In the past two weeks two stories emerged about the 150th Civil War anniversary. One was a radio interview with local National Park Service (NPS) officials not being totally thrilled with the outcome of the Fredericksburg festivities this last winter. The other was this piece describing how Spotsylvania County lost money on the events it had sponsored. It would seem that the anniversary theme is not working as well as many had hope. This requires some reflection.
The whole 150th idea frankly leaves me a bit on the fence. I have nothing against commemoration, I certainly want the NPS to thrive, I support idea of historical education at this sort of mass scale. But there is something sort of made up about a 150th anniversary, something contrived (if that is not too harsh) or at least inorganic about it. It feels as if there was a desire for an event, and so the event was located within a calendric logic and declared. Let’s be clear—a 150th anniversary of a wedding would be a remarkable thing—especially if the couple were there to cut the cake anew. But a war? Centennials are more traditional.
The 1990s saw the more clearly contrived 125 anniversary of the war fueled as it was by the energy and enthusiasm created by Ken Burns’s much beloved The Civil War—an influential historical text as ever there was. That half-decade saw the resurgence of war reenacting—a commemorative pass time that began its modern iteration amidst the 1960s centennial. But the growth of the hobby in the 1990s was without precedent. Clinton-era prosperity put lots of surplus income in enthusiasts’ pockets, and a thriving industry of producers coalesced to meet the desire for specialized goods that ranged from the highest quality museum replicas to mass produced crap. In either case, there were goods for all levels of historical sentiment or purses from the most detail-conscious devotee like those made famous in Tony Horowitz’s Confederates in the Attic, to members of the common heard eager to eat some hardtack, sneak a cigarette, and shoot some blank shots on a budget.
Don Troiani shows his debt to the great French military artists of the late ninetieth century and builds on an excellent understanding of the era’s clothes and equipment.
Civil War reenacting became the largest outdoor historical hobby with countless local fraternal groups all over the nation—and even overseas. This all breathed new life into older more formal groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans who adopted the pose and style of reenactment companies. Likewise, the number of Civil War roundtables grew as did preservation supporters all of whom has reenactors and new enthusiasts in their ranks. These groups erected new monuments and even worked to preserve more obscure corners of battlefields. A subgenre of art began to grace walls as historian/collector/painters like Don Troiani and Keith Rocco brought Edouard Detaile-style to Civil War themes. They were followed by a far larger number of lesser lights but nevertheless commercially-savvy artists like Dale Gallon and Mort Kunstler who relied on reenactors as they looked on battle weekend for models, thus painting a chubbier, older, and oddly attired present into the past.
Mort Kunstler’s art sets reenactors against imagined backgrounds but really represents reenactor portraits as opposed to others’ more informed historical art.
On top of that, there was an overall increase in military reenacting in general as Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, WWI, WWII, and even odder choices like Viet Nam or the Wars of the Spanish Conquest all competed with a busy reenactor’s schedule. All the while though the Civil War was a unifying force—its events were the largest and a great portion of the language and overall culture of historical reeneactments took form in the ranks of weekender Billy Yanks and Johnny Rebs—many of whom fought other fights in their spare spare time.
Ed Bears doing that for which he is most beloved.
But that is where the problem for the 150th anniversary begins. Not only did a whole new consumer Civil War hobby develop, but with it evolved a whole set of characters and historically inflected consumer identities. Reeneactors gradually became a “type,” as more and more people had an uncle or a teacher who made their weekend uniform part of their lives and self identities. Hollywood began to see reeneactors as a self-costuming low-cost source of extras, and movies with themes ranging from battles to zombies employed them. Civil War tourism grew to new levels and lines of Tilley-hatted seniors in safari vests and custom-made matching roundtable golf shirts walked battle sites most every weekend of the year.
On one level, this was a wonderful thing: Americans connecting with their past, making it meaningful and relevant, and supporting with new fervor the cause of preservation. But on the other hand, the very familiarity of the identity, style, symbols, and patter of the Civil War enthusiast made the whole interest easy to marginalize, trivialize, and dismiss. Knowing exactly who liked the Civil War, made it very easy for a far larger number of Americans to not count themselves in the ranks of “those” people. All the images and symbols of the buff or devotee were owned, and indeed, and were even becoming a bit thread bare. The Civil War had become an almost exclusive possession of its fans.
And so along come 2011 and the 150th Civil War anniversary. The NPS really was the primary agent in making this mid-century way point a date in its own right. But the battalions of private entities, roundtablers, reenactor groups, commemorative societies, museums, and clubs that make up the Civil War world, as well as counties and municipalities hoping for economic boosts all bought right in. Yet the whole thing is foundering already, and in Civil War terms, we have not even reached Gettysburg yet. Why?
Civil War interest has become a victim of its own success—especially the boost it received 25 years ago. There is a ready made audience for all things Blue and Gray, and the 150th planners counted on those people coming out in droves. Dwight Pithcaithley spoke about this at the National Council on Public History conference in 2011 right when all this was heating up. The NPS made conscious a choice here. Option One was give the devotees exactly what they most want—battles, guns, and glory—and do everything possible to offer up the best show possible. Option Two was to widen the scope, talk about politics, contemporary relevance, long-term shadows, and implications. Option One would not bring in new people, but it could force open the wallets of the hardest of the hard core by giving them what they most wanted. Option Two might bring in new people, but only at the risk of alienating a reliable and by now well-defined and mobilized constituency. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the 150th went with Option One—stick with the tried and true—give the reliable customers what they want.
The problem is that in this economic climate, the Old Guard are not rushing in as hoped and planned for. Certainly many have made these events their top priority, but perhaps just not enough of them. On top of that, the Old Guard are just that—old.
Civil War veterans Grand Army of the Republic members at the end of the nineteenth century.
Today’s Civil War enthusiasts are not a young group of people—they resemble rather more the grizzled gray beard of the GAR than they do the Boys of ’61. If the 150th was intended to be a an eye catching splash that would grab the nation’s attention and reawaken the kind of weepy enthusiasm that accompanied Ken Burns’s The Civil War, then that can be said to have not happened. If the 150th intended to bring new people in or make the war seem meaningful to a new generation of Americans, well that has not happened either.
So we see now the 150th planners and backers waiting for Gettysburg later this summer or maybe the Wilderness and Spotsylvania after that in some sort of oddly reversed “it will be all over Christmas” battle cry. We’ll get ‘em next time boys.
The fact is that Americans are weary. Weary of two real ongoing wars. Weary of the language of division. Weary of the grim predictability of war commemoration. We OD’ed on it as the WWII generation passed away and as we saw, the 200th anniversary of 1812 has all but come and gone with nary a whisper and we will soon see the 100th of WWI will be the same, if not less. And most dangerously perhaps for Civil War history, the public is weary of the pose and style of the Civil War enthusiasts themselves. They have become cartoony—bikers with battle flag adorned vests on rides to the Confederate White House or too-old and too-fat reenactors puffing though yet another charge. These have become the stock of Seth McFarlane punch lines or worse. The brand no longer compels.
The problem with the 150th is that it came fifty years too early. Perhaps we need to forget the Civil War for a time so that a later wave of Americans can discover it anew and make it meaningful. The Boys of ’13 are just not up to the task any longer.