old in 1961, but have to confess I have no personal memory or token of the CW centennial. I have no memory of any mention or focus on it in our rural Michigan school. I’m sure there must have been some mention of it in the newspapers, but again memory fails me. I find that a bit odd looking back on it. I do have a memory of there being something in the news about the death of the last living Civil War veteran, Confederate as I recall, but I believe that was before 1961.

  12. Patrick Young August 5, 2013 / 5:01 am

    I just finished Troubled Commemoration: The American Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965 by Robert J. Cook. I was inspired to read it by this thread.

    A lot of the bellyaching about the Sesqui v. the Centennial might be put to rest by a side by side comparison of the two. While a lot of comments mentioning the book that I have read focus on the distorting politics of the 1961-1965 commemoration, the events described in the book sound pretty small and scatter-shot compared to what has gone on over the last 2 years.

    The Centennial Commission had a budget of only $100,000 per year, about a million bucks in today’s money, with a staff of five. Only Virginia (surprise!) spent major coin on the anniversary. After 1961 the general public lost interest.

    It would be interesting compare the size and number of anniversary events.

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