150 Years After the Civil War Can We Finally Remember It the Way We Should?


Mr. Cook, Professor of American History at the University of Sheffield, UK, is the author of Troubled Commemoration: The American Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965 (LSU Press, 2007).

Planning is now underway to mark the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War (2011-2015). Nearly fifty years ago the Civil War centennial came close to being an unmitigated disaster. Why was this so and what lessons can be learned from that sobering experience?

Centennial organizers in the late 1950s wanted the event to be a genuinely popular and national one. To achieve this end, two of the three leading parties involved – the National Park Service and amateur enthusiasts belonging to Civil War Round Tables – lobbied for the creation of a federal commission to oversee planning. In September 1957 Congress created the US Civil War Centennial Commission (CWCC). This body was empowered to foster public interest in the Civil War and encourage the formation of state agencies to promote local commemorative events. Although professional historians belonging to the Civil War Association doubted that public funds should be spent on the proceedings, they acquiesced in the formation of the CWCC which was headed by General Ulysses S. Grant III, elderly grandson of the Union commander, and his hands-on deputy, Karl S. Betts.

There was no lack of effort from any of these bodies or individuals. Betts worked hard to prod the states into setting up their own commissions. Although his task was rendered difficult by the developing conflict over segregation, virtually every state had created a centennial commission by the winter of 1960–61 and private businesses, especially those involved in the domestic tourist industry, had begun publicizing the centennial in their advertisements. Enthusiasm for the commemoration was greatest below the Mason-Dixon line but popular interest was evident in many northern states.

Participants had different agendas. Corporations such as Sinclair Oil stood to gain financially if the centennial prompted a Civil War tourist boom. The southern commissions sensed they could use the centennial to foster a distinctive Confederate memory that would bolster resistance to integration. The main aim of centennial planners, however, was rooted in the cold war and the prevailing master narrative of the Civil War.  National policymakers backed the centennial because they thought it would strengthen Americans’ attachment to their country. True, the Civil War had divided Americans in the 1860s. But ultimately, according to the dominant consensus-era interpretation of "the brothers’ war," it had saved the nation and laid the foundations for the modern superpower that was the last, best hope of the free world. It also provided a rich source of material for super-patriots eager to impress their fellow citizens with examples of self-sacrifice and civic duty. The centennial was pre-eminently a cold war event designed to galvanize civilian non-combatants. Judged in this light, it was an abject failure.

Race was the principal fault-line. The centennial was built on a racially exclusive interpretation of the Civil War era. This interpretation denied agency to blacks and downplayed the significance of those events, notably emancipation and Lincoln’s use of African American troops, which dominated the marginalized black folk memory of the Civil War. It also celebrated the common courage of northern and southern whites and derided Reconstruction as an ill-conceived attempt to impose racial equality on gallant ex-Confederates. Grant and Betts were conservatives with abundant empathy for southern whites. Neither they, nor the southern state commissions, were interested in fostering public awareness of the role that blacks had played in the Civil War. Unhappily for them, the centennial coincided with the civil rights movement and by the end of 1961, the year of the Freedom Rides, the event was on the verge of collapse.

One incident did more than any other to undermine the commemoration. In April 1961 the CWCC held its national convention in Charleston, South Carolina. The meeting would have attracted little attention had not liberals on the New Jersey commission engineered a crisis by demanding that one of their black delegates should be accommodated at the segregated convention hotel. When Grant and Betts refused, the New Jerseyans urged a boycott of the meeting. Uproar ensued and the liberal media and the NAACP called on the Kennedy administration to intervene. The new president requested the CWCC to avoid racial discrimination while his aides engineered a face-saving compromise involving the transfer of the convention to the desegregated Charleston Navy Yard.

The deal failed to get the centennial back on track. When a heavily commercialized reenactment of first Bull Run prompted another torrent of negative publicity in July 1961, Betts and Grant resigned.  Their successors, Allan Nevins and James I. Robertson (both professional historians), cultivated a more academic approach to commemorative events and in doing so helped to ensure that the project limped on until 1965. But there were losses as well as gains from this policy shift. Most Americans forgot about the centennial. And the impulse to accommodate southern whites meant that little was done to incorporate the black emancipationist memory into events.

