Why Doesn't Anyone Think It's Cool to Dress Up Like a Confederate Soldier Anymore?

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The gray-haired enthusiasts who march through Richmond shouting "Kill Yankees!" are doing little to inspire a new generation.

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On Saturday, the Sons of Confederate Veterans were forced to relocate an event that had been scheduled at St. Paul's Episcopal Church as part of their national rally. Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis all prayed at the church at one point or another during the war. It was there in April 1865 that Davis learned that Richmond must be evacuated. So why the cold shoulder?

It's hard to tell at this point, but here is what we know. This weekend, the Sons of Confederate Veterans held their National Heritage Rally in the city, which was to include a panel discussion at the church titled "Debunking the Myth of the White Confederate Military." The panelists were to include Teresa Roane archivist at the Museum of the Confederacy and Eric Richardson, who is currently a graduate student in history at North Carolina Central University. The panel was to be followed by a revival service at the church.

The day began with a small rally of SCV faithful at the Lee monument on Monument Avenue. At least one unit marched while chanting the following:

What do we do?
Kill Yankees!
How Many?
All of them!

Apparently, some time on Friday, officials at St. Paul's canceled the church portion of the event. I have no idea why they did this, though it seems safe to assume that enough people within the church community voiced their disapproval. What we do know is that the SCV has done everything in its power over the past few years to alienate reasonable people. 

Take a look at any photograph from Saturday's rally along Monument Avenue and what stands out is that hardly anyone showed up. As far as I can tell the former capital of the Confederacy paid no notice of the SCV's presence. And those who were present overwhelmingly represented an older crowd.

Whether the SCV will be able to attract a new generation to their banner has yet to be seen, but I have my doubts. Its preferred view of history flies in the face of the last 40 years of serious scholarship, but more importantly, its narrow view of what it means to remember a Confederate past will likely only continue to pull in folks who place themselves within a larger morality play that blurs the distinction between past and present.

It's also interesting to note that on the same day, the Museum of the Confederacy hosted a day-long event that culminated in a "Person of the Year: 1862" that was decided by an overwhelmingly older audience. These two stories have more in common than you might think. Both organizations cater to a centennial generation. If they hope to attract younger people, it would be a good idea to start out by acknowledging that the sesquicentennial is unlikely to produce the same level of interest in the Civil War that occurred in the early 1960s. This recognition should not be seen as a kind of surrender; it's simply a fact that the conditions present 50 years ago were unique. Let's not delude ourselves into thinking that the centennial generation was hardwired or predisposed to be smitten with the past in a way that those who came later are not.

The institutions that will be most successful in attracting the post-centennial generation won't be the ones that appeal to traditional cultural triggers or the same tired Civil War narratives. We are going to need a new narrative for a generation born and raised under very different cultural, social, and political conditions. Our expectations of a post-centennial audience will also need to be revised. It is hard to imagine such an audience showing up on a Saturday to vote on a person of the year or marching down Monument Avenue in Confederate uniform.

Making the Civil War relevant today is a formidable task, given how much our technology and values keep us focused on the triviality of the present. But what all institutions focused on the Civil War ear all have in common is a belief that history matters. Their members and patrons manifest a belief at one level or another that we are compelled to remember the past and place our own lives within a broader narrative. And in doing so, they believe that our lives and those of our communities are greatly enriched.

No, rethinking the Civil War for a new generation won't be easy. But as we all know, it will be worth the effort.

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Kevin M. Levin is a Civil War historian based in Boston.  He is the author of the book Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder and can be found online at Civil War Memory.

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