Remembering the war, the centennial, and the sesquicentennial

Guest-poster Caroline Davis is wrapping up an internship at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. Now that the dust has settled from the Chancellorsville sesquicentennial, we asked her to reflect on what she learned from the commemoration. Because her work this year has allowed her to dip into the park’s archives, she pulled together some interesting parallels between this year’s events and those from the Centennial fifty years earlier….

The 150th commemoration of Chancellorsville has been stirring up excitement at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County National Military Park over the past two weeks. A similar event takes place every five years or so, but until now the largest celebration was the 100th anniversary. During the opening ceremony on the first of May, 2013, John Hennessey pointed out that we are no longer celebrating but rather commemorating the events that happened here. Back in 1963, the anniversary was viewed as celebratory; but today, rather than host parades and grand spectacles, we turn to more solemn thoughts and actions. “We are a remembering people,” said Hennessey. How we choose to remember, though, has changed significantly.

In 1961, just a year into Centennial celebrations, there was pressure to call the whole thing off. The USA faced a new era of civil war and this time there were no question about the reason: race. The Civil Rights movement was in full swing by the early 1960s, and the Centennial was on a crash course with that movement from the very start. On the 100th anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter, South Carolina held a giant celebration complete with fireworks. Unfortunately, a grey cloud hung over the festivities: Madaline Williams, an African American representative from the New Jersey Centennial Commission, was denied the same accommodations as her fellow white representatives. From this point forward, the Centennial, whether deliberate or not, found itself at the center of the Civil Rights debate.

In addition to the Civil Rights movement, the National Civil War Centennial Committee faced other issues. The reenactment of the First Battle of Manassas, while enjoyed by the public, received overwhelmingly negative reviews from the media. They considered the event disrespectful; after that, little hope was left for the rest of the Civil War Centennial Committee’s plans.

By 1963, though, tempers had calmed, and public’s focus turned to the Battle of Chancellorsville. Plans were in the works to open a brand-new visitors center on the Chancellorsville Battlefield; this attracted the attention of locals as well as those living outside Virginia.

Anniversary festivities were planned to begin on May 5, two days after the fighting in 1863 would have ended. Similar to the reenactment of Manassas that occurred on the 100th anniversary, Chancellorsville organized a large celebration featuring the opening of the new visitors center. Attending the dedication ceremony were several dignitaries, including a U.S. senator and a House representative. The event might not have made national headlines, but in addition to the opening, the event included a concert, an art contest, and entry into three historical homes. A museum car called the “General” was on display, the Lee-Jackson marker was rededicated, and a single tour was given of the Chancellorsville battlefield.

The program of events left out several of the aforementioned activities, including the tour, suggesting that the focus was not to remember the battle but to keep minds focused on the present.

Fast forward to this year’s event in the park. The 8-page program of events nearly quadruples 1963’s version. Each day saw multiple tours, some occurring simultaneously. It might seem that we are celebrating even more now than in 1963, but I personally didn’t feel that way. We embraced the idea of commemoration and created a program that reflects the respect this bloody landscape deserves.

Looking back at newspaper articles from May 1963, I paid special attention to the photographs to get a sense of the atmosphere. The large banners, balloons, and grand stage of 1963 have been replaced by a simple podium. It is in these differences that a celebration becomes a commemoration. Fifty years ago people remembered the Civil War, but the hopes that a nation could come together and remember as a whole fell to the wayside as plans hit unexpected roadblocks. In 2013, we felt the excitement of what was to come, but at the same time remained reserved. Plans were laid out in a way that allowed for solemn remembrance. Instead of a parade, the park saw a group of people come together to share the story of what happened 150 years ago, and as one visitor commented to me, “Isn’t it amazing to see everyone here appreciating our history?” It is remarkable to think of the nation’s progress over the past 50 years. At no point during the commemoration did I pick up any sense of division among those who attended.

But why has our method of remembrance changed since 1963? The past 50 years has seen an evolution in both the general culture of this country and the interpretation of history; the way we choose to remember the Civil War reflects these changes. Perhaps the largest reason things have changed is because of the significant strides made from the Civil Rights Movement. The advancements that have come about because of the Civil Rights Movement have allowed us to move toward a different type of interpretation. In 1963 we were interpreting the Civil War, and while we are still interpreting the civil war, we also have a new chapter to consider. As historians, we have a duty not only to interpret historical events, but show how those events effect our present. We have to be able, as interpreters, to show the linear path that makes up our history and be able to explain how past events influence how we see the world today.

A second reason our remembrance has changed is because of the resurgence of the Civil War enthusiast. In 1957, when the Civil War Centennial Committee was formed, one of their main goals was to invoke a sense of excitement for the festivities. The Civil War, while still regarded as a significant event in our history books, did not have the following it currently does. The Civil War was a dark time in our country and a time many would have preferred to forget rather than commemorate. This notably was because some who were choosing to remember were also using it as a way to push their own agenda, and most did not want to be associated with that. So, in an effort to gain visitors and to provoke remembering our past, the centennial was planned in such a way that would ensure people to take notice, i.e. parades and fireworks. If anything, a celebration was bound to get some form of attention, much more so than tours of a battlefield.

Now 50 years later, the number of “history buffs” has grown and there is a sense of wanting or needing to keep our history fresh in our minds. Most have come to realize the forgetting the past won’t solve anything but rather complicate things.

Let me clarify that I do not wish to elevate one program above the other. In a comparison of the two, there are obvious differences. This does not necessarily mean that one was right and the other was wrong. We must remind ourselves and our visitors daily that we live in a different time, and as such it is impossible to fully understand how our ancestors felt and what motivations drove their actions. However, a speaker at the 100th anniversary, Dr. James Robertson, reminds us that we might not be so different after all: “We gain constant reassurance by remembering the avenue of heartache that has marked our nation’s rise to greatness. This building and these grounds are a shrine to American unity and freedom. May we ever hold them as such by cherishing the valor of those who surmounted courageously the challenge of their time.”

John Hennessy echoed Robertson’s words two weeks ago when he said, “This week, on the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Chancellorsville, we remember not just as individuals, but as a nation. We reflect not just on the acts and loss of participants – acts both noble and harsh, as war always is. We also reflect on our nation’s winding, complicated, difficult road to where we are.”

7 Responses to Remembering the war, the centennial, and the sesquicentennial

  1. These are some very interesting, meaningful reflections. Also enjoyed your informative work on Mexico’s role in the blockade!

  2. Thank you! I have enjoyed working on these and am happy that you found them interesting!

  3. Hello Caroline,
    I don’t know if you remember us but we stopped by the Jackson Shrine when you were there and enjoyed talking to you. You also got my son, Evan, some trading cards the day before. I read this article and too thought it was excellent. Just wanted to let you know that we have found this site very enjoyable.


    John and Evan Portman

    1. John and Evan,
      I am so happy that you are enjoying the site! It was very nice meeting you both during your visit to the park. I hope you had fun and learned something new during your trip!

  4. This article is very interesting and extremely insightful. As a teacher, I always try to instill a love of history and the need to study it. After all, “Those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it.” (I believe the quote is from Ben Franklin although I wish I could claim it as my own.) Keep up the wonderful work.

  5. Very, Very insightful!!! I too was worried about those folks with an agenda and I am praying that places in the deep south like Vicksburg coming up in July are also as successful as the events in Virginia were up until this point and beyond. I am so proud of what our historians here in Virginia have been able to accomplish and all the minds they have touched. John and Frank god bless you guys, yeomans work. Its to bad Mr. Terry Winschel retired last year from Vicksburg, he is a amazing historian and Vicksburg could use his leadership.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!

%d bloggers like this: