Historians' forum: the American Civil War's Centennial vs. the Sesquicentennial.
Robert Cook (RC) is professor of American history at the University of Sussex, UK. He is the author of several books and articles on the Civil War and Civil War memory, including Troubled Commemoration: The American Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965 (Louisiana State University Press, 2007) and Civil War Senator: William Pitt Fessenden and the Fight to Save the American Republic (Louisiana State University Press, 2011).
Kenneth Noe (KN) is the Alumni Professor and Draughon Professor of Southern History at Auburn University. His most recent book is Reluctant Rebels: The Confederates Who Joined the Army after 1861 (University of North Carolina Press, 2010).
Dana Shoaf (DS) is the editor of Civil War Times magazine, the largest and oldest popular Civil War magazine. Each issue reaches approximately seventy-five thousand people, and he diligently uses the magazine as a conduit to bring academic research and opinion to a large audience. He also serves on the Washington Post's Civil War sesquicentennial advisory board.
Jennifer Weber (JW) is associate professor of history at the University of Kansas and author of Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln's Opponents in the North (Oxford University Press, 2006). Her specialty is Civil War studies.
Daniel E. Sutherland ("Postscript") is a Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Arkansas, where he has taught since 1989. He is the author or editor of thirteen books on nineteenth-century U.S. history.
1) What are your impressions of the U.S. Civil War's sesquicentennial?
JW: As I write this, we have not yet arrived at the anniversary of the war's beginning. Even so, commemorations are well under way. The New York Times and the Washington Post, along with some local newspapers such as the Columbia (Missouri) Daily Tribune, are running regular features on the secession crisis. Towns are scheduling local events, Civil War Roundtables are gearing up, universities and museums are sponsoring conferences and talks, and professional organizations are putting together panels at their annual meetings.
DS: The sesquicentennial does not have the feel of a national commemoration, but one conducted at the state level with a variety of success. Yes, major newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post are hosting blogs, and a spate of new books about the topic are coming out, but states' rights seem to have triumphed in this commemoration, leading to a scattered, uneven 150th anniversary.
RC: Judged from three thousand miles away, the sesquicentennial looks to be a relatively low-key affair--relative, certainly, to the over-hyped centennial of the 1960s. This is partly owing to the administration's decision not to create a federal planning commission and the absence of congressional legislation to accomplish the same objective. Calls for a federal commission have emanated from a number of sources, mostly historical groups such as the American Association for State and Local History and leading figures in the heritage industry including Frank Smith of the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum in Washington, D.C., and S. Waite Rawls III, president of Richmond's Museum of the Confederacy. Bills to create a central body were introduced in Congress in 2009 and 2010 respectively by Senator Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), but neither measure emerged from committee. Primary responsibility for commemorating the Civil War has thus been delegated to the National Park Service (NPS) in its capacity as guardian of the battlefields and to state agencies such as the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission and the Georgia Humanities Council. Initiatives are also being planned by a plethora of local groups and institutions.
KN: In some ways, I do think the sesquicentennial at its dawning is superficially reminiscent of the centennial of fifty years ago. State and local tourism offices, for example, once again are energetically advertising Civil War sites in hopes of attracting visitors. Heritage groups are active as well. In Alabama, the Sons of Confederate Veterans marked the February presidential inauguration of Jefferson Davis with a parade to the old state house. Similar events abounded in 1961, and no doubt we will see other familiar scenes throughout the sesquicentennial. Not surprisingly, the national media and even historians eagerly pointed to those moments as "evidence" of a continuing North-South divide in American culture, a civil war that has yet to end.
DS: South Carolina has a major role to play in the commemoration, for reasons I don't need to state here, and therefore is primed to attract national press coverage. As I write this, the most extensive national coverage given to the state was for the "Secession Ball" that was not a state-sponsored event. This skewed gala featured reenactors in bad clothes celebrating, yes celebrating, South Carolina's role in being the first to secede. (No matter that decision brought ruin to the state--I wonder if the residents of fire-ravaged Columbia were "celebrating" that decision in 1865?--or that this event did not take the opinion of African Americans into question, when they in fact were the state's majority population in 1865.) This ball got a lot of exposure on cable news outlets and Internet sites. Not exactly the type of desirable coverage to launch the sesquicentennial.
KN: What's crucial, I think, is that the Charleston gala, notably, proceeded without state sanction or support while attracting national scrutiny, protests, and the ridicule of talk show hosts and television comedians. Hours before the ball, the mayor of Charleston himself marked the day by pointing to slavery as the direct cause of the war, drawing an angry response from exactly one person in the crowd. Meanwhile in Montgomery, no more than five hundred marchers paraded in anachronistic uniforms past Martin Luther King's Dexter Avenue Baptist Church to the steps of the old statehouse, where one speaker compared them to both Rosa Parks and Harry Potter. Both the press and the city of Montgomery largely ignored them. What is obvious is that the national context for Confederate celebration at least clearly has evolved dramatically in a half century. What was mainstream a half century ago is now increasingly marginalized, I am reminded of a phrase Gaines Foster used in his classic Ghosts of the Confederacy: "ghost dances." That such events receive media play at all is in part because of the modern journalistic taste for Manichean controversy and sensationalism but also because obvious societal changes and the continuing economic recession have led thus far to a quieter, harder-to-film commemoration than that of a half century ago. As we've already noted, there is no national Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission. At the state level, many cash-strapped and controversy-averse legislatures north and south have been reluctant to adequately support or even establish statewide commissions. Alabama, where I live, rolled its sesquicentennial observances into a wider "Becoming Alabama" initiative that also plans to cost-effectively mark the overlapping anniversaries of the Creek War and the Civil Rights movement. The official logo tellingly features a seemingly stunned Joseph Wheeler flanked by the Red Stick leader Menawa and Rosa Parks.
