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Where is the U.S. Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission?

By Len Riedel

June 2007

Last week I read an article where a customer was denied a chance to purchase a cake decorated with a Confederate battle flag because the bakery thought it had racist connotations. Recently Museum of the Confederacy consultants noted that the name inflamed passions; indeed one suitor for the available museum noted the name should be changed.

Finally, one of the nation's finest Civil War museums in New Orleans is suffering from the neglect of a city that will not promote it despite being next to its famous World War II (another racially segregated war) museum. There a "name change" has not released it from its Politically Correct Purgatory.

The Civil War is on the retreat when it should be reasserting its place in America's story. In May the Queen of England visited Jamestown and commented on the huge social changes in America between 1957 and today.

This has important ramifications for the Civil War Sesquicentennial Commemoration because much of the anger that is blocking meaningful national planning is tied to minorities who believed the Centennial was a pep rally for Southerners in our segregated society.

Planning appears to be lacking today because politicians don't think this is important enough to shake the hornet's nest.

Today the challenge is to engage in a passionate dialogue about the appropriate place of the era in history. Job 1 is the passage of legislation and the appropriation of funding for a real U.S. Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission that sponsors and promotes activities appropriate for the period.

We are losing valuable time. Indeed a historically accurate period should be 2004-2026. It should have started with Bleeding Kansas and run until the election of Rutherford B. Hayes.

We must find the right balance to commemorate Americans of the period. We are in the bicentennial of Robert E. Lee's birth. The PC crowd has muted a fair analysis of this giant of the period and his birth is a low-profile event without national recognition.

Conversely, Abraham Lincoln has a full national committee, congressional charter and several years of planned activities. While few would doubt the appropriateness of commemorating Lincoln, there has been a blurring of societal values that makes all things Southern racist and all things Union morally superior. This commemoration must deal with 19th-century American society as it.

We have become a poorly informed and cynical people. Political leadership seems to lack morale courage. In the event that the Congress eventually funds a Sesquicentennial Commemoration it will need to be very careful that the usual suspects don't hijack the funds and leadership of the commission.

The epicenter of Civil War interest now lies outside higher education. What has happened to the U.S. Civil War Center at LSU? Indeed the 2007 American Historical Association conference was mighty thin on presentations or discussions related to either the war or commemorative activities. The two conferences I recently attended were heavy on apologies for slavery without serious discussion of the society that spawned it.

Conversely, the 2006 National Conference of Social Studies had numerous Civil War-themed sessions that used state-of-the-art technology to promote the technique of studying history. They were full.

Unfortunately many states downplay humanities in secondary education and are substituting subjects more in tune with student interests.

This is a bad trend. Our society needs the intellectual energy of future generations that are cognizant of the burdens and traditions of the past.

Over the past 25 years the study and, indeed, the business of the war has taken a life of its own. Preservation, living history, field study and scholarship are the active legacy of the era. These provide opportunities requiring an open mind and innovative thinking.

We appreciate many states' efforts to build Civil War heritage trails. Unfortunately large sums of money are being expended in non-competitive government-to-government grants driven by state tourism offices. It appears this initiative is more about increasing tourism dollars and less about getting the story correct.

That is wrong-headed thinking. In one state there is nearly $600,000 in unexpended money previously allocated for interpretative signs. They don't have a plan and have not asked their state Civil War Commission for one.

This money is only going to be spent properly if local roundtables and friends groups become militant and vigilant.

We must keep an eye on local projects. There are many simultaneous and arguably more important land preservation opportunities and requirements out there that will only be met if you fund them.

Battlefield champions are doing great things out there. Check out the Friends of Raymond (Miss.), which has recently opened a very impressive battlefield park through innovation and much sweat equity. They are proof positive of what a few dollars directly applied to the mission and without middlemen can do.

The real opportunity for living historians is in smaller audience interactions. Mastery of their historical presentation should be the goal of every true reenactor. They CAN inspire future generations of students to study the war.

Field studies/tours are the most promising and challenging tasks of educational programmers. Costs are rising and fewer people are investing in the expense of escorted group tours. Palm computers, GPS and other technological advances will make battlefields more accessible to individual study and understanding.

The challenge to organized tour operators is to offer battles in context. The best way to do that is to break the old molds, get away from the battlefields and find the abandoned sites and historic routes that made the battles' campaigns. With the economic bow wave of retired Baby Boomers coincident to the Sesquicentennial Commemoration there is a lot of potential to reinvigorate the market.

Scholarship will continue to form the backbone of the commemoration. Every day new books are published, although some shouldn't be.

Poor scholarship distorts the value of the information and discourages inquiring minds from going further. On the other hand, so-called "amateur" historians are filling in major gaps that academic historians and professional writers overlooked. It is a wonderful symbiosis.

I'm writing this column to ring a "fire bell in the night." The study of the Civil War is endangered because it is being marginalized nationally and politically.

It is important for you to take an active and sustained interest in its national visibility. This is important to ensure the continued commitment of our elected representatives to the funding of the existing battlefields under government control and to secure funding for the purchase of additional battlefield land.

Given budget realities there is no guarantee the government will not be contracting out the management of battlefield parks in 20 years.

The issue of immediate importance is national leadership to commemorate the Civil War by establishing and funding a Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission that can start work in 2009.

Start by calling your Congressman's and both U.S. senators' offices and asking them if there is legislation with funding pending for the establishment of the Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission.

If not, why not? And then ask if they would co-sponsor such an effort. Then call your governor's office and ask if the state has established a Sesquicentennial Commission and who the chairman is.

Without a flurry of informed and concerned calls the politicians will have no impetus to act - time is of the essence. Will you do it to honor those who served? Or is it too much trouble?

Len Riedel is the Executive Director of the Blue and Gray Education Society in Danville, Va. It was founded in 1994 and is a 501 (c) (3) tax-exempt educational organization. He can be reached at (888) 741-2437 or

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