Kevin M. Levin: Not Your Grandfather's Civil War Commemoration

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

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.

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....

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