Thursday, December 2, 2010

Troubled Commemoration

The Civil War Centennial - What We Can Learn

For my historical interpretation class here at WVU, I recently read an enlightening book entitled Troubled Commeration about the 100th anniversary of the Civil War. In reading it, I discovered how the same dilemmas plague us today in interpreting or even discussing the Civil War and its legacy in public. An article in this week's New York Times further revealed to me how little progress has been made in understanding the Civil War in all its complexities and legacies. Nevertheless, I have a sincere hope that the sesquicentennial (and upcoming Civil War movies and series) will help launch renewed interest amongst younger generations. We'll see. But by understanding the previous anniversary, I think we can better plan the upcoming commemoration.

The social strife generated throughout America in the 1950s and early 1960s perhaps transformed the Civil War Centennial commemoration as much as the conflict itself. In a country rife with fears of Communist infiltration and racial integration, scores of politicians, activists, and historians yearned to apply selective themes of the war and its aftermath to reinforce their own notions of what America should have been. Historian Robert J. Cook’s Troubled Commemoration provides a clear and occasionally shocking analysis of this tumultuous era of past clashing with present. Cook argues that the centennial planners overall blundered the opportunity to embrace the true causes and significances of the Civil War during an era in which the country was already embracing social and historical change. Rather than accepting the conflict as a war which brought freedom to four million slaves and served as the foundation of the ongoing Civil Rights movement, commissioners largely transformed the anniversary into a commercial, segregated, historically skewed Cold War-themed pageant they hoped would instill American unification. The centennial tributes achieved anything but. At the same moment, segregationists in the South yearned to use the commemoration to perpetuate their own agenda via the historical memory of their Confederate ancestors. All in all, the centennial evolved into a battle of interpretation as well as a conflict of commercialization versus renewed historical scholarship. Even fifty years later, however, the victor of this war of historical memory remains uncertain.

The culture wars of the 1960s, largely regarding civil rights and escalated involvement in Vietnam, helped ignite a massive public quarrel debating the Civil War’s legacy. Members within the Civil War Centennial Commission (CWCC) found themselves arguing as well. These divisions became starkly evident to the national planners after only a few meetings with each other. For instance, Executive Director Karl S. Betts desired to transform the centennial into a popular history and commercial extravaganza filled with a multitude of souvenirs and advertising by corporations wanting to reap the rewards of heritage tourism. He believed reenactments and mass pageants should have been indicative of what commemorations should be. Despite the financial success of events like the 1961 Manassas reenactment, which Betts promoted, the farby “sham battle” was derided by the press and historians alike, especially famed scholar Bruce Catton, also a member of the CWCC. For this and a number of other transgressions in the eyes of fellow commissioners, Betts was booted from the committee.

Like Betts, chairmen such as Ulysses S. Grant III, grandson of the famed Union commander, were staunchly conservative and wanted to avoid the subjects of emancipation or freedom so not to promote or make correlation to the Civil Rights movement. Meanwhile, segregationists paralleled the states’ rights battles of their grandfathers to defend slavery to the modern states’ rights battles to defend segregation. Certainly, southern politicians such as Governor George Wallace invoked such rhetoric on numerous occasions. (Wallace traveled to Gettysburg for the 1963 anniversary to pay homage to Confederates and simultaneously promoted white superiority.) Citizens of Wallace’s mindset perceived the integration efforts of the Kennedy Administration as a new form of “Yankee aggression.”

Alabama Governor George Wallace greets Confederate reenactors at Gettysburg. Courtesy of Ross M. Kimmel.

But integrationists desired to link their ongoing struggle of racial oppression to the largely unfulfilled promises of emancipation, equality, and opportunity. Even Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. opened his “I have a dream” oration in the style of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. . . .”

The race debate was a major point of contention amidst the centennial. Bitterness rose to new levels of intensity for the anniversary of Fort Sumter in April 1961, where the CWCC’s National Assembly was congregating. An African American delegate from New Jersey, Madaline Williams, was not permitted to stay in Charleston’s segregated Francis Marion Hotel, the initial location of the conference. President Kennedy had to intervene in the situation, relocating the gathering to the integrated Charleston Naval Base. The ugly incident could be considered a bad omen of tumultuous times and debates to come.

Amidst all this social and political chaos, historians such as Bell Irvin Wiley, Allan Nevins, and a young James I. “Bud” Robertson emerged as the academic champions who were able to salvage the centennial to a large degree. They erred away from the flamboyant and tawdry celebrations Betts called for and attempted to restore historical and scholarly integrity through erudition and tasteful, reverent events. All of this was done by balancing themselves on a scholarly tightrope of simultaneously appeasing Northern liberals and Southern conservatives. Such feats were not always successful. For instance, Wiley and Nevins suggested to Robertson that he include the story of U.S. black troops in a CWCC booklet he was writing for high school curriculums, Robertson responded: “I plan to add a paragraph or two about them in ‘The Common Soldiers’ section…In the full complexity of the war, the contributions of Negroes was relatively minor. But I agree that for safety sake, we had best call attention to their deeds” (222). For some, even well-intentioned moderates like Robertson, alienating Southern whites by injecting race into the story of the Civil War was at times considered dangerous to the entire centennial process, especially during the embattled 1960s.

Hollywood too played a role in shaping the memory of the Civil War immediately before and during the centennial. Although films such as The Great Locomotive Chase, The Horse Soldiers, and Johnny Shiloh assisted in reigniting some popular interest in the war, they remained within the Lost Cause mythology that Hollywood so dearly loved. However, as time and the Civil Rights movement progressed, movies including Raintree County, Major Dundee, and Shenandoah depicted two factors largely ignored in film up until that time – emancipation and African Americans contributing to the Union war effort in a positive light. Times were indeed changing, even if many members of the CWCC were not realizing that fact.

Shenandoah used war hero Jimmy Stewart to premier the first anti-war Civil War film made. It was also one of the first to acknowledge the contributions of black troops in the conflict. Made during the height of the Civil Rights movement, the movie is as much a commentary of the 1960s as the 1860s.

The end of the centennial came with little national recognition or accolades. With the country coping with assassination, civil unrest, and increased involvement in Southeast Asia, most Americans were more concerned about the future rather than the past. The centennial commemorations of the “War Between the States” have a mixed legacy. Initial national organizers wished to emphasize the theme of unity not only to bridge the social gap between North and South but above all to unite all Americans against Soviet ideology. This theory of consensus history nearly sank the entire centennial effort because it was becoming increasingly out of sync with a growingly progressive society regarding race. On the other hand, centennial commemorations gave birth to a new generation of Civil War historians, history buffs, and reenactors. In conjunction with the National Park Service’s Mission 66 initiative, several battlefield parks were created or greatly expanded as a result of increased tourism and public interest. With the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War beginning in April 2011, one can only hope that a commemorative effort is devised that will encompass the broader themes of freedom and equality. Under this premise, hopefully a wider audience of Americans will have the opportunity to participate and share in the communal experiences and traits bequeathed to them through four years of bloody Civil War.

The centennial ushered in the era of Civil War reenacting among young people (who are still reenacting today although they no longer look the part). Some even made short films chronicling their exploits. This audio-less vignette was made in 1965 and it entitled A Day in the Life of a Confederate Soldier.


  1. Thanks for this. Another book for the "must-read" stack, looks like.

  2. FYI


    Comment on cattons 1965 work..

    HIST 119: The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877

    Lecture 27 - Legacies of the Civil War << previous session | next session >>

    Doug Didier .. Stampdxer(at)gmail(dot)com