Discerning lessons from the past is a hazardous task. Contexts change. Economic development and the civil rights movement mean that the modern South is not the region it was in 1961. No one can ignore the impact of 9/11 and the "War on Terror" on the US today. But if sesquicentennial planners are sensitive to changing historical circumstances, they may be able to benefit from the failures of the 1960s.

It is essential, first, that planners be aware of their own agendas and those of others and to subject those agendas to rigorous scrutiny. Are they seeking to educate the public about the American past, make a fast buck, or further political objectives? Precisely what kind of event is envisaged? If it’s a genuinely popular one, the centennial experience highlights the dangers of such an approach and may suggest that goals such as education, spectacle and profit may not be entirely compatible.

Second, planners must think hard about the prevailing master narrative of the Civil War. What is it and what is its function in contemporary America? Judging by the popularity of James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom (1987) and Ken Burns’s TV series The Civil War (1990) it looks to be a liberalized version of the brothers’ war/national salvation trope, one that incorporates the political achievements of the war (emancipation as well as Union) but still attempts to find evidence of national purpose and greatness in a conflict that many nineteenth-century Americans found devoid of meaning. Critiquing the master narrative is important because that narrative will have a major influence on the official line of the sesquicentennial. In all likelihood, that line will be connected to the consensual and possibly militaristic aims of national-minded elites.

Third, sesquicentennial planners must be alert to the constructed Civil War memories of participating groups without necessarily prioritizing inclusiveness, political correctness and consensus over what we, in these post-modern times, might quaintly call truth telling. Southern whites, for example, must be shown what they were not shown in the 1960s: That they seceded and fought primarily to protect slavery and defend the racial order that was based upon it. Southern whites should be aware too that their forebears did not fight as one for the Confederacy and that some actually fought for the Union. Americans more generally would benefit from knowing that the Civil War was a brutish event. The ghastly stench of death, not the romance of war, should pervade this commemoration in a way that it did not during the centennial.

Finally, centennial organizers made a profound mistake in envisioning the Civil War almost solely as a military event. They paid little attention to the complex causes of the conflict, marginalized the political dimensions of the war, passed over evidence of racial, class and gender divisions, and ignored reconstruction. The more comprehensive and penetrating the planners’ interpretation of the Civil War, and the less fearful they are of courting controversy, the better for everyone.

The centennial was a product of its time and the sesquicentennial will be no different. Greater self-awareness, intellectual rigor and willingness to confront difficult issues may help to ensure that it does not become a national embarrassment.

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Philip Leigh - 12/18/2010

Shelby Foote had only published the first volume of his three volume narrative when the Centennial began. I started reading it about the same time. I suppose Foote's writing characterized the sentiments of the time.

First, interest in the war was primarily limited to white southerner males. I attended a boys camp in Michigan for several summers where it became obvious the other campers had no interest. Consequently, they had very little knowledge of it. Thus, Foote's narrative focused mostly -- and even-handedly -- on the soldiers and politicians of both sides.

Conversely, African-Americans had little interest in the Centennial and that is why there was not much focus on their roles at the time. Of course I am aware that others around these parts may claim there was a sinister conspiracy , but I think Occam's Razor applies -- the simplest explanation is usually the valid one.

Second, those of us who *did* have an interest wanted to participate vicariously. Foote's as yet unmatched literary skill gave us characters that stood off the page and cast shadows.

Barry Bentley - 12/31/2009

That they seceded and fought primarily to protect slavery and defend the racial order that was based upon it.This statement is Crap,Just Crap.Who ever made this statement is not Southern and does not have a clue as to why The Southern Soldier fought for The South.Robert E Lee fought for Virginia because it was being invaded by the U.S.Lincoln wanted to keep the Union together.He said he would keep slavery in the slave states if it kept the Union together.Slavery came to the front of the War after the North began winning the war.The every day Southern Soldier fought because of this......A Yankee Soldier asked a Rebel Soldier why are you people Fighting us like this,He said,It's because Ya'll are down here!If you think it was for any other reason you need a History lesson or you are a liberal Yankee,Dumbass.

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Albert T. Mackey - 8/19/2007

And don't forget that in January of 1865, in a letter to Andrew Hunter, Lee said he believed the master-slave relationship as the best that can exist between whites and blacks while intermingled in the same country.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 8/19/2007

Thank you for this, which has expanded my knowledge of his slaves owned, who apparently numbered at least seven, and not six. Freeman also notes he considered slavery to have a worse effect on whites than blacks, and considered emancipation without education likely to be ruinous.

