Not Your Grandfather's Civil War Commemoration

From racially diverse battle reenactments to seminars on John Brown, sesquicentennial events are revealing just how much our understanding of history has changed in the past 50 years

Civil War reenactors representing the all-black Union force portrayed in the movie Glory join reenaactors representing Confederate units for a South Carolina ceremony honoring black Union soldiers earlier this year. REUTERS/Harriet McLeod

Americans were exuberant in 1961 at the prospect of the upcoming Civil War centennial celebrations. For southerners, it was a chance to unfurl Confederate battle flags and ponder the character and heroism of such iconic figures as Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. Families could watch as reenactors brought to life memorable battles such as First Manassas and Gettysburg, where lessons could be taught about the common bonds of bravery and patriotism that animated the men on both sides. There would be no enemies on the battlefields of the 1960s.

Also see:

The Atlantic's Civil War Commemorative Issue With an introduction by Obama, writings by Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, and others. Contemporary essays by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jeffrey Goldberg. Images from the National Portrait Gallery.

So where are we now, as we make our way to the end of the first full year of the Civil War sesquicentennial? Well, if you were to listen to the mainstream media Americans could not be more divided over the central issues of the Civil War. The standard narrative pits northerners against southerners and blacks against whites. Spend enough time with FOX News, MSNBC, or CNN and you'll hear about almost daily controversies surrounding the public display of the Confederate flag. The pessimistic tone of these reports belies an important truth: the very fact that we can have these debates at all reflects how far we've come in the past 50 years.

When our grandparents geared up for celebrations in the early 1960s, the nation's collective memory was still dominated by the Lost Cause narrative. In this version of events, which started to gain popularity right after the Civil War, southern gentlemen fought valiantly against a much stronger (and less scrupulous) northern army, and their aim was to protect states' rights and an old-fashioned way of life. Slaves were portrayed as contented and loyal when they were discussed at all; the real tragedy of the war was seen as the brother-against-brother divide between white men.

But before the 1961 celebrations began, problems festered just below the surface. The decision of the Civil War Centennial Commission to hold its first ceremony in the southern city of Charleston, South Carolina, in April 1961 raised the problem of how black delegates would be able to take part, given the continued practice of segregation in local hotels. Even the intervention of President Kennedy (in office for only two months) and an attempt at compromise could not stop the delegations from New Jersey, New York, California, and Illinois from protesting the opening ceremony.

As much as white Americans wanted to celebrate and remember their preferred interpretation of the war, the continued problem of race and the ongoing Civil Rights struggle served as a reminder that not all was well. Indeed, the images of Lee and Jackson were even then being challenged on a daily basis by the names of Martin L. King, Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers, Emmett Till, and news of school desegregation, lunch counter sit-ins and Freedom Riders. Writers emphasized the centrality of racial issues as a cause of secession. Robert Penn Warren wrote in The Legacy of the Civil War, a history published during the centennial, "Slavery looms up mountainously" in the Civil War narrative "and cannot be talked away." And the Richmond Afro-American noted that "the Union might not have been saved but for the sacrifices made by colored soldiers."

While events continued into 1965, the crowds were smaller and their enthusiasm diminished. Confederate flags now stood atop southern state capital buildings not simply as symbols of "Massive Resistance," but also as a defense of a past that had come under increasing attack.

Looking back over the past 50 years, we can see even more clearly how the Lost Cause narrative began to unravel. By the end of the 1970s, changes to the racial profile of local and state governments, especially in the South, allowed African Americans to shape how their communities commemorated the past. New monuments rose up and key public sites were renamed. Historic places such as Colonial Williamsburg began to address some of the more challenging aspects of their pasts, such as slave auctions.

Meanwhile, popular television shows like Roots and, later, Ken Burns's epic PBS series The Civil War and the Hollywood blockbuster Glory, introduced the general public to a richer and more inclusive narrative. This seismic cultural shift was guided not only by political changes but by scholarship that challenged both the Lost Cause interpretation and the Gone With the Wind tragedy of Reconstruction. We know much more than we did 50 years ago.