DS: Virginia has done a stellar job of commemorating the Civil War and the Old Dominion's role through a series of fine conferences and events, but Maryland is doing very little at the state level. How then, will the role of the Battle of Antietam and its impact on the Emancipation Proclamation be remembered?
RC: Inclusiveness appears to be the chief watchword of the sesquicentennial, certainly in its official guises. Both of the failed congressional bills called for appropriate recognition "of all people affected by the Civil War," clearly intending to mandate respect for unionist, Confederate, and African American memories. Despite the bills' failures, the signs are that official efforts to commemorate the war will embrace this goal. For evidence, look no further than the ambitious plans of the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission, which has received generous funding (around $17 million) from the state legislature. This body has already held successful public symposia on the causes of the Civil War and the African American experience and a third conference, on military strategy, will be held at Virginia Tech in May 2011. Park Service employees, moreover, will reach out to black visitors by placing their accounts of major battles in social and political context, thereby acknowledging the relevance of slavery and race to NPS sites like Antietam and Petersburg.
DS: South Carolina is an example of a different sort. The state does have a sesquicentennial commission, but a web search conducted in March 2011 turned up a confusing array of Internet sites. In fact, one site labeled as the home page for the commission was out of date, lamenting that a December 2010 event had been cancelled. Another site also claiming to be the home page for the commission did list an impressive amount of reenactments, seminars, and other events occurring throughout 2011, several of which involved major historians of the era. That is promising and positive, but it's too bad anyone looking for information would have to weed through so much before arriving at the "real" site.
RC: The upcoming commemoration has received little attention on this side of the Atlantic. Although publication of Amanda Foreman's new blockbuster, The World on Fire, may stimulate some interest in the event, most Britons and continental Europeans will not pay a great deal of attention to it. The American Civil War has never received much attention in schools, so grassroots knowledge of, and interest in, the conflict is limited. In all likelihood the European media will only notice the sesquicentennial if it triggers political friction and thereby discomforts the Obama administration.
JW: What troubles me most deeply about what I've seen so far is the persistence of the Lost Cause mythology and the unshakeable hold it has on many Americans. Professional academic historians can rarely give a talk without being challenged by a member of the audience about the "real" cause of the Civil War. Yet when we respond that the cause was slavery, the questioner generally scoffs and dismisses the answer. Part of what holds popular imagination on this point is familial pride: some ancestor was a brave soldier who was fighting for his home, or for states' rights, not for slavery. But the adamant adherence to causation other than slavery is not solely the product of family lore. Texas's education standards, for instance, require seventh-graders to "explain reasons for the involvement of Texas in the Civil War" as being the product of factors "such as states' rights, slavery, sectionalism, and tariffs." (1) So young people are growing up being taught in school that slavery was a causative factor equal to, say, the tariff, or that the Civil War was not about slavery at all. Professional historians know that this is nonsense, particularly in relation to the tariff. With many of the alternative explanations for the onset of the war, one only has to push one question further to discover that slavery was at the bottom of the strife: "Why did southerners want states' rights?" To protect slavery. "Why were Americans arguing about the western territories?" To determine whether they would be free soil or slave territories. "If this was a bungling generation of politicians, on what question did they founder?" Again, slavery. The resistance to the notion that slavery was the cause of the war is not a problem limited to the South. I recently have had spirited conversations with friends who grew up in Ohio and New Jersey about whether slavery was at the root of secession and the war. Despite that I have known each of them for years, despite that they are well educated and reasonable, and despite my presenting them with various forms of evidence, they were still reluctant to concede that slavery had anything to do with the war. If we cannot persuade educated lay people--personal friends!--who had no ancestors who fought for the Confederacy that slavery is to blame for secession and the onset of war, what are we to do with people who fit none of these categories?
RC: We are already seeing some backlash on this point. The stress on inclusivity, to the extent that this means official recognition for the predominantly African American emancipationist memory of the Civil War, has already irked right-wingers in the South. Groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans plan to mark the 150th anniversary of secession in their own way--which means, in effect, actively celebrating the Rebels' defiance of putative federal tyranny and denying slavery's central role in Civil War causation. Whether the absence of a federal commission will make it harder or easier to combat this neo-Confederate agenda remains to be seen.
JW: This is one potential downside of the sesquicentennial. It gives the ill-informed the opportunity to continue to spread misinformation. Another is that it has the potential to inflame racial tensions. The most egregious example to date on this count is the effort by Sons of Confederate Veterans in Mississippi to put the image of Nathan Bedford Forrest on license plates commemorating the 150th anniversary of the war. Forrest was a self-made millionaire through his slave-trading business. He was the Confederate commander at Fort Pillow, where about three hundred black prisoners of war were killed, quite probably in cold blood. And after the war he went on to serve as the Ku Klux Klan's first grand dragon.
