A Different Sort of Sesquicentennial

In the recent discussion over the future of the Civil War Sesquicentennial some people have argued that the whole enterprise has been a failure or virtually non-existent because it’s failed to reach a general public. They suggest that other such commemorations made more of an impact.

I’d take issue with this argument on various grounds. First, previous celebrations have not offered us much insight or marked revolutions in historical understanding (I present the Civil War Centennial, the Bicentennial of 1976, and the Lincoln Bicentennial as examples). Second, there’s plenty of evidence that the public reacts as interests warrant (to suggest that what happened at Gettysburg this July was a failure because of attendance while at the same time proclaiming that one stayed away because of the crowds remains one of my favorite entries in the unintentionally hilarious observation department). Third, in an age of instant reaction and impatience with results, we tend to want to see real change now, and, as historians know, it takes a long time to reshape broader impressions of historical events.

But perhaps the critics have a point. How might we reach a broader public in more imaginative ways? For that, I look to our cousins across the Atlantic, with their Horrible Histories, each of which conveys some historical truth in a memorable way. After all, this weekend is the 99th anniversary of the opening of the First World War.

Want to understand the horrors of a frontal assault?

How about explaining the Overland Campaign?

Need to understand class structure and experiencing the war at home?

And, of course, want insight into how leaders led?

Which, as we all know, is far superior to the usual historical documentary filled with talking heads, such as this one on Winston Churchill’s experience at the front in World War One:

Only people like me like that sort of stuff.

We can learn so much about how to spread historical understanding if we break free of our provincial American restraints about commemoration and reaction and look to Great Britain, that naturally superior country (come on, admit it: you followed William and Kate and waited for the news of the royal birth with even more anticipation than those of us who are getting tired of seeing when MLB suspends Alex Rodriguez). After all, I’m sure Englishmen and Europeans are above the sort of crass things we do, such as battle reenactments.

Oops.

7 thoughts on “A Different Sort of Sesquicentennial

  1. Barky August 2, 2013 / 4:02 pm

    Are we still afraid of commemorating the Civil War? Afraid of inflaming the clear divides between the races and right & left (which often equals North-South)? Or is our government simply so divided they completely missed the opportunity?

  2. Bob Nelson August 2, 2013 / 6:45 pm

    Well, since this was aimed at me — “to suggest that what happened at Gettysburg this July was a failure because of attendance while at the same time proclaiming that one stayed away because of the crowds remains one of my favorite entries in the unintentionally hilarious observation department” — I would like to reply. Obviously, GB 2013 was a huge success. A friend of mine, Pete Taylor, told me recently that some who went had to park between Cashtown and Chambersburg and be bussed in. And I read of an artillery battery from Washington State and another from Nevada that travelled cross country to participate. The crowds were prodigious and a boon for GB businesses — probably the biggest three days they’ve ever seen. Kinda like the 5th-3rd run here in Grand Rapids that draws 25,000 participants. Antietam was equally packed. Pete told me that some of his friends who went to Antietam from West Virginia had to bunk in Winchester.

    I suspect that most all of those thousands of people were “us” — re-enactors, historians, amateur buffs and students. Don’t ask me for numbers to prove it because I obviously don’t have any. But I would guess that most of those who went to GB the first week of July knew about the CW, had studied the CW, had read a lot of books on the CW and were well versed on what happened July 1-3. My comment/question was this. What effect did the 150th at GB (or Antietam) have on non-CW people? Common folks (non-CW aficionados) from Pittsburg, Clarksburg, Des Moines or Springfield. FWIW, I’m glad to be a member of the “hilarious observation department.”

    • Brooks D. Simpson August 2, 2013 / 8:25 pm

      I suppose that we’re back to your claim that unless the sesquicentennial did not reach everyone, it is a failure. One wonders how you would go about achieving success, and how previous commemorations succeeded while this one failed. Or you can just continue to be whiny, cranky, and a nay-sayer. Your choice.

  3. Bob Nelson August 3, 2013 / 2:11 pm

    Well, from what I read of the 1961-65 celebration, it had a lot more problems than this one. Look, I was a teacher for 32 years — music, not history — but I find it sad that most (my opinion — most) people in this country cannot tell you who won the Battle of Gettysburg. Or that they think the CW was fought between the U.S. and Germany. Or that they don’t know who U.S. Grant was. But they know who the finalists are on “American Idol” or “DWTS.” I’ve watched Jay Leno on his “Jaywalking” pieces where he asks fundamental questions about U.S. history of folks on the streets. Most, I suspect, find their ridiculous answers funny. I don’t. It makes me sad to think that so many don’t have a clue.

    I’m sure I told you this before. Around 2001 or 2002 I spent half a day at Carson City-Crystal HS. That’s where I was superintendent. Did a little random survey (every 10th or 20th kid who walked past me). “Who won the Battle of Gettysburg? Who fought the Civil War? What famous document did Abraham Lincoln sign in 1863 that freed the slaves? Who was U.S. Grant? Who was Robert E. Lee?” Gotta tell you, I mostly got blank stares, shrugged shoulders and “I don’t know.”

    I certainly don’t blame you or other professional historians for this. I blame “core curriculum” folks who have decided that U.S. history starts at the end of WWII. I think it’s sad that HS graduates today don’t have a clue what their ancestors did to create this wonderful country. As for your question, how do we fix it, I don’t know. I couldn’t fix it as superintendent of schools or as a member of the Michigan history committee.

    You’re right. I have turned into a cranky, whiny nay-sayer. I have become my father who used to tell me how great his students were in the late 1940s and 1950s. I seem to have become an anachronism. Maybe it’s time for me to just give up all this CW stuff and spend more time in my woodshop, in my gardens and with my grandkids. I think Jim Epperson recently put it best when he wrote, it’s become kinda boring.

    • Brooks D. Simpson August 3, 2013 / 2:16 pm

      I just think you would be better served if you concentrated on your enjoyment, such as your forthcoming trip. Take that observation for what it is worth.

      • Bob Nelson August 3, 2013 / 2:27 pm

        Good point. Thanks. You’re probably right. But I am seriously thinking it’s time to “pull the plug” on Bob who only seems to be able to create discord and piss people off. That has never been my intent. My recent questions on “states’ rights” on another group were posed from an innocent “What do you think?” POV. It was not my intent to anger you and I frankly don’t think I deserved your vitriolic replies.

        • Brooks D. Simpson August 3, 2013 / 3:23 pm

          Bob, you carry your issues from newsgroup to newsgroup to blogs, always then claiming that you’re misunderstood. Unhappy that your proposal to merge blogs fell on its face, you now react as you do when someone tells you that your questions have been answered. You may not like the answers. Innocent inquiries? Come on. You kept looking for answers and failed to wrestle with those that were given. You blamed the entire community of Civil War historians for some Canadian kid’s failure to offer the correct response on Jeopardy. I know I spoke for more than myself in expressing my impatience with your behavior. Anger? Nah, just irritation.

          Eventually you’ll settle down, write me privately, and blame it all on the consumption of Manhattans.

          And that, Bob, is the last word on the subject … yours or mine.

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