The Civil War's Real Legacy

How do you commemorate a national trauma that resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and the military occupation of a large portion of the national territory? How do you celebrate a historic event that led to the freedom of millions of enslaved captives and a historic broadening of democracy? And what do you do when those two events are one and the same?

Well, maybe we should ask the Germans because, when it comes to our Civil War, we haven't done very well. But for the next four years, we get another chance. The war began in April, 150 years ago, and commemorations of the sesquicentennial will continue until the anniversary of the surrender at Appomattox in April 2015.

In most of the white South, there’s never been much doubt about how to remember the war. It was the lost, but noble, cause, and the white Southerners who waged it were patriots defending their homeland from invasion.

And for a long time treatment of the Civil War in mainstream American culture, even up North, was ruled mostly by a desire not to alienate the white South, as if the rebels still had to be cajoled into staying with the Union. In the early 20th century, a white Southern revisionist version of slavery and the Civil War infected the movies via Birth of a Nation, directed by Kentuckian D.W. Griffith, and Gone with the Wind kept the contagion alive well into the middle of the century.

Of course, the centennial of the war fell during the peak years of the civil rights movement. But those connections were too hot to touch back then. The centennial commemorations mostly stressed national unity and picturesque re-enactments. In its final report to Congress, in 1968, the Civil War Centennial Commission concluded that, "The social, cultural, and economic history of the war era were neglected in favor of drum, bugle, and cannon smoke."

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