KN: Yet it simply is too soon to pronounce the sesquicentennial dead on arrival, as some essentially have, because it lacks national direction, a cohesive scholarly narrative, legislative largess, or widespread popular folderol like the beard-growing contests of 1961. It is happening. Universities, museums, libraries, historical societies, and Civil War Round Tables quietly continue to plan and host all sorts of local events to mark the anniversary of the war, as does the NPS. The initial responses should provide hope; one gathering in Fredericksburg, sponsored by the park service, drew more than six hundred people to a day of lectures on secession. Moreover, we also now live squarely in a digital age. Like it or not, the sesquicentennial is taking place virtually all over on the Internet, right now. There are at least four separate websites, for example, that are marking the war day by day. As already mentioned, the New York Times and the Washington Post inaugurated regular sites on the war. Meanwhile, bloggers and commentators provide a daily dialectic on a myriad of Facebook pages as well as dozens of weblogs. At their worst, these discussions admittedly generate more heat than light. Anger, name-calling, and the partisan misinformation to which Robert Cook refers abound at many web addresses, places where imaginary brigades of African Americans fought willingly for Stonewall Jackson, diatribes about the allegedly socialist Abraham Lincoln blend seamlessly into attacks on the current occupant of the White House, and Internet trolling is rampant. The sight can be discouraging, if not occasionally frightening. Yet at their best, at sites such as Kevin Levin's Civil War Memory [www.cwmemory.com], web offerings offer challenging posts and thoughtful conversations about the war and its legacies for a generation attuned to forming opinions at their keyboards.
JW: Clearly, the 150th anniversary of the Civil War is on the national radar, and this is good news. Members of the public who are interested in the war do not have to look far to find opportunities to learn something new. This is a wonderful learning moment for them and a wonderful teaching moment for us, and I hope we are all able to maximize this opportunity. I am delighted to see some organizations, such as the Library of Virginia, use the moment as a way to reach out to the public and ask them to submit family documents for scanning. Over the coming years, these are certain to help researchers advance our understanding of the war, particularly since the library, in this instance, is requesting in particular "global and pacifist perspectives and the viewpoints of individual African Americans and women." (2)
DS: A national Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission, appointed by the federal government, would certainly help give this momentous anniversary national direction and purpose. A model already exists, the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial commission, which worked reasonably well. Established at minimal cost to the taxpayer, the Lincoln commission helped guide state organizations and gave endorsement to larger-scale commemorations, in fact functioning similarly to the national Civil War Centennial Commission that proved so invaluable in the 1960s.
RC: While I concur that the federal centennial commission provided a certain amount of direction for the 1960s commemoration, it had significant failings. It is unclear whether the relatively low-key and inclusive nature of the sesquicentennial will help ensure that it does not become a political embarrassment in the same way as its precursor. Barack Obama, the nation's first black president, who has on several occasions identified himself with the memory of Abraham Lincoln, has already made clear his desire to honor both sides in the Civil War, first, by maintaining the Memorial Day tradition of sending a wreath to the Confederate monument in Arlington National Cemetery and, second, by publicly criticizing Governor Robert E McDonnell in April 2010 for failing to reference slavery when he revived Virginia's observance of Confederate History Month. The fierce criticism of McDonnell's action from several quarters, however, highlighted the Civil War's continuing capacity to fuel hostility between liberals and conservatives. The highly polarized nature of political debate in modern America may indicate the wisdom of a consensual and inclusive approach to the sesquicentennial, but that very fractiousness will make the avoidance of controversy virtually impossible.
KN: The sesquicentennial looks to be less print-driven, more electronic, more grass-roots oriented, more balkanized and polarized, and less bureaucratic than its predecessor. It will not result in a top-down, synthesized national meta-narrative. If one defines success as an upswing in interest in the war, we must wait and see. At this point, I am not willing to pronounce it a failure and consign it to the dustbin. We still may end up pleasantly surprised by what a more subdued national commemoration can achieve.
JW: It is too early to judge the sesquicentennial. My hope is that it keeps not only the Civil War at the front of the public mind, but that it pushes Americans to continue to think about, and work toward resolving, the war and its consequences.
2) How would you compare the centennial to the sesquicentennial?