Albert T. Mackey - 8/14/2007

Each soldier had personal motivations. But protection of slavery was a motivation shared by most. One can look at Chandra Manning's recent book, _What This Cruel War Was Over_ to see a richly researched exposition on this, and then one can supplement that with James M. McPherson's _For Cause & Comrades._

"The vandals of the North . . . are determined to destroy slavery . . . We must all fight, and I choose to fight for southern rights and southern liberty." [Lunsford Yandell, Jr. to Sally Yandell, April 22, 1861 in James M. McPherson, _For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War,_ p. 20]

"A stand must be made for African slavery or it is forever lost." [William Grimball to Elizabeth Grimball, Nov. 20, 1860, Ibid.]

"This country without slave labor would be completely worthless. We can only live & exist by that species of labor; and hence I am willing to fight for the last." [William Nugent to Eleanor Nugent, Sept 7, 1863, Ibid., p. 107]

"Better, far better! endure all the horrors of civil war than to see the dusky sons of Ham leading the fair daughters of the South to the altar." [William M. Thomson to Warner A. Thomson, Feb. 2, 1861, Ibid., p. 19]

"A captain in the 8th Alabama also vowed 'to fight forever, rather than submit to freeing negroes among us. . . . [We are fighting for] rights and property bequeathed to us by our ancestors.'" [Elias Davis to Mrs. R. L. Lathan, Dec. 10, 1863 Ibid., p. 107]

"Even though he was tired of the war, wrote a Louisiana artilleryman in 1862, 'I never want to see the day when a negro is put on an equality with a white person. There is too many free niggers. . . now to suit me, let alone having four millions.'" [George Hamill Diary, March, 1862, Ibid., p. 109]

"A private in the 38th North Carolina, a yeoman farmer, vowed to show the Yankees 'that a white man is better than a nigger.' " [Jonas Bradshaw to Nancy Bradshaw, April 29, 1862 Ibid.]

"A farmer from the Shenandoah Valley informed his fiancée that he fought to assure 'a free white man's government instead of living under a black republican government.'" [John G. Keyton to Mary Hilbert, Nov. 30, 1861, Ibid.]

"The son of another North Carolina dirt farmer said he would never stop fighting the Yankees, who were 'trying to force us to live as the colored race.'" [Samuel Walsh to Louisa Proffitt, April 11, 1864, Ibid.]

"Some of the boys asked them [captured confederate soldiers] what they were fighting for, and they answered, 'You Yanks want us to marry our daughters to the niggers.'" [Chauncey Cook to parents, May 10, 1864, Ibid.]

"An Arkansas captain was enraged by the idea that if the Yankees won, his 'sister, wife, and mother are to be given up to the embraces of their present dusky male servitors.'" [Thomas Key, diary entry April 10, 1864, Ibid.]

"Another Arkansas soldier, a planter, wrote his wife that Lincoln not only wanted to free the slaves but also 'declares them entitled to all the rights and privileges as American citizens. So imagine your sweet little girls in the school room with a black wooly headed negro and have to treat them as their equal.'" [William Wakefield Garner to Henrietta Garner, Jan 2, 1864,

"[If Atlanta and Richmond fell] we are irrevocably lost and not only will the negroes be free but . . . we will all be on a common level. . . . The negro who now waits on you will then be as free as you are & as insolent as she is ignorant." [Allen D. Chandler to wife, July 7, 1864, Ibid.]

"If it had not for them ... preaching abolitionism from every northern pulpit, I would never have been soldiering." [Pvt. James Williams, Twenty-first Ala., to wife, December 20, 1861, Fort Gaines, Ala.]

"we are ruined if we do not put forth all our energies & drive back the invaders of our slavery South" [Pvt. Thomas Taylor, Sixth Ala., to parents, March 4, 1862, Manassas Junction, Va]

"Now, any man who pretends to believe that this is not a war for the emancipation of the blacks, and that the whole course of the Yankee Government has not only been directed to the abolition of slavery, but even to a stirring up of servile insurrections, is either a fool or a liar." ["The Vidette," November 2, 1862, Springfield Tenn. "The Vidette" was a camp newspaper for Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan's troops.]

