What Civil War Sesquicentennial Celebration?


I’m definitely not in the South anymore.  I wasn’t even aware of the Civil War Sesquicentennial celebration that began on April 12, 2011 by presidential decree.  I don’t know if I have ever seen or heard of “sesquicentennial” and I’m positive that I have no idea of how to pronounce it.  Evidently it means the 150th year.  I think I would have gone with that.  I tried to find Colorado Civil War Sesquicentennial events and, amazingly, the site said they had no listings.  I found an article by Harold Holzer (one of the leading Abraham Lincoln historians) regarding this observance. http://www.historynet.com/civil-war-memory.htm In this article, originally published by America’s Civil War magazine on July 7, 2010, Holzer is frustrated by Congress’ unwillingness to establish a National sesquicentennial commission to support this “once-in-a-generation anniversary opportunity.”[1]  (Maybe our members of Congress don’t know what a “sesquicentennial” is either.)  Holzer argues that this would be a great opportunity to “stimulate debate, encourage creativity and, most of all involve people of every background and heritage who were either affected by our history or can learn from it.” [2]  President Obama did issue a presidential proclamation establishing the sesquicentennial events.  I found his proclamation insightful as well.  (http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/04/12/presidential-proclamation-civil-war-sesquicentennial)  The president did present the Lost Cause view of the bravery and sacrifice of the soldiers of the Civil War and did not place any blame upon the South.  But he also recognized the impact of the war upon African Americans, their contributions, and the end of slavery.   As a politician, President Obama did not address the causes of the war.  But he did include the struggle for equal rights.  The president also called “upon all Americans to observe this Sesquicentennial with appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities that honor the legacy of freedom and unity that the Civil War bestowed upon our Nation.” [3] The question before us is. . . How do we observe such an anniversary without creating division and opening up old wounds?

As I searched the internet for Sesquicentennial events I did notice a wide variety of events that would appeal to a diverse population.  Almost every battlefield is hosting a special day upon the anniversary of that battle.  Key political acts such as the declaration and, later, the implementation of the Emancipation Proclamation are also being commemorated.  There seems to be a great effort being made to overcome the Lost Cause mentality and view the Civil War in a more diverse way.   However, this anniversary seems to one that many desire to ignore or minimize.  Is the Civil War still so divisive that Congress is afraid to promote its memory?  Does it still stir up such hard feelings that we can’t observe its historic significance?  The Civil War (Sorry southerners, “The War Between the States”) may well be the most impacting event in American history.  How can we simply ignore and dismiss it?



[1] Harold Holzer, “Civil War Memory,” Historynet.com. http://www.historynet.com/civil-war-memory.htm (accessed June 21, 2012).

[2] Holzer.

[3] The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, “Presidential Proclamation–Civil War Sesquicentennial,” http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/04/12/presidential-proclamation-civil-war-sesquicentennial.  (accessed June 21, 2012).

  1. chrisrivera1985 said:

    This is an interesting question. I do believe its too decisive. Certainly too upsetting for the mainstream media. I believe we can ignore and dismiss it because, like many problems in remembering, nothing is appropriate. Either it seems its too much, not enough, or offends this person and that. Perhaps the wounds are just too fresh. Regardless, I think we ignore because it is easy for us to do. We are not challenged when something occurs in remembering if nothing happens. If the president, for example, were too commemorate the 150 anniversary, where ought they go? No where is appropriate. They can’t go to a battlefield. Holding a press conference doesn’t seem right. So we just outright condemn it all. What occurs on the anniversary later this year for Antietam’s 150? Or next year for Gettysburg or the Gettysburg Address? That is how, in my opinion, we can ignore. That doesn’t make it right though, I think we can agree on that. I like your use of ‘hard feelings’. I think in the younger Northern generations have no feelings regarding this. But in the South, there does seem to be a sense of heritage. But also battle scars. The White House was burned down in 1812 (And where is that anniversary) but that’s not the same as your house being burned down by the Union army. So Southerners, I believe, feel it ‘necessary’ to remember. But on a national level, I think its so much like that. I’m not sure if anyone outside of historians value historical significance, and judging from some of the responses in class, I’m not sure if any historians value historical significance either. The point is, we should remember, and I’m upset that it didn’t come across in more headlines. There is a great NPR interview with the historian that came up with the 800,000 figure at: http://www.npr.org/2012/05/29/153937334/professor-civil-war-death-toll-may-be-really-off He says in that interview that “you could imagine a war today that produced 7.5 million deaths”. So, as nihilist as it is to say, we ignore it in my belief because nothing can appropriately state how devastating the Civil War was in American history.