RC: The Civil War Centennial was intended to be a national pageant, a much grander event than the sesquicentennial. Elites in the mid-1950s interpreted the conflict as a dramatic white brothers' war that had finally reunited the nation. They saw the centennial as a useful mobilizing tool in the midst of the Cold War--a vehicle for teaching ordinary Americans about their forefathers' military courage, patriotic devotion, and commitment to sincerely held ideals. Under pressure from historians, archivists, amateur enthusiasts, and the domestic tourist industry, Congress created a federal commission to oversee planning in September 1957. The agency's driving force was Karl S. Betts, a public relations specialist who also happened to be an old high school friend of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Determined to promote a genuinely popular commemoration, Betts fostered corporate support for the centennial and gave state agencies across the United States a virtual free rein to mark the event as they saw fit. When the South's Jim Crow regimes began planning a Confederate heritage bonanza, Betts made no attempt to stop them. A conservative Republican, he got on well with the segregationists who dominated the South's centennial establishment, notably ex-Virginia governor William Tuck, an influential member of the federal commission. While Betts was willing for blacks to plan their own commemorative exercises, he had no intention of making race a central theme of the centennial. When asked by a mischievous reporter from the Nation how his agency was going to handle emancipation, he retorted that black regiments had fought for the Confederacy and that "a lot of fine Negro people loved life as it was in the Old South." (3) As the Civil Rights Movement gathered pace, rendering Jim Crow a national embarrassment in the Cold War, Betts's lilywhite pageant looked to be a train crash waiting to happen. In March 1961, the U.S. Centennial Commission held its annual meeting in Charleston, South Carolina, to coincide with a reenactment of the Rebel attack on Fort Sumter. Unhappily for the commission, New Jersey's state centennial agency, dominated by liberal Democrats, demanded that one of its delegates, a black woman named Madeline Williams, be accommodated in the same downtown hotel as the commission's other guests. Charleston was a racially segregated town, and predictably the hotel could find no space for her. Sensing that the New Jerseyans were trying to undermine the centennial, Betts and Tuck insisted they had no control over a state's racial customs. The story hit the front pages of the nation's press, forcing the new president, John F. Kennedy, to criticize the agency publicly. Wiser heads on the commission finally prevailed and the delegates reconvened at Charleston's desegregated U.S. Navy base. But the damage was done. The Civil War Centennial was a national embarrassment before the event had even begun. "Just where in the first place the idea of the Civil War Centennial came from we don't know," mused the journalist Cleveland Amory, "but we suspect the Russians." (4) An over-commercialized reenactment of First Bull Run in July 1961 prompted more adverse media coverage and Betts was soon ousted from the commission. President Kennedy then appointed two level-headed professional historians, Allan Nevins and James I. "Bud" Robertson, to run the embattled agency. Both men helped steer the centennial into safer waters, primarily by emphasizing education and commemoration over spectacle and commerce and by taking some steps to incorporate African American memories of slavery, emancipation, and wartime service into the proceedings without unduly antagonizing white southern organizers. By the time the event drew to a close in the spring of 1965, most Americans were no longer aware of its existence.
JW: The centennial got off to a bad start when, as Robert Cook notes, an African American delegate to the U.S. Civil War Centennial Commission was denied a room at the Charleston hotel where the organization was having its first event. It was an inauspicious beginning. The national effort splintered. Coming amid the Civil Rights movement, the centennial gave white supremacists an unfortunate platform from which to spread their message and highlighted the continuing hostility of the South toward the North. It was a national embarrassment that served mostly to highlight how deep the sectional and racial scars remained a hundred years after the war. Mercifully, this anniversary appears far less contentious to date. To be sure, we have already had some observances that range from bad taste to the outright offensive--the Nathan Bedford Forrest license plate springs to mind--and more are sure to come. But the responses to these have been heartening. Even conservative white southern politicians have rejected the most obnoxious and racially divisive efforts at commemoration. Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, a white Republican, has said that he will not sign any bill putting Forrest on a Mississippi plate. In Alabama, no state officials turned up in February for the reenactment of Jefferson Davids inauguration on the steps of the State Capitol. (5)
RC: While black-white relations may be in a better state now than fifty years ago, the possibility for racial friction during the sesquicentennial remains high. The chief difference between 1961 and 2011 is that the intervention of the Civil Rights movement (now generating a powerful memory of its own) has left African Americans in a much stronger position to contest attempts by neo-Confederates to peddle their politically charged narrative of the Civil War. Although most blacks probably have more pressing matters to attend to than debating conflicting interpretations of the country's most damaging conflict, Civil Rights organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have spent many years campaigning against official recognition of the Confederate battle flag in the South. They will vigorously oppose any attempt by Confederate apologists to impose their own agenda on the sesquicentennial.
JW: African Americans are participating in this anniversary in high profile and sometimes very interesting ways. The NAACP in December protested the "Secession Ball" in Charleston. (6) And in St. Louis, reenactors who wanted to push back against the states' rights argument staged a slave auction in January at the Old Courthouse. (7) I hope we see more involvement by African Americans in the sesquicentennial, because blacks had so much at stake during the Civil War. The war marks not only the end of slavery in this country but the beginning of a concerted effort to push for social and political rights for all African Americans. More than anything, the contrast between this anniversary and the last spotlights the lasting achievements of the Civil Rights movement. The country has made huge strides in terms of race relations in the past fifty years. Progress in many ways has felt slow, and true equality remains a goal rather than an established fact. However, legally segregated schools, bathrooms, hotels, and restaurants no longer exist. As of 2000, the U.S. Census allows people to check multiple racial and ethnic categories, because so many Americans now belong to more than one. We have not achieved a postracial society, but more interracial marriages and the increased exposure Americans of all races and ethnicities have to one another at work and at school have put us well on the path. Most notably, I hardly need mention, is that the United States has its first black president--something that many of us did not think we would see in our lifetimes. Given that the Civil War was brought on by slavery, how fitting that Barack Obama should be in the White House at this time.
KN: I freely admit to warm memories of the centennial. No visit to Mill Mountain Zoo in Roanoke, Virginia, was complete without wheedling the purchase of a Confederate kepi or hat. I also fondly remember a family trip to the Manassas battlefield, where I crawled all over the field pieces, bought my first Civil War books, and marveled at the vista from atop the Stonewall Jackson statue. I was not alone, either. Eight years ago, I served on a panel with four other scholars of my generation. An audience member asked us how we first became interested in the Civil War. While the details differed, all of us pointed to the centennial as the genesis of our interest. Given its importance in our own lives and careers, that fond memory of books purchased and battlefields tramped, it is small wonder that so many of my colleagues worry that the sesquicentennial pales in comparison, and that indeed we stand in danger of losing a generation that already has shown declining interest in the war since the heyday that followed the first airing of Ken Burns's monumental public television series The Civil War.
