U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Forgetting Anniversaries

Medal Produced by the Civil War Centennial Commission, 1961

Readers of this blog over the age of forty most likely remember the celebration of the Bicentennial of the United States in 1976. A huge public (and private) undertaking, the Bicentennial has at various times been criticized for a variety of failings (most recently, perhaps, by Jill Lepore).  But the federal government made celebrating the Bicentennial a priority and it’s fair to say that it had a profound impact on the historical consciousness of those of us for whom this was an introduction to much of our nation’s early history.

Readers of this blog in their mid-to-late fifties or older might remember the previous, major national celebration of our nation’s past: the Centennial of the Civil War.  Created by act of Congress in 1957, the Civil War Centennial Commission oversaw a national commemoration of that conflict that was more deeply troubled than the later Bicentennial effort.

This year, the nation faces two major historical anniversaries: this week marks the beginning of the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War.  And five months from today will be the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Yet it appears that neither of these anniversaries may receive the sort of unified national commemoration that our federal government provided for the nation’s Bicentennial and the Civil War Centennial.  What, if anything, should we make of this apparent refusal to commemorate?


In the words of the historian Robert Cook, author of Troubled Commemoration: The American Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965 (LSU Press, 2007), the national celebration of the Civil War’s centennial “came close to being an unmitigated disaster.” The Centennial fell at arguably the most difficult time for such a celebration, with the Civil Rights movement in full swing and Southern states turning to the legacy of the Confederacy for rhetorical ammunition as they pursued massive resistance to integration.  The Civil War Centennial Commission, led by Gen. Ullyses S. Grant III and Karl S. Betts, embraced a by-then hoary view of the conflict as a “brothers’ war,” a narrative that ignored African American agency, marginalized the issue of slavery, and celebrated the conflict as a tragic but ultimately heroic tale of an essentially white nation reuniting.  Thus the CWCC found itself deeply out-of-step with both African American and Southern white contemporary memory of the conflict.  It only became a flashpoint of national controversy, however, when at its 1961 annual meeting in Charleston, SC, the New Jersey delegation precipitated a crisis by demanding, over the objections of Grant and Betts, that one of its African American delegates be given a room at the segregated hotel at which the meeting was taking place.

Writing on HNN in 2007, the fiftieth anniversary of the creation of the CWCC, Robert Cook recalled the failures of the CWCC and gave advice for those planning national Sesquicentennial celebrations.  Cook seems to simply have assumed that such celebrations would take place. But in fact, Congress has never authorized a national Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission, despite repeated attempts at its creation. Indeed, as far as I can tell, it’s never even become a serious enough possibility to create a major public debate about it. The latest attempt, launched in the House this February, has foundered, in part due to the current bipartisan mania for budget cutting. The Obama Administration, disappointingly but utterly unsurprisingly, has been utterly silent about the Sesquicentennial. Though a number of states, localities, and private organizations have launched their own Sesquicentennial commemoration efforts–and some of these have made national news, largely for negative reasons–it now appears that there will be no high-profile national commemoration whatsoever.

Not that the federal government is entirely ducking this anniversary.  The National Park Service, steward of the most important battle sites, has a website devoted to the Sesquicentennial, which features events “Then” (currently Congress adjourning with the nation divided on March 28, 1861) and “Now” (bizarrely Strom Thurmond filibustering the Civil Rights Act of 1957….which doesn’t seem very much like “now” to me, unless the NPS is engaged in an ironic and very surprisingly critical stance on the current functioning of our Senate).  And the Library of Congress is quietly archiving websites devoted to the commemoration of the Sesquicentennial, though as far as I can tell, they haven’t made any effort to publicize this on their own website.

What accounts for the failure to mount a more robust national commemoration?


Surely the problem isn’t a lack of national interest. Along with World War II, the Civil War remains the single event in our nation’s past that most interests the general public.  Civil war reenactment–an activity that is in many ways a legacy of the Centennial celebration–continues to attract a large and enthusiastic group of participants.  And less demanding forms of Civil War memory are even more popular.