    • Kristen Epps said:

      This is one of the unfortunate things about commemoration–very little is being done to education people about the War of 1812, because no one aside from academics even cares! Although, to be fair, I do know people in New York state who are in the area where folks might know more about that war. It all comes back to location, I think.

  2. jmmblog said:

    Tim, I include the website address for the Fort Garland Musem, here in Southern Colorado.


    They currently have on exibit “Civil War in the West” which highlights the Battle of Glorieta Pass. I haven’t seen ithe exibit for myself yet, but it sure sounds interesting.

  3. jmmblog said:

    I have to totally agree with you about the use of the term “Sesquicentennial” and how 150th year would have been a much wiser choice. For someone that isn’t familiar with such a term it can cause quite some confusion. In fact at first glance it almost looks like the name of the debated woodland ape/monster, “Sasquatch”. Maybe we just came up with another corny and historically inaccurate movie like Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter. Civil War in the Appalachian’s and Sasquatch, hmmm? Sounds like an excellent avenue for the Lost Cause. Sasquatch could be the “bad guy” that the Union Soldiers are coming to defeat and the Confederate South could play the poor victims. I better quite before someone actually attempts to make such a mockery of a subject that deserves proper respect.

  4. charlesanselmo said:

    I agree with Chris’ assertion that the Civil War is a very painful memory in the United States to this day. The nation is particularly divided over politics right now and commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War could exascerbate the situation. This is mainly due to the fact that so many of the issues relating to the Civil War are still so prevalent today. States rights and the role of the federal government remain issues that divide Americans.

  5. Amanda Hlavacek said:

    Tim, I agree with both you and Chris. I think the tendency today is to not address issues for fear of offending someone. The danger in doing this, is that you give tacit approval by condoning what may be a difficult subject. By buying into it, you miss the opportunity to influence the results.

  6. bktitus17 said:

    You guys are being way too nice. I am sorry, but just because we are afraid of debate and discussing means that we shouldn’t commemorate the 150th anniversary? Yeah, because that will teach Americans about the history they so often neglect. Furthermore, it is clear from our readings in class that no one on either side is afraid to state their point of view in terms of the Confederate flag or fighting for public space for memorials, but they can’t come together and recognize a 150th anniversary? Sorry, Tim, but I think a lot of this is still because of the Lost Cause and the idea that if a celebration was to come together that includes all of the causes and sides to the Civil War, the “crazies” as you call them would have to acknowledge that slavery was a part of war and recognize the African Americans that are still impacted by it today. The SCV, nor the UDC, nor any other crazy veteran or person wants that. Hypocritical much given that they solely want to “honor” their “heritage,” yet won’t commemorate the Civil War Anniversay??

    I do think you are on to something though Tim. (That’s twice in a week that I agree with you! We need to write it down! 😉 Just because it is a divisive and debatable issue does not give anyone the right to ignore it and shove it under the rug.

    P.S. In looking for my own research, there is a facebook page that gives out information everyday about the Sesquicentennial events in case you are interested.

  7. Kristen Epps said:

    I think part of what is going on here, too, is that Colorado is just generally out of touch with Civil War history. I’ve known about the sesquicentennial since before it began, but that is because of blogs, seeing special exhibits when I went home to the KC area, going to conferences, etc. Regular folks in Colorado would have no reason to think about it!

  8. Kristen Epps said:

    I know a lot of non-academics think we’re all horrible people, but let me just say, scholars had no trouble coming together to commemorate things! We’ve put partisan rancor aside, at least when dealing with the Civil War. If you lived on the East Coast, you’d have a lot of opportunities to participate in sesquicentennial activities. Sometimes our location makes it difficult to fully participate in those kinds of things.

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