As I mentioned in my introductory post, the primary reason I started The Strawfoot is the Civil War sesquicentennial. I’ve always been fascinated by the American Civil War and am now trying to understand the period in a deeper, more meaningful way. The 150th anniversary of the conflict seems an opportune time to do this. Not long ago I read Robert J. Cook’s Troubled Commemoration: The American Civil War, 1961-1965. Cook, a British historian, has written a jargon-free, well-researched account of the events that derailed the Centennial in the early 1960s. In a nutshell, the organizers of the United States Civil War Centennial Commission found it increasingly difficult to keep the Civil War relevant in the face of the Civil Rights Movement.
President Eisenhower signed the legislation creating the Centennial Commission on September 7, 1957, just two weeks before he sent the 101st Airborne to Arkansas to integrate Little Rock Central High School. Over the next few years preparation for the Civil War anniversary was virtually an all-white affair. Many Americans, North and South, wanted to concentrate on the minutiae of uniforms and weaponry; attend reenactments such as the one at First Bull Run in July 1961; and focus on the valor of Johnny Reb and Billy Yank. With lunch counter sit-ins and other Civil Rights protests becoming more frequent, white Southerners began incorporating the language of the 1850s and 1860s into their “massive resistance” to integration. They also incorporated the symbols and imagery of the Civil War, most obviously the Confederate battle flag, into their campaign against desegregation. Under this strain it was inevitable that most Americans would lose interest in celebrating the “pageantry” of the war that took the lives of 620,000 Americans. And indeed, most Americans did lose interest. That’s not to say that the Civil War Centennial was a total wash. Allan Nevins, James I. Robertson Jr., Bruce Catton, and Bell Irvin Wiley, among others, did their best to commemorate the war in a dignified and meaningful manner. Still, despite some modest successes, results were mixed at best.
This brings me to the sesquicentennial. Fast forward half a century and we are looking at a totally different picture. Over the past several decades there has been a sea change in Civil War scholarship. The rise of African- and Women’s Studies, coupled with the prevalence today of social history over the Great Man theory of scholarship, have given us new ways of looking at our Civil War. That’s what makes today so fascinating. Historians, bloggers, National Park Service rangers, and journalists have incorporated these changes into their work and are giving us a more nuanced and thoughtful understanding of our country’s greatest catastrophe. We see that today every time we walk one our battlefields, visit our museums, log onto the internet, and read the newspapers. That’s why I’m looking forward to the next four years and seeing what they bring. It makes me wonder, too, what they’ll say about us when they write the book on the sesquicentennial fifty short years from now.
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