Looking Back at the End of Blue & Gray

Recently, both Civil War Times and America’s Civil War folded. For many, the death of Civil War Times was a hard blow, since the magazine had been in the business for a long time. America’s Civil War was personally, a bigger one. It was the first magazine I was gifted in the 1990s, and I was happy I got an article in on the Bermuda Hundred Campaign before they folded. These magazines will be sorely missed by Civil War historians and buffs, who often came together in their pages.

America’s Civil War Winter 2023, the issue I was published in

I thought back to a post on the end of Blue & Gray that I wrote on a blog I briefly maintained. I have since made the whole blog private and shut it down, but I wish to share this here unedited and give my thoughts on how it holds up in light of what happened.

Here it is below. I only edited it for grammar:

The End of Blue & Gray Magazine
Earlier this year, I started writing reviews for Blue & Gray Magazine. It was a spiffy side gig. I was not paid, but I got free Civil War books. I figured this would be a good way to support a good magazine, get my name out there, and most of all stay on the cutting edge of scholarship without paying out of pocket. I was loving it.
I had a feeling not all was well. Richard A. Sauers, who handled the reviews, told me the number of books being published had gone down since the 150th had passed. The 150th alone was a bit of a let-down. True, it was busy on the battlefields. Films from the Civil War era were getting wide exposure. Lincoln and Django Unchained were nominated for best picture, Twelve Years a Slave won best picture, and The Hateful 8 was well received. At any rate, it seemed that the 150th was still passing in relative quiet. Things did not heat up until Dylann Roof and the ongoing removal of Confederate statues in America.
I attend the New Orleans Civil War Roundtable. It is a good bunch, relatively low key, and very elderly. I am one of only two people I have seen there under 40. The rest are 60 plus. Many have been going there since Reagan was president. On the level of military actions, the young do not have as much interest in the war.
I suspect there are two culprits to this decline of interest. One, military subjects do not excite people as much anymore. The end of the draft separated the society from the military. Those in uniform are in another world, and Americans have not fought a war on the scale of Vietnam since 1972. Furthermore, the military misadventures of the George W. Bush administration have made war less interesting and arresting; antiwar sentiment is common in both parties. War films, which were common before the Iraq War, are fairly rare. Part of it is the scale of such productions seem risky since they have a limited international appeal. Yet, while war films can do well (Lone Survivor and American Sniper come to mind), it is hardly the heyday of Full Metal Jacket and Platoon.
The second culprit is a change in priorities. The past is ever used and abused by the present. Military subjects on the Civil War had more relevance in the mid-20th century. This is depicted as a withdrawal from the war’s racial issues, but it was also because the country was in a major war in nearly every decade from 1917-1973. Who can blame people for gobbling up the work of Bruce Catton? In our age, the war’s questions of race are at center stage, along with disunion. We live in a fractured age, where the rhetoric and vitriol reminds one of the 1850s. These subjects now hold people’s interest.
All told, the fascination with the military campaigns will not disappear, but its apex is gone. Blue & Gray Magazine I suspect was as undermined by the Internet as it was by an aging subscription base. Within 10 years, the New Orleans Civil War Roundtable is likely to no longer exist. Furthermore, my talks with Bryce Suderow have made me even more worried about the future. He has noted that most historians are well over 50, made up in large part of men with wealth and the means to do arcane archival research. Younger people are few. They are poorer. I do not have the means to research every nook and cranny, and therefore my work will sometimes be unfavorably compared to others.
Blue & Gray Magazine had the tagline “for those who still hear the guns.” Sadly, fewer people do.”

A few more recent takeaways…

I did a talk in March 2024 for the New Orleans Civil War Roundtable. It was their second-lowest turnout on record, beaten only by the previous month. The roundtable at Mobile I spoke to last year had more people to be fair, but overall I am noticing lower turnout and book sales at roundtables. Mobile had a younger crowd too, but not enough to fill me with encouragement.

The previous take on a decline of interest in war remains. The Ukraine War (have we settled on a name?) has not changed that, particularly as the war has more in common with Cambrai than Operation Compass. This is a society much more detached from the military than the one that endured two World Wars and fought bloody wars in Korea and Vietnam. As a child, veterans were everywhere I turned. Most are gone now.

America’s Civil War September 1994 issue, the second one I owned

As to research, the Internet has so many digitized sources that, combined with inter-library loan and friendly archives, they have allowed me to compile a 113-page bibliography for my work on Shiloh. Things have come a long way from 2012, led alone 2007 when the first draft was written.

