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.