DS: I was born in 1962, so I don't remember the centennial proper, but I certainly remember its afterglow. In 1968, my parents bought my cousin a copy of the American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War, and before they could give it to him, I found it and became entranced by it. My folks saw my interest and bought me my own copy. I was hooked, and here I am today.
KN: With all respect to my peers and our cherished memories, they are just that, after all, the fond recollections of children. Robert Cook and Jennifer Weber have already pointed to the ugly underside of the centennial that we missed: the hucksterism, the infighting, the political posturing, and the blatant racism that nearly wrecked the entire affair. All of those battle flags on sale at the Christiansburg dime store, for example; were they available because of the centennial, or because 1965 was the year Montgomery County, Virginia, finally integrated its public schools? Should we fondly remember the centennial celebrations at Gettysburg and ignore the fact that the leading spokesman for the South at that event was George Wallace, who used the occasion to link the Confederacy's cause to his? Frankly, I am unconvinced that it is the one model that we must follow. Indeed, I think we would do well to remind ourselves what we have learned about the seductive power of selective memory over the years and to be hesitant to turn an often tortured moment into a golden age against which we measure a necessarily disappointing present.
DS: There is a point to this sentimental journey. The centennial, by all accounts, was a flawed exercise that celebrated the white culture of the Civil War and focused on the glory and drama of battles and heroic figures. It was a male-dominated exercise that allowed nurses, camp followers and female spies a sliver of participation. But, despite all those issues, the centennial produced a bumper crop of people interested in the Civil War. Some of those people went on to become professors, authors, or museum and archival professionals. Those who didn't go into history as a profession bought books and magazines about the conflict, took a history course or two along the line, or spent a few days here and there helping the local economy of places like Vicksburg or Sharpsburg.
RC: This is very true. For all his faults, Karl Betts realized the importance of staging a genuinely popular commemoration that would excite Americans of all ages about the Civil War. The trick is to combine excitement with instruction, and it's not always an easy one to pull off.
DS: If you take a look around Civil War events that are open to the public--relic and collector shows, reenactments or conferences or battlefield tours--you'll notice one thing in common: a lot of gray hair. The audience generated by the centennial is aging. It's important, therefore, that the 150th anniversary capture the imaginations of another generation. The problem is, I'm not sure that is going to happen. I don't think the 150th has a national "oomph" behind it like the 100th did. The irony is that as we all have studied the conflict, it has become apparent that it was a far more complex event than it was often portrayed to be in the 1960s. For me, it's still a bit too early in the game to determine how the sesquicentennial will turn out, and compare it to the events of fifty years ago. I just hope the complexity of the era doesn't cause inertia among organizers who may avoid Civil War events because of controversy. We have a great chance to make a new generation aware of perhaps the most pivotal portion of our history, and we can't blow it.
3) What role should academic historians play in the commemoration?
DS: For several decades, maybe longer, I have felt there were two tracks of Civil War study, one in the academy and one outside of it, and the two did not intersect enough, in my opinion. I know that some Civil War scholars help lead battlefield tours and the like, but I'm afraid a lot of scholarship just isn't reaching a wide audience.
KN: People have worried throughout my career about a growing divide and distrust between academic Civil War historians and the popular audience. I'm not denying that it's real. Academic historiography that challenges popular perceptions by looking beyond the battlefield and statehouse to the home front admittedly does not always translate easily into public observance or book sales. And the public, publishers tell us, still wants battles and leaders, not race, class, and gender. More recently many members of the public simply have dismissed what academics have to say as "politically correct" when modern interpretations challenge revered myths of the past. I've had audience members become visibly angry, or even walk out on me, when I link slavery to Confederate enlistment. But while one cannot dismiss very real political and intellectual divisions, I think that the polarized apples-and-oranges trope nevertheless tends toward overstatement. Anyone who has spent time on the Civil War Round Table circuit, for example, knows that Civil War enthusiasts beyond the university still turn up to hear what academics have to say, and the vast majority stay in their seats. Popular periodicals such as Dana Shoaf's as well as many Internet sites have proven to be successful venues where academics and non-academics continually engage in constructive dialogue. It is possible to build bridges that will connect what George Rable once described as two parallel streams, each seemingly going their own way.
DS: Yet, take for example, Paul Escott's interesting study, "What Shall We Do with the Negro" Lincoln, White Racism, and Civil War America, published by the University of Virginia Press in 2009. Compare the Amazon sales figures of that thoughtful, nuanced study with Thomas DiLorenzo's Lincoln polemics. I'm not meaning to beat up on Escott; I ran an excerpt from his book, and dozens of other books could have served as examples. It is very worrisome to me, however, that the popular audience isn't getting enough of the academy's research.
