The above question is perhaps the most common question asked among people with an interest in the Civil War these days, maybe more so than any of the great what-ifs of the Civil War. But, it’s an important one to ask. And my answer to it is very simple: yes, people do still care about the Civil War.
The Civil War is one of the greatest tales in American history. Its scale, its destruction, its stories, and its aftermath that laid the foundation for the United States we live in today. With a story so vast, elements of the war that have previously been understudied are popping up to the surface, making the Civil War era more accessible to countless groups of people that, until recently, had no reason to care about it. This includes an increased focus on stories of African Americans, immigrant contributions, women, and the overall effect of the war on society, among others. As public historians, this has increased the reach of our umbrella to bring people under and make the Civil War relevant to them.
Relevance is what people yearn for when they visit historic sites. Why should they care about the place they are visiting? If they can make a personal connection to the place they visit, they are much more likely to walk away caring. Those personal connections no longer have to be found in the stories of soldiers on the battlefield. Instead, civilians on the homefront, escaping slaves, or other aspects of the war can be utilized to draw audiences in.
Having said all of that, workers at historic sites, and visitors also, have pointed to a downturn in the number of visitors as a sign that people no longer care. I use two points to widen the context of this conversation. First, I believe visitation is cyclical. If I had a nickel for every time an older visitor has told me that they wished they became interested in history at a younger age, I’d be a rich man. Some people do become interested earlier but history is a late bloomer in a lot of people. Second, history is reaching people, or people are finding history, in many new ways in this technological age. Digital newspapers, archives, and genealogy websites, among others, are making history more accessible in different ways that no longer require physical visitation to archival repositories (though visiting a historic site or library will never be replaced by a digital visit).
So, is the Civil War still relevant so that people can find ways to care about it? If you have watched the news at all in the last few years, you will discover mentions of the Civil War abound. People still look to historic sites to provide context and relevance to all of that noise and news. They do that because they care about the Civil War and how it can carry us forward from here.