The Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War is fast approaching. Where does commemoration rank as a priority for Americans today? To judge by the number of formerly combatant states which have established Commissions to plan for Civil War: 150 - just 16 counting WVA (admitted in 1863), not even half those in the Union at the outbreak of the war - most of us are consumed by more pressing matters. Either that, or we feel estranged from the sort of commemorations we have come to expect. The sort that dodges the issue of slavery and racial prejudice, for example.
At the national level, the 110th Congress failed to act on a bill during its 2008-2009 session that would have established a Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission. It was reintroduced earlier this month by Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. of Illinois, who has long been an advocate of recognizing slavery's central role in the war. In 2000, Congressman Jackson included language in the appropriations budget for the National Park Service "to confront slavery directly at the Civil War sites." Interpretation is no longer just about battles and the movements of armies.
HR 4771 was introduced earlier this month (with a $5 million price tag). The bill lists among its findings that:
(1) The American Civil War was a defining experience in the development of the United States.
(2) The people of the United States continue to struggle with issues of race, civil rights, heritage, and the politics of federalism, which are legacies of the Civil War and Reconstruction.
(5) The sesquicentennial of the Civil War presents a significant opportunity for Americans to recall and reflect upon all aspects of that conflict and its legacy in a spirit of reconciliation and honest reflection, through exploration, interpretation, and discussion.
This is the sort of bill that ought to get passed eventually, especially with the 150th anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter just a year away, but I would not expect any rapid movement by Congress given what else is on its plate.
The economy is still on the ropes as measured by shaky consumer confidence, high unemployment, reduced charitable giving and the budgetary disarray of most of the states of the Union. Congressmen have not yet resorted to beating each other with canes over health care reform, but the level of hyperbole and polarization in American politics may remind some of the US on the eve of Secession.
And of course, race matters. If President Obama wanted to restart a national conversation on this topic as he was compelled to do during the campaign, it would get more attention, certainly. He, however, like the African American governors of Massachusetts and New York, seems to have made the political calculation that this is a political minefield and has not taken such a step.
As for whether the 150th matters at a regional or local level, this would seem to depend where you are along with who you are. Among the New England states, only Connecticut has set up a Sesquicentennial Commission. Vermont may be getting around to it. That's it.
Our neighbor New York not only has failed to act, but it has zeroed out an annual $100,000 appropriation to conserve the largest collection of Civil War flags anywhere in the country that it holds in its care. Governor Patterson also vetoed a bill last year that would have established a Bicentennial Commission for the War of 1812, which unlike the Civil War took place within the boundaries of the Empire State and just across its border with Canada. New York is facing a fiscal meltdown of epic proportions, and when the needs of the past and the needs of the present compete for scarce resources the outcome is clear. The dead don't vote (or at least they aren't meant to).
The Mid Atlantic and Midwestern states are better represented among those in the north making official preparations for Civil War 150. The border states and Upper South are weighing in as well. but deep in Dixie as in New England and New York they are taking their sweet time, though I would hesitate to say for precisely the same reasons.
What is in it for states to make an investment in the Sesquicentennial? For some (Virginia and Pennsylvania among them), the potential economic benefits of heritage tourism make this look like a smart play. But they also have to grapple with the relevance of the war for those who live amid hallowed ground today - the Wilderness Wall-Mart being a prime example.
How about for Connecticut? Close to 5,000 men from the Nutmeg State died in service during the war (3,000 to disease). The number of battlefield deaths alone are more than those from this state who died during WII. In rural Connecticut, you would be hard pressed to find a town green that didn't have its granite soldier perched on a pedestal inscribed with the names of local sons who fought for the Union. Many of those names carry forward in the community today, but there are plenty of names that do not, particularly in urban areas where there has been more immigration and population turnover. I often wonder about the relevance in those places of old monuments with anonymous names.There are many opportunities in my state to use the Sesquicentennial as a chance to relate to the past and see its relevance today. We have the birthplaces of Harriet Beecher Stowe and John Brown, and the final resting place of General John Sedgwick. We have the contribution to the war effort of Colt sidearms and Waterbury brass and other once prosperous industries that have since faded. There are the grave markers of the 29th colored infantry that one regularly finds by the margins of rural cemeteries, and the countervailing stories of "Peace Democrats" or "Copperheads" like former Governor Thomas Seymour who challenged McClellan for their party's nomination at the Democratic Convention in 1864.
If commemorating the Civil War becomes a special interest rather than in the national interest, then special interests will control the debate. This is not to say that would be necessarily a bad thing, nor that only the government can interpret the past. Those who pay for public monuments, however, and for field trips, and for museums and their collections, shape what we see and how we remember. In these times of cutbacks and watching backs, I have to wonder whether we will make the investment in the broader conversation, beyond local interests, of listening to each other about the meaning of this war and its aftermath rather than merely an excuse for cost cutting on the one hand, or laying claim to our own versions of the past on the other.