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Posted at 3:23 PM ET, 11/17/2010

Dana Shoaf: How should the country mark the sesquicentennial?

By Dana Shoaf

Editor of Civil War Times magazine


The Sesquicentennial should be a nationwide commemoration of the most
pivotal event in our history. Sadly, it doesn¹t seem as though that will be the case. Using the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission as a model, a federal panel could be created to help guide the country and set the tone for a meaningful season of remembrance. But although President Obama frequently quotes Lincoln and mentions Gettysburg in his speeches, he apparently has no interest in appointing a National Sesquicentennial Commission.

The lack of a national commission hampered the Centennial in the 1960s, as Robert J. Cook described in his book Troubled Commemoration. In the end, President John F. Kennedy found that a national Civil War Centennial Commission led by historians Allan Nevins and James Robertson Jr. helped to give 100th anniversary commemorations balance and purpose.

So far, planning for anniversary observations has been left to the states. Some, like Virginia, Georgia, Vermont, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, among others, are working hard to create thoughtful, inclusive websites and events. Others, like my resident state of Maryland, have been content to largely ignore the issue.
This despite the fact that the bloodiest day of the war‹which led to the
Emancipation Proclamation‹happened within Maryland¹s borders.

Time is running short now, but I hope the president will choose to be
proactive. Bringing national significance to the Sesquicentennial is the
least we can do for the 650,000 Americans who lost their lives in a divisive conflict that continues to haunt our nation 150 years after it began.

By Dana Shoaf  | November 17, 2010; 3:23 PM ET
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This an important question. I would add this to the committee's comments, which all seem to be academically oriented:

The sesquicentennial should also be used to excite a new generation to American history, as it did for so many of us who were children in the 1960s. We found that excitement, not through lectures or the classroom, but from the Civil War—themed toys, games, comic books and TV series like The Gray Ghost; re-enactments, for all their flaws, excited many spectators (mostly boys) enough to read more about the war. In examining the lessons of this war, we should also keep in sight that it will be hands-on, entertaining, personal experiences that will catch the imaginations of young people and, hopefully, inspire them to dig more deeply into the study of this and other periods in American history. And we desperately need to find ways to do that.

Unlike in the 1960s, this time around most events will include demonstrations of civilian and camp life and explore the roles of women and minorities (hopefully including American Indians, Tejanos and others who played a part), and that will increase the chances of engaging the imaginations and interests of a broader segment of our society.

For the record, those comic books, toys and games (and even a Halloween costume) from my own childhood are a big part of the reason there is an entire bookcase of Civil War books, stacked two deep, in my house today.

Posted by: gdswick | November 19, 2010 12:02 PM | Report abuse

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