Asking if the Civil War matters seems at first a silly question. So long as there are people, it will always matter because it was a major historical event, just as the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the opening of Japan, and the first migrations out of Africa will always matter. Yet, is the Civil War still the conflict we feel deep in our bones? A story that draws many people in? The answer is increasingly no. A reversal is not impossible, but the trends do not suggest much improvement.
First is the nature of school in America. The time allotted to the teaching of history keeps shrinking, as does its importance for standardized tests. I jokingly call this the Soviet education program (sadly this is a point where both Republicans and Democrats generally agree). After all, the Soviets favored science, math, and engineering over the liberal arts, creating a cultural backwater as compared to America and Western Civilization. Yet, a career in music and film, however risky, if successful, has great benefits. Kids will pursue guitar and write short stories in their off-time. It is exciting, liberating, and attractive. At the same time, history degrees are not lucrative. History can rarely compete, either as a career nor as an interest.
Another reason is time and moral relevance. As a historical boardgame designer, I have seen these trends play out. GMT’s Scramble for Africa was pulled in part because it was seen as insensitive to the topic of colonialism. Similar concerns threatened to torpedo the historical wargame King Philip’s War for depicting a bitter frontier conflict. By contrast, games on Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul, which led to death and enslavement on a vast scale, are never brought up. While World War II games increasingly eschew using German images and propaganda in their game art, they do not seem troubled by Caesar and his legions.But the Romans are gone. The Gallic tribes are gone. We still live with the more immediate consequences of colonization and World War II. The Civil War should matter, then. It happened over 150 years ago, and my father even recalled seeing an old Confederate veteran on the streets of New Orleans celebrating the defeat of Japan. Yet, for the mass of people, it does not matter and that is because of how we remember and celebrate it.
The memory of the war contains three major narratives. There is the Lost Cause, reunification, and the Just Cause. The Lost and Just Causes were always opposed, and each accused the other of being dominant. They each certainly had their influence, but both were subordinate to the ideal of a reunited country that went on to win two world wars, survive the Great Depression, and stare down communism. By its nature, reunification ascribed strengths and failings to both the Lost and Just Cause, generally hewing that the North was right but the South was entitled to respect the courage of its soldiers and deplore the devastation wrought by the war. Today, the Just Cause is triumphant, and its victory makes interest in the war limited for the millions who do not subscribe to all of its core tenets. At the same time, the Just Cause obscures some of the war’s deeper meanings such as nationalism and, in particular, the tradition of rebellion and secession. The Just Cause, whatever its merits, limits the narrative and thematic scope of our understanding of the war.
A 2019 article by the Wall Street Journal reported that attendance at Civil War parks is declining sharply. Gettysburg drew just 14 percent of the visitor total that it did in 1970. One of the most visited parks is Kennesaw Mountain, which is used mostly as a jogging trail. The Dead Angle, site of the heaviest fighting, is off the main jogging trail and is mostly vacant. This trend should terrify any Civil War historian, for the ultimate pilgrimage is to these sites. They were once overrun with buffs, historians, and the curious. Why that happened is complicated, but I will offer a few thoughts. I must also concede there is no one cause.
In 1970 parks were visited mostly by Southerners, who could admire the courage of their ancestors and feel that it was not in vain since the nation was reunited and the South was allowed to at least honor its dead and veterans. That memory of the war was slowly eclipsed over the decades since 1970. Your average Southerner’s only consolation is the old monuments to leaders and veterans that for now still remain in the parks. Yet, as the museums increasingly depict a victorious and righteous North, many will stay away. It is true interpretations needed to be updated, and I credit a few places such as Gettysburg with not portraying the North in purely rosy terms. Yet, in the drive to get the approval of Jesse Jackson, Jr., David Blight, and Eric Foner, the core audience has dissipated.
At the same time the core audience has declined, it has been hard to draw new people in. One reason is people on vacation mostly want to feel good and the parks do not offer that. They now offer ambivalence. If the South was wrong, then why are there statues and monuments here? At the same time, it is hard not to look out over the fields where the Confederates charged and not admire the courage and grit. One is then caught in the jaws of cognitive dissonance when they read about heroic actions for a bad cause. To make it worse, this is a Manichean age, and not one for nuance. None of these reasons stop me from visiting sacred places such as Shiloh, Gettysburg, and Franklin, but it will stop others.
