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Mike Musick: How should the country mark the sesquicentennial?

By Mike Musick

Retired subject area expert for the U.S. Civil War at the National Archives


The war was truly, for good or ill, a people’s contest, and I would like to see a wide-ranging, thoroughly inclusive commemoration. Two strains should predominate, profound reflection and dignified celebration. Reflection would emphasize the complex and far-reaching nature of the crisis of the 1860s, while celebration would be in order in recognition of our country’s ultimate extinction of human slavery and the survival of our republican form of government at a time when kings and emperors received fealty across the globe.

This is a timeless story of all sorts of individuals tried to their utmost, forced to confront fundamental issues that had been side-stepped since the nation’s founding. Their experiences are compelling beyond measure, and the sesquicentennial should be a time to remember them. By all means let us bring onto the stage Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee, Frederick Douglass and Jefferson Davis. But let us not forget the more obscure actors, those such as the Quaker Laura Haviland and the former bondswoman Harriet Jacobs, the Rebel General William Mahone and the southern abolitionist Moncure Conway. How can we best do this?

Renewed support for scholarly editions of significant documents, along the lines of Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, The Papers of Jefferson Davis, and The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, which are already underway, would be one means to ensure a lasting contribution to the historical record. Perhaps even a few new endeavors, such as a letterpress publication for Lee’s papers covering his entire life, should be considered. The customary book and dissertation prizes, the symposia and lectures can still convey the insights of our best minds to the public, but they need to be disseminated through the best technology has to offer. We are already benefiting from an array of Civil War websites, blogs, Facebook pages, and YouTube videos - these avenues promise to make the 150th anniversary developments far more accessible than those of the centennial years of half a century ago. Preservation of historic sites is another cause whose fruits will descend to later generations. Displays and traveling exhibitions of original artifacts and documents should also be employed - the impact of a face to face encounter with the real thing, not a copy, digital or otherwise, cannot be overestimated.

Lastly, let me offer some observations that will not be welcomed by my friends in academia. Military history, for all its problematic aspects, ought not to be banished from our remembrance of what was after all a war. Even a limited number of battle reenactments, if conducted in a restrained, well-controlled setting, can provide useful and even riveting reminders, through glimpses of antiquated tactics and clouds of black powder smoke, of the agonizing spectacle that was one part of a people at war with itself, and an enticement to further study.

By Mike Musick  | November 15, 2010; 2:32 PM ET
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Linda -- You've done it again. A stellar cast, commenting on the 150th anniversary.
Our current efforts to improve curricula have all but eliminated art, music, physical fitness, geography, and now history. Mike Musick is right -- we need gunsmoke to wake up the Texting Tweens and Tweeting Twits. I quit sending money to Stanford when they booted ROTC off campus. The Civil War was a WAR - blood, pain. I'm deeply disturbed that Obama won't even appoint a commission. Five of my ancestors fought to free the blacks.

Posted by: civilwarjustice | November 17, 2010 6:40 PM | Report abuse

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