KN: That's why the sesquicentennial provides such a marvelous opportunity. Better still, we already have the blueprints. One of the great strengths of Robert Cook's work is his delineation of how two groups initially wrestled for control of the centennial. The politicians and businessmen who first controlled the national centennial commission envisioned a flag-waving national pageant that would celebrate the war, reconciliation, and nationalism. Concerned about their developing commercial and politicized tone, historians such as Bell Wiley and T. Harry Williams called for a more sober Centennial that would depict the harsh reality of the war through good books and articles, public lectures, the archival collection and preservation of period documents, and the creation of useful bibliographies. Allan Nevins and James I. Robertson followed that plan as best they could after the centennial pageant floundered in Charleston on the shoals of segregation, and it provides a useful model for us now. Fifty years later, we need to continue producing good scholarship, and we need to share it. We should respond favorably to the requests from the Round Tables and local historical societies, taking our findings to wider audiences. Academic historians should encourage and support activities such as those planned at the Auburn University Libraries, whose sesquicentennial observances will not only include public lectures, but a day of sesquicentennial digitization for anyone who wants to bring in family documents from the period. Finally, if I am right about the sesquicentennial being at least in part an Internet event, it is time to bite our lips and at least occasionally take to our keyboards. If new media can radically advance the old hopes of Wiley and Williams through the digitization and wider dissemination of privately held documents, postings on a blog likewise will also immediately reach a wider public. That does not mean that we should all become bloggers, heaven forbid, but at the right moments, our comments can make a real difference amidst the cacophony of competing claims and spurious research. To paraphrase Kevin Levin, we shouldn't surrender the Internet to partisans whose idea of research is cutting and pasting ad infinitum from each other's wrongheaded screeds.
RC: While professional historians may have been deprived of the chance to serve on a federal sesquicentennial commission, they still have every reason to play an active role in the forthcoming commemoration. One thing they can do is contest the official mantra of inclusiveness when that apparently worthy mantra runs counter to what might be called, perhaps quaintly in these postmodern times, the facts of history. Inclusiveness is not necessarily an aid to historical understanding. Neo-Confederates, for example, adhere to the Lost Cause interpretation of the coming of the Civil War. They assert that secessionists abandoned the Union not to protect slavery but to defend white southerners' constitutional rights. Even a cursory glance at the historical record will demonstrate that the states of the Deep South seceded primarily to preserve their capacity to maintain racial slavery. Professional scholars possess both a responsibility to publicly challenge apologists for the Confederacy and the textual evidence to make their case stick.
RC: Historians also should highlight the human cost of the Civil War. In the process, they can interrogate the dominant nationalist interpretation of the Civil War as an epic combat drama, which ended happily for the United States with the reunification of the country and the liberation of 4 million enslaved African Americans. This interpretation might contribute something to national well-being, but making people feel good about themselves is a job for politicians, not historians. Like all wars, the Civil War was a brutal and disgusting event. As veteran-turned-author Ambrose Bierce well knew, death, disease, and disfigurement featured prominently alongside reunion and emancipation as its primary results. For this reason alone, any attempts by national elites to use the sesquicentennial as a means of promoting support for present-day military adventurism should be vigorously critiqued.
JW: This is a wonderful teaching moment for us, and I hope we take full advantage of it. Clearly, we have a chance now to educate the public that slavery was the cause of the war and explain why professional historians are almost unanimous in this conclusion. We can work to counter other misinformation, too, including the fable that many blacks fought for the Confederate cause.
DS: This Lost Cause mythology that slavery had nothing to do with the cause of the war is another example of the separation between the popular and academic worlds of Civil War history. How many academic historians believe that this is true? Popularly, however, it still reigns in many quarters. I regularly get letters from readers telling me so. The 150th is giving academics a golden opportunity to speak to a large audience. It is pleasing to see that many professional historians are, indeed, seizing the opportunity to do so.
JW: This is not just a moment for pushing back against the Lost Cause mythology, though. We have audiences hungry for all kinds of information about the Civil War. What strikes me is what a magnificent opportunity this is for us to share the insights we have gained over the past half-century. I differ a bit from Ken in that I think we've moved well beyond the guns and bugles, which have an enthusiastic but rather limited audience. We can use this moment to talk about the northern and southern home fronts, areas that are still ripe for scholarly exploration. Thanks to Drew Gilpin Faust, we can tell riveting stories about how so much death affected communities and the nations alike. Political histories have taken a different turn, too, examining not just events in the congresses and white houses, but also how they played out on a more local level. Here I'm thinking of work such as Phil Paludan's A People's Contest. And even in the case of military events that we think we know so well, works such as Margaret Creighton's Colors of Courage (about Gettysburg) offer a completely new view. Similarly, the past fifty years have given historians more time to contemplate the leading figures of the war. Robert E. Lee, for instance, has begun to come off his pedestal, with works such as Lee Considered that challenge the hagiographic tone of earlier biographies. While upsetting to Lee supporters, this approach has pushed us to take a more nuanced view of the Marble Man of Virginia. On the other hand, time has been more kind to James Longstreet as historians have warmed to his views about the value of fighting from a defensive position. We also have a much better sense of rank-and-file soldiers from both sides, their experiences and their motivations. We can take all of what we have learned, either in our own research or by reading the monographs of others, and share it in the many talks we will be asked to give in the coming years.
DS: For those about to embark on such tasks, here are a couple of tips. First and foremost, if you are going to discuss something that is social history, don't call it that. I've found that when audiences hear that term, they tend to tune out the lecture. I frequently engage in literary legerdemain. If I set up a story as social history, I got little or no feedback on it. But, if I simply let it run, readers were engaged by it and wrote in about it. The same tactic works for spoken presentations. Oh yes, another tip: Get ready for lots of fried chicken and pasta salad, which seems to be the staple ration of many Civil War organizations.
