Monday, June 8, 2009

Remembering the Civil War

I've just read David Blight's thoughts on the Civil War Sesquicentennial published in The Chronicle of Higher Education and it has gotten me thinking about how the 150th anniversary will be marked here in Chattanooga. As Dr. Blight points out "the centennial commemoration of the Civil War was a political and historical debacle." Racism, anti-communism, and Lost Causism all worked to obscure the causes and consequences of the conflict. Most of the centennial celebrated "a master narrative of mutual heroism in a war in which everyone had fought for their sense of the 'right'."

As Blight points out the 150th anniversary allows us the opportunity to stare the past directly in the face and to struggle with the complex and troubling history of the war and its aftermath (especially the issue of emancipation and the many responses to the end of slavery that impact American social and cultural life today). But how willing will our audiences in Chattanooga be to confronting these issues? Dr. Blight paints a hopeful picture based on his experience at the University of Richmond symposium "America on the Eve of the Civil War". In it scholars investigated the rising tensions surrounding John Brown's Harper's Ferry raid and the increasing anxiety over the election of 1860. Politicians and the public alike responded enthusiastically and Blight concludes "If the self-selected audience can be any kind of model, and if the Richmond event can be evenly modestly duplicated elsewhere, the sesquicentennial will be very different from the fiasco of the centennial of the Civil War in 1961-1965."

My recent experience suggests that to modestly duplicate the success of the Richmond symposium (or at least to engage in the kind of analysis and examination the panelists prompted) in our region will take much work. I have been struck by the continuing hold of the Lost Cause interpretation in our region (a version of the Civil War that minimizes to the point of invisibility the central role of slavery in the conflict). It also seems true that a decided majority of those interested in the Civil War in our neighborhood prefer to emphasize the glory of military history over the social, cultural, and political issues that created the context for secession and war. This point became particularly clear during the recent 145th commemorations of the battle of Chickamauga. Two commemorative events were held to mark the event -- one a large scale reenactment of the battle held on private land in McLemore's Cove the other a small living history event at the Chickamauga National Military Park.

The Chattanooga Times estimated nearly 40,000 people attended the 3 day festival at McLemore's Cove. There they were treated to period sutlers, food vendors, and large scale re-creations of the battle. The Times ran daily articles about the festival including streaming video on their website. Interpretation included the dubious (presentations that made claims that African American slaves supported the Confederacy) to the mundane (one streaming video on the Times site showed a group of school students listening to a recital of facts about the commanders of the Union army). At the same time, at the Chickamuaga National Military Park about 3,500 people gathered over the weekend to take tours, watch tactical demonstrations, and engage with the question of slavery and the Confederacy in an innovative living history demonstration. Little attention was paid by the local press.

The two events were dramatically different -- one was largely empty of the kind of content Dr. Blight (and many others) hope will be at the forefront of the150th commemorations. The other contained elements of both military history and social and cultural history that engaged multiple approaches to undertanding the war. The former approach gained the lion's share of publicity and attention. The latter gained an appreciative yet small audience and paltry media attention. To me the events and response to them suggest that much serious work needs to be done in our community before the kind of engagement so many hope for can be achieved.