Civil War Anniversaries: History, Marketing, and the Pesky Notion of Human Rights

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The 150th anniversary of the Civil War will hopefully be dramatically different than the one that preceded it 50 years ago. The 100th Anniversary was a weird mixture of the celebration of Southern (white) heritage and American militarism. Events were designed to portray a heroic, united America, in which embarrassing questions of human rights were brushed aside.

Writer Jamie Malanoski described his boyhood experience of the 1961-1965 Civil War Centennial on The New York Times website:

I had a great Civil War Centennial. I was eight years old in 1961, and my parents took our family on trips to Gettysburg and Antietam and Manassas. I had blue and gray toy soldiers, and Civil War trading cards…

Recently I read Troubled Commemoration, an account of the Civil War Centennial by Robert J. Cook, and I learned that I had experienced exactly what the centennial organizers envisioned: an event that promoted tourism and commercial enterprise and, oh yeah, taught a little bit of history as well.

I also learned that people besides me also had a good centennial. Segregationists, for example, were able to turn the centennial of the war into a celebration of the Confederacy. Flying the Confederate battle flag, they used secession as an origination myth for the never-defeated cause of states’ rights, which was the philosophical underpinning of the racist laws and practices they defended.

Southern whites weren’t the only people making hay during the Centennial. The United States, which still had broad discrimination against blacks and other non-white citizens, was engaged in a global contest with the Soviet Union for the hearts and minds of Third World peoples from Brazil to Africa to Vietnam.

Another group that had a good centennial were cold warriors, who were able to argue that the America that now led the Free World had its roots in a civil war that left us more unified, and more deeply committed to the defense of global freedom — a perfect metaphor for the former antagonists of World War II who were now standing together against communism in western Europe. As for which side held the moral high ground in 1861, the cold warriors were agnostic.

Others didn’t have such a good centennial. When the national Civil War Commission scheduled its first assembly in Charleston in April 1961, Madaline Williams, an African-American member of New Jersey’s Civil War Centennial Commission, was told that she wouldn’t be able to stay with the rest of the delegation at the segregated hotel where the events were being held. Several northern delegations threatened to boycott the event, but the hotel management did not relent, and no state or city officials intervened. “We are surprised that a colored woman would not want to stay at a hotel for colored people,’’ wrote one newspaper. Finally the Kennedy administration stepped in and moved the event to a naval base in Charleston, where facilities were integrated.1

Historian Robert S. McElvaine, a professor at Millsaps College, was at the first of the segregationist celebrations in Mississippi’s capital in 1961. The state’s leaders used white Southern ancestral pride to mobilize voters against equality for African Americans. They used the example of brave white men fighting against what they considered Northern oppression in 1861 as a clarion call for a renewed fight against Northern efforts to bring racial equality to the South. He writes of a Civil War commemoration he observed as a boy:

On March 28, 1961 a six-mile, two-hour parade wended its way through Jackson, Miss. — the largest public event in state history — to mark the centennial of Mississippi’s secession and the beginning of the Civil War. Tens of thousands of white Mississippians lined the route, greeting the festooned marchers with rebel yells of “Yiiiii Hoooaaah!” …The South that day, noted the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, “rose again, in all its Confederate splendor.”

…Among the marching and mounted gray-clad troops were most of the state’s officials and members of the legislature. Gov. Ross Barnett, renamed Confederate General Barnett for the day, led the parade dressed in a Confederate uniform and riding in a horse-drawn carriage. He then reviewed some 6,000 “rebel” cavalry and infantry troops as they passed the Governor’s Mansion. He was reported to have been “satisfied [that] his boys could battle the Yankees on even terms if they had to.” (Mr. Barnett’s “boys” would be put to the test 18 months later in a battle with federal forces on the campus of the University of Mississippi, where state officials sought to block James Meredith, an African-American student, from enrolling.)

Some of the honorary Confederates were driven in National Guard jeeps, said to have been “captured from the Yankees.” “Ever [sic.]so often,” the city’s afternoon paper, the Jackson Daily News, reported, “to the delight of the crowd, a mounted cavalryman would stop his horse, point to a member of the crowd and shout, ‘There’s a Yankee; shoot him!’”

Simultaneous with the Gray Parade, young African American Mississippians insisted that the war had everything to do with slavery and that the greatest achievement of the war was the Emancipation Proclamation, the 14th Amendment, and the civil rights acts. Their manifestation of identity was greeted quite differently from the official reaction to that of the whites:

Only the day before, Jackson had been the site of Mississippi’s first sit-in when nine Tougaloo College students took seats in the whites-only Jackson Public Library. Police arrested the quiet readers for disrupting the peace. That night hundreds of students from Jackson State College gathered in front of the college’s library to protest the arrests. They sang hymns and chanted, ‘We want freedom.’”

The Jackson Daily News characterized the protesters as “a singing, chanting, praying mob.” City police dispersed the crowd as one student remarked, “They haven’t seen anything yet. This will go on until we have freedom.” A march the next day was broken up by police using tear gas and dogs.2

Edward Ball, the author of the moving book Slaves in the Family, wrote in The New York Times recently that America’s failure to come to terms with the Civil War in 1961 risks being repeated today:

The Civil War is that paradoxical thing in history, a kind of memory screen. Large numbers of white Southerners mark the rebellion by celebrating its imagery, but other Americans recast this singular disaster to fit their needs, too. Instead of a wide view of the war we — white and black, North and South — prefer hot, local pictures: John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater, or black soldiers marching south, or plantations and weeping slaves.

It is not for lack of trying: something like 65,000 books have been published on the war, more than one a day since it ended. But between the study and storytelling, we entertain ourselves with notions that preserve a tremendous lack of consensus about what the Civil War means.

We cannot come to terms with the Civil War because it presents us with an unacceptable kind of self-knowledge. We think, as Americans, that we possess a heroic past, and we like to think of our history as one of progress and the spread of freedom, even transcendence. But the Civil War tells us that we possess a tragic history instead, over which we must continually paste a mask of hope.3

Last year, we were treated to the spectacle of Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell declaring April “Confederate History Month” with no mention of slavery. The same state’s Sesquicentennial plan seemed heavy on the tourism and light on the learning.

But, Virginia’s approach is not being followed by other states.  Take a look at this video from the official Arkansas Sesquicentennial Commission for a treatment of the lasting effects of the Civil War and emancipation.

Frankly, the legacy of the Civil War is too important to leave in the hands of re-enactors, history buffs, tourism officials, and Virginia governors. Just as it belonged to the black students protesting for freedom in 1961, it belongs to all of us today.

Notes

1. “My Civil War Centennial” by Jamie Malanowski
2. “Mississippi Grays” by Robert S. McElvaine
3. “An American Tragedy” by Edward Ball

The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:

1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.

2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.

3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.

4. Immigrant Leader Carl Schurz Tells Lincoln to Stand Firm Against Slavery.

5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants

6. The Rabbi Who Seceded From the South

7. The Fighting 69th-Irish New York Declares War

8. The Germans Save St. Louis for the Union

9. New York’s Irish Rush to Save Washington

10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.

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