JW: Here in Kansas and Missouri, it's barbecue.
RC: Historians' main objective should be to continue doing what they do best: researching and writing about the Civil War (perhaps with a stress on probing narratives to slake the public's thirst for stories) and disseminating their findings as widely as possible. Only by doing this are ordinary Americans likely to gain a clearer sense of the sheer complexity of this sprawling conflict. They need to know, among other things, that slavery was the root cause of the war; that the white South was deeply divided over secession; that Confederate soldiers had a stake in defending slavery even if they did not own slaves; that most northerners did not go to war to liberate blacks but that the strength of Confederate resistance soon rendered emancipation central to Union grand strategy; that African Americans played an active role in their own emancipation but continued to live under heavy constraints; that Confederate defeat was a product of many factors, including internal dissent as well as Union military strength; that the battlefield and home front were closely intertwined; that southern whites fought vigorously, sometimes violently, to defend white supremacy after Appomattox; and that the majority of their northern peers were complicit in the failure of Reconstruction to make the former slaves truly free. Each of these points has profound relevance today, and each merits the widest possible dissemination.
DS: I don't like to conclude my answer on a negative note, but I am disappointed so far in the Society of Civil War Historians' apparent lack of involvement in the commemoration. I am a member of that organization and wish that its leadership would be more aggressive in establishing the organization as a contact point for speakers and advisors to 150th events. Who knows, perhaps the SCWH could even help fill the void left by the lack of a national commission. So far, however, I have not seen much effort from that quarter.
4) How do think recent scholarship on memory has shaped current perceptions of the Civil War?
KN: I think the answer depends upon whose perceptions one means. On the one hand, one of the hallmarks of recent scholarship certainly has been a flowering of memory studies within the discipline of Civil War studies. Not so long ago, dealing with memory meant recommending that students read the two standard works on the Lost Cause tradition by Gaines Foster and Charles Reagan Wilson. Now I assign an entire graduate reading list on memory and teach a Civil War memory course to undergraduates. The end result is that more than ever in the academy we tend to recognize different, constructed traditions of Civil War memory and commemoration. The academic zeitgeist makes it increasingly easy for university-trained historians to recognize and even deconstruct familiar facets of commemoration and celebration, whether the earliest stirrings of the faithful slave motif within the Lost Cause tradition or its latest incarnation in the debate over so-called black Confederates. On the other hand, many people beyond campus are increasingly suspicious of what they hear about all of that. To them, what David Blight calls a "reconciliationist" or "white supremacist" interpretation is just the truth, and indeed a truth being undermined by partisan intellectuals. Resistance inevitably will follow when a memory-based interpretation runs headlong into what essentially is a secular faith in a revealed truth of the past. Yet I think it's a conversation worth having. Frankly, I was surprised and delighted at how much my undergraduates embraced my memory course and made it their own. A year later, I still get emails from some of them about sesquicentennial events and issues. So we can talk about how various strands of memory shaped visions of the era and still reach a larger audience.
RC: Recent memory studies, driven by Maurice Halbwach's critical insight that historical memories are socially constructed, have had a very positive impact within the academy, especially insofar as they have demonstrated the conflict's power to mold American politics and culture far beyond the formal cut-off date of 1865. In this respect, they have confirmed the view of southern writer Robert Penn Warren that the Civil War "is, for the American imagination, the greatest single event of our history." (8) By demonstrating how war-born memories had a crucial impact on the making of the Jim Crow South and the reunified United States, leading historians of Civil War memory, such as David Blight, have breached traditional period divisions between the Civil War and the Gilded Age. Numerous topics have been enriched by their work, among them the development of public architecture in the United States, the election of 1896, and the role of white women in the New South. Further research will likely deepen our awareness of the war's impact on later periods of American history, including the Great Depression, which witnessed multivolume histories of Lincoln and Lee, movie depictions such as Gone with the Wind, and the final gathering of veterans at Gettysburg in 1938.
RC: Although Reconstruction is now attracting attention from memory scholars, historians have shown only limited interest in probing the impact of constructed historical memories on the conflict itself. It is true that most scholars are aware that Revolutionary memory played an important role in the coming of the war. However, there is more to learn about how memories of the Missouri Compromise debates or the Nullification Crisis affected Republicans and secessionists during the winter of 1860-61 and how old contests over politics and religion at the local level heightened antagonism between unionists and Rebels in the wartime South.
DS: Scholarship on memory has affected the way I look at my magazine, I can tell you that much. Whenever I read an article submission, I try to make sure the author has considered memory studies. I also try to have content in the magazine at least a couple of times a year that deals with memory-focused topics.
RC: Memory studies have probably had little effect so far on the way Americans outside the academy view the Civil War. Here is another area in which professional historians can use their skills to influence the sesquicentennial. The more ordinary Americans understand why they think about the Civil War in the way they do, the better. It's not easy to change someone's mind when they say that their parents or grandparents acted or thought in a particular manner, especially when that mode has been sanctioned by years of government support. But showing how individuals, groups, institutions and events contribute to the inherently political process of memory-making may, at the very least, add another dimension to a person's thinking. If the Civil War sometimes seems like unfinished business 150 years on, we all need a more robust idea about why this is the case.