To be fair, some are not coming because studying the war is stigmatized. Among those under the age of forty, a common stereotype about Civil War buffs is that of an older straight white male with questionable racial views. If I tell someone I write books about the Civil War, I sometimes get the question “Are you writing about the real war?” by which they usually mean a war where an evil South was justly crushed. To answer with complications and nuance is to sometimes be seen as a Lost Cause apologist. Living in New Orleans, and being much younger than most who write or discuss the war, this is a social tension point I have learned to navigate, but one that was rarely a problem before 2015.
Before going on, I wish to add that I still love the battlefield parks and respect what the rangers do. I go on the walks, converse with rangers, and lean on them for aid in crafting maps and books. I have been to nearly all of the parks covering the major battles, whether they are national, state, or local. The Civil War is one of my passions. Yet, when I heard about the drop in attendance I was not at all surprised. The young do not care much about history, particularly when that history is socially stigmatized, marginalized at school, and offers no social, cultural, or material benefits. People wanting to have fun while they get away from work will not be drawn in. Americans looking to admire the courage and sacrifice are fewer in number and are likely to feel less welcome at some parks.
Getting back to the subject of narratives, if asked which of the three memories of the war I subscribe the answer is none. I have major problems with each of them. The American Civil War is not just a crusade to end slavery, a war that reforged a nation, or the tale of Southerners defending their homes. It is also another chapter in our long human history of war and fostering the bitterness that is passed on for generations and called up whenever we need a justification for a fresh set of horrors to inflict on our enemies. It is a hard reality that we usually look away from in order to give the bloody conflicts of the past some higher purpose. The Just Cause, being the dominant force today, means its perch is much louder, but it will tumble. By that time though I doubt the Lost Cause or reunification will take its place. The Lost Cause was mostly regional and was drenched in Victorian sentimentality. The wonder is that it held out so long. Reunification confronts a nation fracturing fast and hard. The troubles looming over climate change, economic inequality, demographic shifts, political gridlock, and many more make me pessimistic. The ultimate triumph of the reunification narrative came not when the blue and gray shook hands at Gettysburg but when Mamoru Shigemitsu signed the Japanese Instrument of Surrender. I do not see anything like that happening in my lifetime.
If there is one thread that ties the Lost Cause, Just Cause, and reunification together it is that each, to varying degrees (and with notable exceptions), makes the Civil War into a necessary war or even a good war. Each sometimes avoids the depressing truth that people who should have been countrymen murdered each other under a system of government created to redress grievances in order to avoid the coups and rebellions that typified monarchies. The war ended slavery and expanded ideas of freedom, but in its wake there was a devastated and bitter South, Gilded Age politics and business practices, and a nationalism that foisted America into becoming a world power. Only a partisan would call each, save the end of slavery, an unalloyed good. Regardless, our country is still divided along North vs. South lines in much of its politics and culture, and few are happy with this situation. I suspect some of the Civil War’s deeper and darker meanings will be rediscovered if the polarization of today becomes much worse. It might reorient the parks away from the old narratives to something new. Whether or not that draws people in is questionable. I still hold that people on vacation want to feel good and in the stories they read (and history will always be a story) they want happy endings. Yet, we are likely to at least see new scholarship that avoids the orthodoxies of reunification and causes lost and just.
It should be noted few concerns are brought up over the use of Imperial Japanese and Soviet images and propaganda, but neither group is as consistently used as villains in pop culture.
It should be added that respect for soldiers was more universal during and right after the mass conflicts of the 20th Century. It was understood on a personal level that “war is hell” while we are today detached from war and its consequences. Therefore, we have less sympathy of soldiers fighting in a cause we deem as immoral, particularly as compared to the generations that fought both world wars, as well as in Korea and Vietnam.
The Civil War Museum in New Orleans also receives a fair amount of stigma, mostly for displaying Confederate flags, although displaying artifacts is the purpose of a museum. That said, the museum’s attendance has been much higher than in previous years.