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.
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.