Nor is the problem the absence of a viable national story about the war.  If anything, reaching consensus on the meaning of the war seems more likely in 2011 than in 1961.  As Cook noted in his 2007 HNN piece, wildly popular works like Jim McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom and Ken Burns’s Civil War have forged “a liberalized version of the brothers’ war/national salvation trope, one that incorporates the political achievements of the war (emancipation as well as Union) but still attempts to find evidence of national purpose and greatness.”  Though four years ago Cook argued that overcoming this new narrative was the first great challenge of the Sesquicentennial effort, the existence of this narrative would seem to form the basis of a national celebration, however inadequate Cook might find it to be.  (Though I may be biased having studied with him, it seems to me that one can do a lot worse than Jim McPherson’s understanding of the conflict.)

More positively, Kevin Levin, high school history teacher and author of Civil War Memory (winner of the 2007 Cliopatria for Best Individual Blog), argues that what he calls the “Continuing War Narrative” about Civil War memory is very overdrawn:

The sesquicentennial commissions of former Confederate states are engaged in activities that would have been impossible to imagine 50 years ago.  Museums and other historical institutions throughout the nation are presenting the general public with programs that introduce the latest Civil War scholarship.

 . . .  I’m not suggesting that some kind of victory be declared over the interpretive problems that have plagued Civil War historiography and, by extension, the form it took in popular culture, but we would do well to acknowledge the changes.  We should do so if only to more precisely point out the gaps and distortions that persist.

In short, there are still problems, but the public memory of the Civil War seems healthier and, if anything, less divided than it’s ever been before.


Perhaps this refusal to forge a national commemoration of the Sesquicentennial is nonetheless a result of what Dan Rodgers calls the “Age of Fracture” (you didn’t think I was going to get through this post without mentioning USIH’s current scholarly obsession, did you?).  Rodgers does write about the weakening of “civil religion,” once so strong in Cold War America. And, indeed, Robert Cook argues that the Centennial celebration was deeply linked to the sort of Cold War cultural and political imperatives that Rodgers argues began to fade in the 1970s.

But while Rodgers’s account of national efforts to deal with important historical anniversaries shows fragmentation–from relative unity over the Bicentennial in the 1970s to “history wars” over Columbus and the Enola Gay in the 1990s–there’s little in his narrative that would lead us to expect our federal government’s withdrawing from such commemoration entirely.

Indeed, Rodgers devotes his final chapter to the growing importance–and often illusory immediacy–of the past in the late twentieth century:

As the very language for society threatened to break into fragments, the past became a sphere unto which desires for community and cohesion could be projected.  A truly changeless society would have no need to dwell on its history. In contrast, a sense of living within fragmenting and accelerating time made history a point of acute importance. (p. 221)

Although Rodgers focuses on the 1980s and 1990s in this chapter (entitled “Wrinkles in Time”), I don’t think our culture has entirely abandoned this sense of the past as both crucial and immediate.*  For example, “Wrinkles in Time” made think repeatedly of the Tea Party’s invocations of the American Revolution (which David has previously discussed on this blog).**

Far from avoiding arguments about history, the American public and American politicians of the “Age of Fracture” tended to leap at the chance to enter the fray.


Which brings us to this year’s second major anniversary.  If Congress and the White House can effectively duck dealing with this week’s arrival of the Civil War Sesquicentennial, they will not be able to ignore 9/11/11.  But in many ways, this anniversary will be much more difficult to commemorate than the Civil War.  Civil War commemoration is, after all, a decades-old, multi-million dollar industry.  And, as noted above, despite generations of division over the meaning of the Civil War, there’s a handy, reasonably accurate narrative around which a national commemoration could be built.

9/11 is very different. Despite early insistence the event “changed everything” and brought the American nation together, as Dan Rodgers correctly suggests in the epilogue to Age of Fracture, this moment of national unification was very short lived.  In our national elections of 2002, 2004, and 2006, 9/11 was repeatedly invoked for partisan political purposes. Only the utter failure of Rudy Giuliani’s presidential aspirations served to partially discourage a Republican return to this political well in 2008.  Last year’s controversy over the “Ground Zero Mosque” suggests that this bloody shirt can–and will–continue to be waved.

Any attempt to avoid recognizing the anniversary of 9/11 will be subject to intense public criticism…as will any particular attempt to recognize it.  The failure to create a robust federal commemoration of the tenth anniversary of 9/11 is thus both more understandable and less tenable than the avoidance of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.