Take, for instance, the way we marked the beginning of the sesquicentennial. Back in 1961, it was no surprise that the Centennial Commission chose to launch the celebration at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. Choosing that location helped the public avoid dwelling on the cause of secession or the bitter debates over the expansion of slavery that took place throughout the 1850s. It was easier to imagine that soldiers on both sides had simply fallen from the sky and onto the battlefield.

In contrast, in 2009, a number of historical institutions -- including the Virginia Historical Society and National Park Service -- sponsored a wide range of commemorative events to mark the 150th anniversary of John Brown's raid at Harpers Ferry. The events, which took place in Virginia, Maryland, and West Virginia, included museum exhibits, symposia, walking tours, and even a reenactment of Brown's execution. Starting the sesquicentennial by commenorating Brown's raid opened the way for a careful consideration of slavery's place within the national dialogue.

That same year, the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission held the first of its yearly Signature Conferences at the University of Richmond. The event featured some of the nation's top Civil War scholars, who were given the task of transporting roughly 2,500 attendees back to the tumultuous year of 1859 to discuss the state of the nation. A great deal of attention was paid to the effects that Brown's failed raid had on the growing sectional rift over the future of slavery in the United States.

In December 2010, media outlets focused on the story of a "Secession Ball" in Charleston, sponsored by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, to mark South Carolina's passage of its Ordinance of Secession. The NAACP announced intentions to protest the event, and the most extreme voices from each organization began battling it out night after night. While news reports suggested a narrative of racial tension, in the end, the private affair took place without incident while a small group of protesters rallied outside. In short, it was a non-story.

Far more substantive were the events marking the occasion throughout the state by private and public historical institutions. The Fort Sumter-Fort Moultrie Historical Trust, for example, held a symposium at the Citadel, which brought a panel of historians together to discuss the actions of South Carolina. The National Park Service also sponsored a number of events that addressed the reasons behind the state's secession from the Union just weeks after the election of Lincoln.

Travel throughout the South and what one quickly realizes is that this is not your father's or grandfather's Civil War commemoration. In the heart of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia, you can see this firsthand in current exhibits at the Museum of the Confederacy, Library of Virginia, American Civil War Center at Tredegar and Virginia Historical Society. All of the presentations reflect the latest scholarship and a willingness to deal with the tough questions of the war. You will find similar exhibits in every major urban center in the South and even in smaller communities. It's impossible to imagine this just a few decades ago.

And consider the controversy surrounding Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell's 2010 proclamation that April would be Confederate History Month. McDonnell was probably hoping to seal up support from a certain constituency, but what he faced instead was an angry backlash that reminded McDonnell that he was the governor of all Virginians. The message was clear: You cannot issue a Civil War proclamation in Virginia in 2010 that fails to acknowledge the presence and sacrifice of its black population.

Not only did McDonnell retract the proclamation, but he went on to issue what turned out to be an incredibly thoughtful statement that now sets aside April as Civil War History in Virginia Month. Regardless of where you stand on this issue, what is worth mentioning, once again, is that such a controversy is impossible to imagine just a few decades ago.

Finally, last month President Obama signed an executive order designating Fort Monroe in Hampton Roads, Virginia, as a national monument. There is no better historic site around which to build a discussion of the first fugitive/contraband slaves whose plight eventually turned a war to preserve the Union to a true Second American Revolution. It is a crucial piece of real estate in the larger story of American freedom.

Of course, this just scratches the surface of the sesquicentennial landscape. I have said nothing about how northern communities are commemorating and remembering the Civil War. Having recently moved to Boston, I can state confidently that there is a great deal going on, and much of it challenges what Robert Penn Warren once referenced as a Northern embrace of its own "treasury of virtue." The sesquicentennial has already made available a vast number of educational resources for classroom use. I can think of no better time to be at the front of an American history classroom. Despite a few skeptics, whose opinions I respect, I remain an optimist about the message this sesquicentennial is sending about American culture and the impact it will have on future race relations.

Relatively few historical and cultural institutions shaped the public discourse during the centennial years. This lent itself to a narrative that emphasized consensus surrounding the fundamental questions of Civil War remembrance. Now, 50 years later, we are confronted by a very different reality. For the first time, our national dialogue about the war's impact is being shaped by Americans who are black and white, men and women, and young and old. That is something to celebrate.