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150 Years After the Civil War Can We Finally Remember It the Way We Should?

Planning is now underway to mark the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War (2011-2015). Nearly fifty years ago the Civil War centennial came close to being an unmitigated disaster. Why was this so and what lessons can be learned from that sobering experience?

Centennial organizers in the late 1950s wanted the event to be a genuinely popular and national one. To achieve this end, two of the three leading parties involved – the National Park Service and amateur enthusiasts belonging to Civil War Round Tables – lobbied for the creation of a federal commission to oversee planning. In September 1957 Congress created the US Civil War Centennial Commission (CWCC). This body was empowered to foster public interest in the Civil War and encourage the formation of state agencies to promote local commemorative events. Although professional historians belonging to the Civil War Association doubted that public funds should be spent on the proceedings, they acquiesced in the formation of the CWCC which was headed by General Ulysses S. Grant III, elderly grandson of the Union commander, and his hands-on deputy, Karl S. Betts.

There was no lack of effort from any of these bodies or individuals. Betts worked hard to prod the states into setting up their own commissions. Although his task was rendered difficult by the developing conflict over segregation, virtually every state had created a centennial commission by the winter of 1960–61 and private businesses, especially those involved in the domestic tourist industry, had begun publicizing the centennial in their advertisements. Enthusiasm for the commemoration was greatest below the Mason-Dixon line but popular interest was evident in many northern states.

Participants had different agendas. Corporations such as Sinclair Oil stood to gain financially if the centennial prompted a Civil War tourist boom. The southern commissions sensed they could use the centennial to foster a distinctive Confederate memory that would bolster resistance to integration. The main aim of centennial planners, however, was rooted in the cold war and the prevailing master narrative of the Civil War.  National policymakers backed the centennial because they thought it would strengthen Americans’ attachment to their country. True, the Civil War had divided Americans in the 1860s. But ultimately, according to the dominant consensus-era interpretation of "the brothers’ war," it had saved the nation and laid the foundations for the modern superpower that was the last, best hope of the free world. It also provided a rich source of material for super-patriots eager to impress their fellow citizens with examples of self-sacrifice and civic duty. The centennial was pre-eminently a cold war event designed to galvanize civilian non-combatants. Judged in this light, it was an abject failure.

Race was the principal fault-line. The centennial was built on a racially exclusive interpretation of the Civil War era. This interpretation denied agency to blacks and downplayed the significance of those events, notably emancipation and Lincoln’s use of African American troops, which dominated the marginalized black folk memory of the Civil War. It also celebrated the common courage of northern and southern whites and derided Reconstruction as an ill-conceived attempt to impose racial equality on gallant ex-Confederates. Grant and Betts were conservatives with abundant empathy for southern whites. Neither they, nor the southern state commissions, were interested in fostering public awareness of the role that blacks had played in the Civil War. Unhappily for them, the centennial coincided with the civil rights movement and by the end of 1961, the year of the Freedom Rides, the event was on the verge of collapse.

One incident did more than any other to undermine the commemoration. In April 1961 the CWCC held its national convention in Charleston, South Carolina. The meeting would have attracted little attention had not liberals on the New Jersey commission engineered a crisis by demanding that one of their black delegates should be accommodated at the segregated convention hotel. When Grant and Betts refused, the New Jerseyans urged a boycott of the meeting. Uproar ensued and the liberal media and the NAACP called on the Kennedy administration to intervene. The new president requested the CWCC to avoid racial discrimination while his aides engineered a face-saving compromise involving the transfer of the convention to the desegregated Charleston Navy Yard.

The deal failed to get the centennial back on track. When a heavily commercialized reenactment of first Bull Run prompted another torrent of negative publicity in July 1961, Betts and Grant resigned.  Their successors, Allan Nevins and James I. Robertson (both professional historians), cultivated a more academic approach to commemorative events and in doing so helped to ensure that the project limped on until 1965. But there were losses as well as gains from this policy shift. Most Americans forgot about the centennial. And the impulse to accommodate southern whites meant that little was done to incorporate the black emancipationist memory into events.

Discerning lessons from the past is a hazardous task. Contexts change. Economic development and the civil rights movement mean that the modern South is not the region it was in 1961. No one can ignore the impact of 9/11 and the "War on Terror" on the US today. But if sesquicentennial planners are sensitive to changing historical circumstances, they may be able to benefit from the failures of the 1960s.

It is essential, first, that planners be aware of their own agendas and those of others and to subject those agendas to rigorous scrutiny. Are they seeking to educate the public about the American past, make a fast buck, or further political objectives? Precisely what kind of event is envisaged? If it’s a genuinely popular one, the centennial experience highlights the dangers of such an approach and may suggest that goals such as education, spectacle and profit may not be entirely compatible.

Second, planners must think hard about the prevailing master narrative of the Civil War. What is it and what is its function in contemporary America? Judging by the popularity of James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom (1987) and Ken Burns’s TV series The Civil War (1990) it looks to be a liberalized version of the brothers’ war/national salvation trope, one that incorporates the political achievements of the war (emancipation as well as Union) but still attempts to find evidence of national purpose and greatness in a conflict that many nineteenth-century Americans found devoid of meaning. Critiquing the master narrative is important because that narrative will have a major influence on the official line of the sesquicentennial. In all likelihood, that line will be connected to the consensual and possibly militaristic aims of national-minded elites.

Third, sesquicentennial planners must be alert to the constructed Civil War memories of participating groups without necessarily prioritizing inclusiveness, political correctness and consensus over what we, in these post-modern times, might quaintly call truth telling. Southern whites, for example, must be shown what they were not shown in the 1960s: That they seceded and fought primarily to protect slavery and defend the racial order that was based upon it. Southern whites should be aware too that their forebears did not fight as one for the Confederacy and that some actually fought for the Union. Americans more generally would benefit from knowing that the Civil War was a brutish event. The ghastly stench of death, not the romance of war, should pervade this commemoration in a way that it did not during the centennial.

Finally, centennial organizers made a profound mistake in envisioning the Civil War almost solely as a military event. They paid little attention to the complex causes of the conflict, marginalized the political dimensions of the war, passed over evidence of racial, class and gender divisions, and ignored reconstruction. The more comprehensive and penetrating the planners’ interpretation of the Civil War, and the less fearful they are of courting controversy, the better for everyone.

The centennial was a product of its time and the sesquicentennial will be no different. Greater self-awareness, intellectual rigor and willingness to confront difficult issues may help to ensure that it does not become a national embarrassment.

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