Special Report

How We’ve Commemorated the Civil War

Take a look back at how Americans have remembered the civil war during significant anniversaries of the past

To mark the 50th anniversary of the Civil War a group of men reenacted "Pickett's Charge" at Gettysburg. (Fotosearch / Getty Images)

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By 1961, all living participants in the Civil War had passed away, but interest in the conflict was growing. In the previous decade, the emergence of Civil War Round Tables had created a cadre of eager history buffs and enthusiasts; tourism at battlefields was up and popular histories on the war by writers such as Bruce Catton had become best sellers. According to historian Robert J. Cook—whose 2007 book Troubled Commemoration looks at the 1961-1965 centennial—an opportunity was seen to create what he calls an “ambitious Cold War pageant” overseen by a federal commission. It fizzled, however—largely because of what Cook considers an overcommercialized approach, as well as organizers’ “readiness to allow white segregationists to turn the event into a heavily politicized celebration of the Confederacy at a time when Jim Crow institutions and customs were coming under increasing attack.”

The centennial, begun with high hopes for success, ended with what Cook calls “a suitably dull ceremony held under lowering skies at Appomattox Court House in April 1965.” In a country distracted by a growing war in Vietnam, there was little media attention given to the 100th anniversary re-enactment of the surrender that marked the Civil War’s end.

How the 150th will unfold remains to be seen. Many exhibitions and events being staged for the sesquicentennial in various states and cities offer previously overlooked perspectives of the war—including those of African-Americans, civilians and Native Americans, who are getting long overdue recognition.

Still, Carmichael says, “There’s a tension we see in commemorative activities by soldiers who fought that war, and that persists to this day. That is, how do you convey the brutal reality of the Civil War, without sacrificing some of the higher ideas that sustained these men throughout this conflict?”

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