What We’ve Learned: Keep the Fire Alive for the Civil War

On April 12, 2011, I was sitting in my high school Civil War & Reconstruction course, just listening to my teacher talk to us about the significance of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Early in the ‘Civil War Sesquicentennial,’ was nationwide fervor for battlefield anniversary programming, documentaries, museum exhibits, state commissions, and major reenactments. By 2015, the Sesquicentennial was nowhere near as popular across the country as the Centennial was in the 1960s. As we look back on the Sesquicentennial’s legacy, ten years later, a lot has changed in the realm of Civil War interpretation, public history, memory, monumentation, and preservation.

Visitors watch a living history demonstration at the Battle of Lexington State Historic Site in Lexington, Missouri. Courtesy of Missouri State Parks.

I could go into the reasons why public memory of the Civil War has altered in the wake of several controversial events, but I am sure each of you who have paid attention to these events are already quite aware of what happened. Issues of race, Confederate memory, and political ideology were heightened in the wake and put the spotlight on our nation’s most consequential and controversial conflict – the Civil War.

Instead of analyzing how Civil War interpretation and scholarship has changed, I want to give a call to action. As Civil War historians and enthusiasts, we have to stay involved and interested in preservation, visiting museums and historic sites, attending battlefield tours, and financially supporting various institutions and organizations that help preserve history. While some sites have reported growth during and after the Sesquicentennial, many others have seen a noticeable decline in support and/or attendance. Some of this, no doubt, is caused by apathy, or lack of enthusiasm, in the subject in the wake of these major political events.

As we prepare for the 160th Anniversary of the Civil War, I call each of us to continue to support history and preservation, no matter your views on monuments and memory. Keep encouraging youth to be interested in Civil War history. Take a family member or friend to a battlefield. Find a preservation cause to financially support. Call your Senator or Representative and tell them why they need to help preserve Civil War history. Stay active in your community for preservation efforts. Keep reading about the Civil War. Visit Civil War museums and historic sites you have never been to. These are all simple ways to keep the fire alive for the study and the preservation of the Civil War. Let us see those numbers in attendance and financial support increase, not decline, during the 160th.

4 Responses to What We’ve Learned: Keep the Fire Alive for the Civil War

  1. Interest in EVERYTHING waxes and wanes: put it down to human nature and short attention span. And interest in the Civil War during its 160th Anniversary is earmarked to suffer the natural tendency towards WANE, primarily because of focus that will increasingly be directed towards the 250th Anniversary of the American Revolution. Those of us concerned about “keeping Civil War interest high” can just allow this natural atrophy to occur, or…
    Having operated a successful bakery while in my thirties, I came to appreciate the role of advertising; self-promotion; taking advantage of “special events” that recur (Easter, Christmas) and those that are one-offs (birthdays, graduations, sport events) and providing a product that dove-tailed with that burst of intense public interest. My point: the celebration of Civil War history should not compete with the Revolution anniversary; but instead seek to augment and extend that interest. Shared places of battle (such as Yorktown and Pensacola) can be highlighted. “Home fronts” of Boston, Philadelphia, Annapolis, Charleston with the response of citizenry to the emergency can be compared and contrasted. Weaponry, tactics, uniforms, military organization (much of the Civil War State organization mirrored that in use during the Revolution), logistics and the production of materials and foodstuffs and funding critical to conducting war all can be studied as extensions of earlier practice.
    The Internet with its websites (particularly YouTube) provide ready platforms for this, with ability to “direct the student of history to significant Civil War sites, such as ECW” and allow that student to investigate, discover, and further extend her knowledge and interest.
    Getting them “in the door” is half the battle.

  2. I recognize the Anderson House pic. Just toured it in August, as well as the Confederate Veterans Home Memorial down the road at Higginsville, Mo. Some markers at the latter are looking rough. Likely not a popular use of state funds or resources now, unfortunately.

    1. The Town of Lexington was named after the Revolutionary War Battle of Lexington, fought 19 April 1775 in Massachusetts when an over-extended line of British troops was engaged by American rebels using novel tactics. The Town of Lexington Missouri experienced its own military contest in early September 1861, when an outnumbered force of Federal troops unwisely occupied a position with no easy access to water, and was embarrassed. In both situations, the rebels were victorious.

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