JW: Work on memory has had a significant impact on academe, especially after David Blight's brilliant book, Race and Reunion. Memory is an exciting new way to study the war and its aftermath, but I suspect this is a conversation taking place almost entirely within the academy. I have no sense from my speaking engagements that the general public has any awareness of or interest in this.
DS: Ironically, in a way, I think memory studies may be contributing to the concerns some states and organizations have about the sesquicentennial and, who knows, maybe the federal government as well. Back in the day, it seemed, at least, to be easier. Want to commemorate the Civil War? Well, go out and have yourself a big battle reenactment, which involved a lot of white guys firing blanks at each other with flags waving in the breeze. White, heroic memory of the Civil War was the standard.
DS: Today, many organizers are aware that is too simplistic an approach to things, but at the same time, they are hesitant to proceed for fear of offending people. I'm not saying memory studies are "bad"--I've already expressed how I include them in Civil War Times--but I do think such scholarship has had unintended consequences. I know this will rankle some readers of Civil War History, but I have heard such concerns expressed by others as well.
Postscript: "Our Messy Sesquicentennial"
Daniel E. Sutherland
Samuel Eliot Morison observed that America was discovered accidentally by someone looking for something else and named for someone who never saw the place. "History is like that," Morison concluded, "very chancy." (9)
The same may be said of commemorations, and certainly of this sesquicentennial observance of our Civil War. I am glad to see, though, based on the foregoing forum, that my comments at last November's Southern Historical Association meeting may have been unduly pessimistic. I had worried that the nation seemed in danger of sleeping through the sesquicentennial, but this spirited exchange among Dana, Robert, Jenny, and Ken gives me hope. They have confirmed my sense that the commemoration has been scattered and piecemeal, but there is at least a public awareness, expressed in print, on the Internet, and through reenactments, that something rather important happened 150 years ago.
I disagree with the forum's participants on only one point. All seem to lament the bickering, protests, and quarrels that have accompanied the commemoration, but I see the squabbles as healthy, not to say inevitable. I never expected a national consensus on the war, not on its causes, not on its conduct, not on its consequences. Crikey. Nothing could be more dreary. It is the clash of opinions that keeps the war alive--and keeps historians humble. Given the relatively few issues on which scholars agree, and our relatively small audience, the diversity of opinions among the public is hardly surprising. Accept it. We are on a darkling plain, and ignorant armies will always clash by night.
A review of Robert Redford's new film, Conspirator, about the trial of Mary Surratt, quotes the director as saying, "What's fascinating is it's a story nobody knows about." And later, "I didn't know this story." (10) Now, I take Redford to be an educated man, but if he had not even heard of Surratt, well, there you have it. And there is this: Not having seen the film, I know not the accuracy of Redford's story, but I suspect it is different from the one told by Elizabeth Leonard, Kate Larson, and other scholars. Clio has always been the most abused muse.
No matter. Shoulders square, eyes front, and soldier on. History is not only chancy, but also messy, and I love it.
Blight, David. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001.
Cook, Robert. Troubled Commemoration: The American Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007.
Creighton, Margaret. The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg's Forgotten History: Immigrants, Women, and African Americans in the Civil War's Defining Battle. New York: Basic Books, zoos.
Escott, Paul. "What Shall We Do with the Negro?" Lincoln, White Racism, and Civil War America. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009.
Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.
Foster, Gaines. Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South, 1865-1913. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Larson, Kate Clifford. The Assassin's Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln. New York: Basic Books, 2008.
Leonard, Elizabeth. Lincoln's Avengers: Justice, Revenge, and Reunion after the Civil War. New York: Norton, 2005.
Nolan, Alan. Lee Considered: General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.
Paludan, Phillip Shaw. A People's Contest: The Union and Civil War, 1861-1865. New York: Harper & Row: 1988.
Warren, Robert Penn. The Legacy of the Civil War: Meditations on the Centennial. New York: Random House, 1961.
Wilson, Charles Reagan. Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980.
(1.) Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for Social Studies, Subchapter B., Middle School, [section]113.19 (b)(5)(A), http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/rules/tac/chapter113/ch113b.html, accessed Feb. 28, 2011.
(2.) "Civil War 150 Legacy Project" Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission, http://www.virginiacivilwar. org/legacy/, accessed Feb. 28, 2011.
(3.) Dan Wakefield, "Civil War Centennial: Bull Run with Popcorn," Nation, Jan. 30, 1959, 97.
(4.) Cleveland Amory, "First of the Month," Saturday Review, Apr. 1, 1961, 5.
(5.) "A Union Divided: South Split on U.S. Civil War Legacy," Time, http://tinyurl.com/48f6aqf, accessed Mar. 4, 2011.
(7.) "Slave Auction Re-enacted in St. Louis to commemorate 150th Anniversary of Civil War," MSNBC Photoblog, http://tinyurl.com/48q48qk, accessed Mar. 4, 2011.
(8.) Robert Penn Warren, The Legacy of the Civil War: Meditations on the Centennial (New York: Random House, 1961), 3.
(9.) Samuel Eliot Morison, Oxford History of the American People (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1965), 2:23.
(10.) Quoted in Maria Puente, "Redford's 'Conspirator' Lets Mary Surratt Testify" USA Today, Apr. 14, 2011, http://tinyurl.com/3s5hpqp, accessed June 21, 2011.
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|Publication:||Civil War History|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2011|
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