Call the whole thing off?, Allen C. Guelzo, Gettysburg Times, August 31, 2010.
Last August, I did a quick survey of the various plans under way for the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. What was unnerving was how little seemed to be taking shape. Unlike the Civil War Centennial in 1961-1965, no national commission for the Sesquicentennial had been created. Only ten states had formed state Civil War Sesquicentennial commissions, but many of them were low-visibility roosts for political appointees. And all of it was haunted by the gaffes committed during the Civil War Centennial.
One year has clicked us closer to the Sesquicentennial - a year that saw the anniversary of John Brown's Raid and the nomination of Abraham Lincoln for the presidency - and sad to say, we are not much nearer an adequate celebration of the Civil War's 150th than we were twelve months ago. A proposed bill for the establishment of a national Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission remains dead in committee. There are now seventeen states with official state Sesquicentennial Commissions, or which have delegated Civil War Sesquicentennial responsibilities to state historical agencies. But a bill to organize a New York 150th Anniversary Commission is still languishing in the state senate finance committee.
The governor of Mississippi appointed a state "Sesquicentennial of the Civil War Commission," but no funding was forthcoming from the legislature, and the Commission's second meeting in November of 2009 had to be scrapped for want of a quorum. Georgia has had a standing Civil War Commission since 1993, but its activities are geared largely to promoting heritage tourism. The Georgia Historical Society has undertaken an inventory "of existing historical markers that focus on Civil War subjects." But $500,000 which had been earmarked for developing Civil War Sesquicentennial events by the Georgia Department of Economic Development was axed by the Georgia legislature this year, and the Georgia Civil War Commission has no funding available at all for 2011.
The most ambitious state initiatives have been those of Virginia and Pennsylvania. With a $2 million budget, the Virginia "Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission" has created a 2-DVD production, "Virginia in the Civil War: A Sesquicentennial Remembrance," and will unroll the second of its planned seven Signature Conferences next month at Norfolk State University around the theme of "Race, Slavery and the Civil War: The Tough Stuff of American History and Memory." The Pennsylvania Civil War 150 is equipping a 53-foot-long tractor-trailer with a "Civil War Road Show" which will make exhibition stops in all 67 Pennsylvania counties. And both Adams County and Gettysburg College have formed Civil War Sesquicentennial committees.
But even these observances are more a glass half-empty than a glass half-full. The Civil War Centennial had the misfortune to occur at the apex of the Civil Rights Movement, and by trying to limit its gaze to what it supposed would be "safe" subjects - battle re-enactments, the re-union of North and South - the Centennial Commission communicated instead a serene indifference to the racial tensions which were rising all around the nation. The Centennial effectively convinced black Americans that the Civil War was not "their" story, and fostered a sense of what one commentator called "emotional alienation" from Civil War history. That alienation, in turn, convinced many cautious white Americans that the Civil War was either a sleeping dog which would be best left to lie, or that it was going to have to be dramatically re-written to downplay the battle-and-reunion script.
Trying to retro-fit the Sesquicentennial to avoid these shadows has not, so far, worked very well. The first of the Virginia Sesquicentennial Signature Conferences (at the University of Richmond), which tried to focus on John Brown and Harpers Ferry rather than Marse Robert and Jeb Stuart, drew a packed house of 2,000 people - but not more than a handful of African Americans. Ohio's Sesquicentennial Civil War Advisory Committee proclaimed its determination "to include a variety of perspectives and a diversity of viewpoints" in order to "embrace the inclusive story of the Civil War." But the Commission was flummoxed at its July meeting by just how "inclusive" it should be. "Many Ohioans didn't fight for the Union," it was objected, "they fought for or supported the South;" so, commissioners asked each other, "do we want to include this aspect of the legacy?"
There is a much to celebrate in the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. There is also a great deal of anger and disappointment, and in some places, downright contempt. The Civil War re-enactment community mistrusts academic Civil War historians; the academics, in turn, are regarded by the public historians as gate-crashers of their collections and exhibitions; public historians suspect relic and memorabilia dealers of piracy; and the general public seems interested in history only when it's painted-up in bizarre, horror-movie formats. These are all obstacles in the path of a worthwhile Sesquicentennial. But the greatest challenge of the Sesquicentennial will be how to synthesize the Civil War's "old" story of battles-and-reunion with the Civil War's "new" story of race and gender. Until that begins to happen, and until the competing re-enactment, academic, and public empires decide that they all have a common stake in the Sesquicentennial, state legislatures, historical societies, and organizations are likely to take the safe road, and call the whole thing off.
Text Source: Gettysburg Times
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