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, and watched Johnny Shiloh and Johnny Yuma. Out of this, one man’s love of history was born.
as something more meaningful in 1962 to people of the Third World still struggling against colonialism than to black Ameri- cans who were fighting for their civil rights. No African-Amer- ican speakers were even part of the program until Thurgood Marshall was added at the last minute.
Recently I read roubled Commemoration, an account of the Civil War Centennial by Robert J. Cook, and I learned that I had exactly the centennial organizers envisioned: an event to promote tourism and commercial enterprise and, oh yeah, teach a little bit of history as well.
I also learned that other 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 the war as an origination myth about the sacred cause of states’ rights, which they used as the philosophical underpinning of the racist laws and practices they defended. Another group who had a good centennial were those in charge of developing the propaganda America used in its rivalry with Soviet communism. The America that was leading the Free World, they said, had its roots in a civil war that left us more unified, and more deeply committed to the defense of global freedom. As for which side held the moral high ground in the conflict, the cold warriors did not take sides.
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 said that they would stay away from the event, but the hotel manage- ment 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.
Neither did the Emancipation Proclamation have a particu- larly great centennial. Political leaders in the south made it clear that the Emancipation Proclamation had no business being mixed up with a commemoration of the Civil War. So the proclamation had its own ceremony, one that put it in a Cold War context. It was cast as pivotal moment in the cause of global freedom,
The only comfort that comes from reading Cook’s book is the realization that thanks to the struggles of so many of our fellow citizens, we live in a much better country today.
But now, fifty years later, as we enter the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, we must realize that for those of us who care about history and about this particular event, work still remains to be done. The meaning of the Civil War is not so often be- ing twisted in such ugly ways any longer, but there remains a basic ignorance about this event, an ignorance that lurks behind myths and fabrications and evasions.
For example, when asked about the cause of the war, far too many people—my own children for example, educated in one of the best public school districts in the country—will say that there were many reasons. Slavery was one; states rights, tariffs, and northern aggression were others. This is sad, because when you read the words spoken by the leaders of the rebellion, when you read their secession ordinances, there is only one reason: slavery—the preservation of slavery, the extension of slavery, the expansion of slavery. Six hundred thousand Americans did not die for anything as nebulous as states rights, or as ridiculous as tariffs. They died because slaveholders wanted to preserve their human property and expand their slaveholding empire, and they were willing to demolish the union and bring tragedy to nearly every family in this land in order to protect their right to own human beings.
Yet some people refuse to acknowledge the facts. Last December, 400 people attended a Secession Ball in Charleston; a spokesman said that slavery was an abomination, but that they were honoring people who stood up for their freedom. In Janu- ary, Congress began its session by reading the Constitution, but omitted the part where slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person. Later, Congresswoman Michelle Bachman, said that when people came to America, “It didn’t matter the color of their skin, it didn’t matter their language, it didn’t matter their economic status.… Once you got here, we were all the same. Isn’t that remarkable?’’
What would be remarkable, what would make this a great sesquicentennial, would be if people no longer entertained delusions about the terrible origins of this terrible war.