That said, what I did not write on this old blog post, but did write elsewhere holds about the waning of interest in the Civil War. Interest has fallen off considerably since the high of the 1990s. I see no way that this will reverse. Involvement was due to genealogy, but also the mainstream tale of a nation reunited, which then won two world wars, the Cold War, and survived the Great Depression. It was a compelling narrative that gave a happy ending to a period of bloodshed. Americans need such happy endings. That is why the war that draws by far the most interest is World War II. The battles were more modern and never surpassed in scale. There is, at least with America, a simplistic good vs. evil narrative that fits many of the facts. Whenever I hear Americans beam about World War II, I can hear John Williams’ 1978 Superman theme in the background.

The Civil War is now bereft of such fanfare. Some look to the North as the surrogate for the superhero, but it never quite works. The North was a thoroughly racist society that took a long time to end slavery and was more interested in the preservation of the Union. The war ended slavery, but it was never, outside a few imaginations, a crusade to end slavery. As such, attendance at the parks and book sales have fallen off. So many I meet fell in love with the subject during the now maligned centennial. Whatever its flaws, that commemoration drew people in. Currently, people under 45 don’t care. There was some interest among the young I saw in the 1990s, but even then World War II grabbed the imagination. After all, no Civil War movie has yet equaled the thrills of the Indiana Jones trilogy. Once the Civil War’s reconciliation narrative died, there was nothing left, save what will draw in antiquarians and partisans.

America’s Civil War September 1993 issue, the first one I owned

7 Responses to Looking Back at the End of Blue & Gray

  1. Sean
    I understand the basis for your pessimism, but I don’t entirely agree with it.
    People love stories. The Civil War, in many respects, is America’s story. The Centennial is obviously not going to be replicated but that doesn’t mean interest will die out.
    Also, older people are more interested in history because of perspective and also because they have more time. I’m typing this from an Italian restaurant in Gettysburg. Why am I in Gettysburg? Because I can. When I belonged to a more desirable age demographic I was up to my butt in work and raising children.
    As long as the land is preserved interest in the Civil War will continue.

  2. I see no mention in this article of the Emancipation Proclamation establishing the end of slavery as a Union war aim. As to pessimism about the future of Civil War interest, ECW did a recent online presentation about the demise of Civil War Times and America’s Civil War. The participants, including Gary Gallagher, were quite upbeat about the interest of young people in history and the Civil War. Perhaps ECW can make this presentation available for those who missed it?

  3. My local Barnes & Noble used to have a multiple shelve Civil War section, specifically named “Civil War”. That no longer exists. Now the ACW “section” is a single row of books on one shelf in the American History section. Times have definitely changed.

  4. Perhaps causing offense to half its intended audience caused some loss in sales? The Civil War magazines of today include frequent references to “treasonous” Southerners and other questionable scholarship. I subscribe to the CW Monitor, but not sure for how much longer. At one time, it was said to be the most unbiased of the CW magazines. A year ago, the Monitor had a lengthy article about fraternization between Northern and Southern soldiers. You would expect that to be a “feel good” story. But, no, in reality, concluded the article, those stories were used to prop up the Lost Cause myth. How, I asked? In what way? The answer was essentially “we know because we know.” Gut instinct is not scholarship. So, if the Monitor is the least biased, one can only imagine what the others contained.

  5. Agreed, and I’m still under 50.

    The Civil War Monitor was progressive history, generally, from the start, or what Sean might would call “Just Cause” civil war history. Nevertheless, there is some quality historical work produced in there, but not enough for me to pay for it.

    Emerging Civil War allows for a broader spectrum of voices. Let us have it all.

    Thank you Chris and company.

  6. There will always be scholars but as a popular topic is it over. Gallagher and the rest sound like Jefferson Davis after Atlanta fell. The end is not here but it is obvious enough. But people prefer optimism and in particular Americans.

  7. Thanks for sharing this important topic. Just speaking as a UK armchair enthusiast (over 60s male, professional of course), there’s lots of interacting and conflicting aspects to consider here. The rise of the digital world has fundamentally changed most if not all aspects of societies. There are loads of ACW websites, blogs, virtual groups, etc. The printed page is going to be affected. I have built up an extensive library of civil war books, but many of them pre 2000 are now available for free on sites like archives.org. And yet overall book sales on Amazon seem to be popular. Would be interesting to know about visitor numbers at the main Civil war sites. I remember visiting The Wilderness Spotsylvania battlefield one Tuesday morning in October about 10 years ago and my party were the only folks there.
    One cannot ignore the numbers and observations raised in the article and Bryce Suderow’s comment strike a chord.
    I subscribed to some of these magazines for years and it’s sad to see them go. ACW history has to find its way in a fast changing world.I guess the fact that I’m only the 7th person to comment on the article tells its own story.

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