"The proclamation of Lincon has filled every one with indignation, and we are all now in favor of raising the 'black flag' and asking and showing 'no quarter'." [Capt. Christopher Winsmith, First S.C., to father, October 4, 1862, near Winchester,Va.]

"we must never dispair, for death is preferable to a life spent under the gaulling yoke of abolition rule." [Pvt. John Street, Eighth Tex., to wife, October 2, 1862, Miss.]

George Robert Gaston - 8/14/2007

Mr Cook overlooks the fact that some northerners fought for the Confederacy.

However, as to why Southerners fought. I think one indication was told by a Union Officer who recounted a conversation with a Confederate prisoner, who, when asked why he continued to fight, in spite of overwhelming Union superiority in numbers of men and material, answered, “Because I hate you sir; and I hate you sir because you are here sir.”

I am often taken aback by the idea that a historian can understand why an Iraqi would fight to resist what he views as an invasion of his home land, and not understand why a white southerner would fight for the same reason.

Albert T. Mackey - 8/9/2007

Freeman was wrong. The Shirley Plantation Papers contain letters from R. E. Lee to his cousin, Hill Carter, acknowledging rental payments made by Carter to Lee for the rental of Lee's slave, Billy Gardner.

The Lee Family Papers include letters from Lee regarding rental of his slaves, Judy and Philip Meriday.

In August of 1852, Lee wrote that he had obtained an agent in Washington, DC to supervise "my Servant man, Philip Meriday." This letter is referenced by Emory Thomas in his book, _Robert E. Lee: A Biography,_ p. 173.

For her book, _Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through his Private Letters,_ Elizabeth Brown Pryor reviewed thousands of Lee letters recently discovered in two trunks deposited by his eldest daughter in a Richmond bank vault. In these letters, Lee mentioned his own slaves several times. Not only Nancy, but also Cassy, Jane, Letitia, Meriday, Ruben, and Perry. They were all slaves owned personally by Robert E. Lee, and were not part of the Custis estate.

Lee did call slavery an evil in a single letter, but he continued to be a willing participant in that evil. And he considered it an evil more for its effects on whites than for its effects on blacks. He considered slavery to be necessary to the education of blacks as a race.

Albert T. Mackey - 8/9/2007

See Chandra Manning's _What This Cruel War Was Over,_ which shows how confederate soldiers knew they were fighting for slavery and did so willingly because they feared the effects of emanciption on their families.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 8/7/2007

From "R. E. Lee," by Douglas Southall Freeman, in volume I at page 371:

"(Lee) had never owned more than some half-dozen slaves, and they had probaby been inherited or given him by Mr. Custis..."

"There are no references in any of Lee's letters to slaves of his own, and until the rediscovery of his will in the records of Rockbridge County, Virginia, it was not positively known that he ever held any servents in his own name. That document, written in 1846, showed that he then owned a Negro woman Nancy and her children, who were at the White House plantation. He directed that after his death they be 'liberated as soon as it can be done to their advantage and that of others.'"

And, at page 372, in a letter to Mrs. Lee dated Dec. 27, 1856, he says:

"Slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil in any country."

Doug J Richardson - 8/7/2007

Here we go again! The argument that White Southerners never did fight for slavery or that the War for that matter, was not fought regarding that issue are old, proven repeatedly false and I can't believe that there are still people who are beating that drum.
The success of this anniversary will hinge on the ability of those involved not to be influenced by "Lost Cause" mentality!
Robert E. Lee was a slaveholder and waged war against the government of the United States. Facts are facts no matter how some try distort the truth!

Doug J Richardson - 8/7/2007

Here we go again! The argument that White Southerners never did fight for slavery or that the War for that matter, was not fought regarding that issue are old, proven repeatedly false and I can't believe that there are still people who are beating that drum.
The success of this anniversary will hinge on the ability of those involved not to be influenced by "Lost Cause" mentality!
Robert E. Lee was a slaveholder and waged war against the government of the United States. Facts are facts no matter how some try distort the truth!

james harris - 8/6/2007

All good points you make and I'd take it one further: how about some focus on the historical developments of factionalism (1820-60) and the in fact ongoing civil war via industrialism, unionism... mccarthyism

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 8/6/2007

I'm not sure "Southern whites fought primarily to protect slavery and defend the racial order."
Certainly, that is not why Robert E. Lee fought, because he detested slavery. The primary reason they fought may have been to defend their homes.