The private developers of the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum are planning to open their memorial at Ground Zero on September 11, 2011. Given the importance of this site, the Memorial opening will undoubtedly be a centerpiece of our national commemoration.

What that national commemoration will look like is unclear, though my guess is that there are people–perhaps dozens of people–in the West Wing and the Capitol busily working on it.

This will be one anniversary that our political leaders will not be able to forget.


* In the interest of full disclosure I should add that, at least in my first reading of Age of Fracture, “Wrinkles in Time” was probably my least favorite chapter in this terrific book.  I felt that Rodgers’s extremely evocative metaphors about the “folding” and “short-circuiting” of time too often substituted for more precise analysis of what linked the various views of the past that he discusses in this chapter. Nevertheless, as with the rest of the book, there’s a lot of value in it, as my discussion above suggests.

** It is interesting that the Tea Party’s rhetoric is so focused on the Revolution and tends to avoid the Civil War. Perhaps this is because the politics of the Tea Party challenges the legacy of the Civil War in important ways.  To everyone’s surprise (I think), nullification has made a comeback among our state legislatures.  While a certain Neo-Confederate understanding of the “War Between the States” was extremely useful for white Southern opponents of the black freedom struggle in the Fifties and Sixties, for a variety of reasons, the Civil War–even in its more mythic forms–may provide a less usable past for the Tea Party.  Just as Tea Partiers are at pains to deemphasize their connections to the Christian Right, they find themselves repeatedly defending themselves against the charge that their objections to Obama concern race.  This may lead them to avoid invoking an event that now seems to most Americans to have been about race.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Great post, Ben. Although I haven’t given the Civil War Sesquicentennial nearly as much thought as you obviously have, my initial reaction is that there must be two forces preventing a national commemoration. 1) As you alluded to, the obsession over the budget. 2) The lesson learned by curators (and the museum community more largely speaking) from the Enola Gay controversy is that when it comes to commemorating historical events open to multiple and politically fraught interpretations, you can’t win. Though I agree with you that the nation seems to be moving in the direction of a better collective understanding of the Civil War, I would say persistent controversies about the confederacy and the confederate flag likely shape how curators and others understand the potentially controversial nature of Civil War commemoration. They likely see dangerous waters. The same would hold true for politicians who might otherwise push for commemoration.

  2. Ben: Nice post. As others are obsessed with the Age of Fracture, I continue my obsession with the civil religion of war. I’ve gained a great deal from reading John Bodnar’s books on commemoration, especially his most recent book on remembering World War II–The “Good War” in American Memory.

    What seems to come through in Bodnar’s studies are the conflicts between the kinds of memorials constructed to wars, from monuments to movies. He is quite good on the role movies play in creating terms that become the default language of describing the outcome and significance of World War II.

    So, my question to you is this: you are also very astute at parsing out the popular from the scholarly when it comes to debates in American culture, what should we watch out for as we approach the commemoration of 9/11? Has a language begun to be created to remember the event? Are there certain movies or other popular expressions that you see as touchstones for the debate?

  3. On Civil War remembrance, Stephen Budiansky offers some reflections on complications in relation to the South—factors that would’ve been problems in 1961 and remain so today. I offer the opening and closing paragraphs as a teaser:

    “The centennial observance of the Civil War, back in 1961, was an almost complete disaster. Slavery, emancipation, and the 200,000 African American soldiers and sailors who served in the Union army and navy were written out of the story altogether. This naturally suited the Southern agenda of resistance to civil rights going on at the time. …”


    “It’s probably impossible to remove any Civil War monuments today, no matter how historically distorted they are. In some places, the National Park Service has erected new markers next to the old which offer context and explanation. A great project for the sesquicentennial would be a systematic cataloging of the lies and distortions that remain literally etched in stone across the country.

    It’s also worth remembering what happened after the official shooting stopped, a part of the story as assiduously written out of the history of the war, in the service of the Lost Cause myth, as was slavery itself. The struggle for political rights, education, and economic opportunity for the freedmen—including the right to buy and farm their own land rather than being held in virtual slavery by another name—was brutally opposed by organized political forces of the old white guard, culminating by 1876 in the violent overthrow of the last freely elected governments the Southern states would know for a hundred years. That is not an exaggeration: fraud, intimidation, and violence were ruthlessly employed to end black voting and economic autonomy. As Albion Tourgée wrote, sadly surveying the ruins of Reconstruction in 1879, ‘In all except the actual results of the physical struggle, I consider the South to have been the real victors in the war.’ “

  4. “A great project for the sesquicentennial would be a systematic cataloging of the lies and distortions that remain literally etched in stone across the country.”

    I don’t know if it’s as “systematic” as Budiansky might want, but James Loewen has more-or-less already done this.

  5. I teach in Maryland, a state fraught with issues concerning the Civil War. I still have students from this area who were brought up to believe the war was not about slavery and that the values of the South are better or more pure than those of the North. We have students with confederate flag decals on their cars, and some who hang them in their rooms. At local reenactments almost no one shows up in blue. There is an upcoming Civil War Ball being advertised all over town. And this is a state that officially stayed with the Union.

    Even without the budget obsession there is no reason for the federal government to weigh in on commemoration because to do so would mean advancing one narrative of the Civil War over any other and that would necessarily upset too many people. If it were up to me I would not go near the Civil War, check back in 50 years and see if any progress has been made.

    I disagree that we are coming to a better national consensus, but maybe that is because as I write this I can think of more than ten homes and businesses within a 20 mile radius of my office that either fly confederate flags or have “The South Will Rise Again” flags or insignia.

  6. Thanks for all the comments!

    Some belated responses….

    @ Andrew:

    If the lesson policymakers now take from from, e.g., the Enola Gay fight is “you can’t win,” that’s a new lesson. And my guess is that the reason that it’s taken so long to “learn” it (if indeed politicians have) is that, while it’s quite obvious that historians, history, and public memory tend to lose when these fights turn ugly, politicians can pretty easily win. The Enola Gay fight was terrible for the Smithsonian, but as far as I can tell it was pretty good for the political actors involved in it. Historians make easy targets for patriotic grandstanding on the part of Congress and pundits.


    Great questions re: the commemoration of 9/11. And I really don’t have any predictions about how it will go (I’ve always taken great comfort in the fact that historians are not responsible for predicting the future).

    But here’s some of what I find interesting about the state of public memory and 9/11. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, an extraordinary cultural ban on the dissemination of certain images of them was very effectively established. I can’t think of any quite like this…especially in the age of the internet. To a certain extent this has created an almost austere and sacred commemorative vocabulary for the event itself. However, after a moment of national unity around 9/11, the memory of the attacks was almost immediately politicized in the crudest possible ways. So commemoration will take place in a very strange cultural space, and will likely involve a very weird mix of restraint and excess.

    @ Anonymous:

    I was suggesting that we are closer to a national consensus on the Civil War, and that that consensus is more reasonable, than, say, fifty years. To say that is not to overpraise the consensus or deny its limits. The situation today is far from perfect. But as Kevin Levin of the Civil War Memory blog says, Sesquicentennial Commissions in Southern states this year are engaged in some serious public history; fifty years ago, such state commissions were basically devoted to lying about the War and propping up white supremacy.

    The dominant (though of course not unchallenged) public narrative of the War today is probably Ken Burns’s Civil War, which, despite its limitation, is a marked improvement on the narrative with which the Centennial Commission worked, if only in that Burns puts slavery at the center of the conflict and acknowledges the importance of African Americans as historical actors.

    Kevin Levin is well aware of the continuing problem of Neo-Confederate lies about the war (indeed, much of his blog is devoted to correcting the record on “Black Confederates,” which is the current obsession of Confederate apologists). But surveying the state of Civil War memory in the US today, he thinks that things are very much getting better. And I agree.

  7. Ben: I meant that museum curators, historians, or anyone else desiring honest historical reflection “can’t win.” Obviously some conservative politicians won in the Enola Gay brouhaha, though they won in destroying the exhibit not in its creation.

  8. Absolutely, Andrew. My point was just that the outcome of the Enola Gay mess doesn’t entirely explain Congress’s unwillingness to put together a Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission.

  9. For those in the (perfectly reasonable IMO) glass-half-empty camp on contemporary Civil War memory, check out this post on Crooked Timber, in which new U.S. citizen Henry Farrell describes the way the citizenship test materials describe the war (with bonus argument in comments over whether my quoting Confederate VP Alexander Stephens as a representative of Confederate ideology was fair or not).

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