Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Civil War Centennial: Inspiration for the Civil Rights Movement?

I read Richard Williams' Old Virginia Blog, not because I agree with what he has to say but explicitly because it gets me so corking mad. Interspersed with tea party rants and modern political diatribes, Williams is an interesting (and sometimes frightening) voice of modern Confederatism and Southern exceptionalism.

His recent post on the North South Trader Magazine's editorial got me thinking. He cherry picked quotes from that publication's missive. At first, it appears he is (thankfully) just avoiding a dry list of films from the 1960s. But Williams curiously leaves a tantalizing paragraph out from his quotation of Stephen Silva's editorial. I include it here:

"As a matter of fact, nothing could have been more educational and influential than the positive effect the Centennial had on the American consciousness. I believe it is that awareness that helped the average American become sensitive to the civil rights issues of the early 1960s. Our national immersion in portrayals of the past made the inequalities of the 1960s that much more evident. I believe the Centennial “celebration” is directly responsible for creating an atmosphere of awareness and embarrassment that made the Civil Rights Movement acceptable to the average white American. For anyone to dismiss the Centennial as a series of jubilant mock-battle funfests does a grave disservice to truth." (emphasis added)

I'm not sure why Mr. Williams left out this paragraph. I would hope it is because he sees the very tenuous ground that Silva is standing upon.  Nonetheless, I am not here to criticize Williams, but instead Silva's conception that the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s drew its motivation from the Civil War Centennial activities. Not to put too fine a point on it, I think this is horse hockey, plain and simple.

Martin Luther King and his supporters during their
March on Washington in this Time / Life Image
The Civil Rights Movement did raise as one of its central banners the image of a Civil War promise unfulfilled. No better example of this exists than King's mislabeled "I Have A Dream" speech. Too often we glance over the first portion of King's remarks. "Five score years ago," King begins, "a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation." King explains that he and his fellow have come to Washington in August of 1963 to, "cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir." Lincoln reinforced that promissory note with his affirmation at Gettysburg, "that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." But America in 1963 was not a place where that check might be cashed. "America," King explains to his well-knowing audience, "has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds.'"

But 1963, the heart of the Centennial celebration, the presumed inspiration for white and black cooperation during the Civil Rights Movement, beget another bold stand on a set of steps a few months earlier. George Wallace, Governor of Alabama, stood on the steps of the University of Alabama's Foster Auditorium and denied entry to black students seeking an education. When Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard and forced the school's integration, Wallace declared that the, "unwelcomed, unwanted, unwarranted and force-induced intrusion upon the campus of the University of Alabama today of the might of the Central Government offers frightful example of the oppression of the rights, privileges and sovereignty of this State by officers of the Federal Government."

Just a few weeks later, in Pennsylvania, Wallace would make another strong appearance. I am not going to steal Jake's thunder (he has promised me he will share the story at a later date) but, suffice it to say, Wallace utilizes the hysteria and the latent racist sentiment among the Confederate reenactors at Gettysburg to his distinct advantage, nearly inciting a secession rally in Pitzer's Woods.

Wallace wrote a letter to the Editor of the Gettysburg Times in late June of 1963, just a week after his stunt in Alabama. It was published in the paper's battle centennial edition. Wallace praised the, "checks and balances within the framework of our governmental system," for which, he emphasized, "millions of Americans have fought and died." Wallace urged his readers to, "resist regimentation." In direct reaction to the Civil Rights standoff of the previous week, Wallace employed the Civil War centennial as a soapbox for hatred and not as an inspiration to change. The sacrifices of the war's dead demanded that America not travel down the Civil Rights movement's "dead-end road of destructive centralization." Just a few days after Wallace appeared in Gettysburg for the centennial, the Times ran an AP article with the headline, "Wallace Sees U.S. On Brink Of Civil War," wherein Wallace threatened that if Kennedy continued trying to support the Civil Rights struggle, he should withdraw American troops from Vietnam for their use in the American South.

Eisenhower surveys members of Gettysburg High
School's Civil War Club in this Time / Life Image
That fall, at the centennial of the dedication of the National Cemetery, General Eisenhower spoke of Lincoln's address. He noted that, "as here we sense his deep dedication to freedom, our own dedication takes added strength." But was this a rededication to Lincoln's, "new birth of freedom?" No. Instead, it was a celebration of common suffering, as Eisenhower spoke of the, "ancient drums of Gettysburg, throbbing mutual defiance from the battle lines of the blue and the gray...summon[ing] a people, happily united in peace, to fulfill... a noble destiny."

Universal Studio's newsreel of the event
leaves out any sign of strife or disagreement
among the day's speakers.
After Eisenhower sat, E. Washington Rhodes, president of the National Newspaper Editor's Association, rose to speak. The black newspaper editor chastised the crowd, "One hundred years after the Battle of Gettysburg, 100 years after the Gettysburg Address, the anguished expectations and hopes of Abraham Lincoln for a united nation remain unrealized, unfulfilled in American life. The present, grave Civil Rights struggle attest to this melancholy, tragic fact." America's black community clearly took deep inspiration from the Civil War and its attendant new birth of freedom. Rhodes urged the audience, "with all the vigor at I command and the great esteem which I have for my beloved country, I am respectfully urging my fellowmen to take note that this is as true today as it was centuries ago – a house divided against itself cannot stand."

So did the centennial of the Civil War inspire the Civil Rights movement? Definitely. King and Rhodes show that quite handily. But was it the reenactments and John Wayne's movies which inspired a white audience to come to the aid of the Civil Rights movement? Or was the Centennial instead a rallying point for a white community desperately making a last ditch effort to hold the line of status quo (typified by the active and aggressive advocacy of George Wallace)? I think I know where I land in that debate.

The Civil Rights movement have the lily white Centennial commemorations to thank for its success? Gimme a break...

Thursday, March 24, 2011

"...the way things were back then": Why Making Excuses for Slavery Doesn't Work

Presentism. Aside from historical revisionism, it is perhaps the 'epithet' with which the modern historian find themselves branded the most. I've been reading again a series of screeds by Bill Vallante, a Confederate reenactor and SCV member from Commack, NY (thanks to John Hennessy). I've read these pages before, but this time around was struck by the abject vitriol which oozes from the language employed. A line in one piece in particular stood out to me as quite angry:

"Add a heavy dose of presentism (judging or interpreting the past according to the standards of the present), mix thoroughly and serve COLD to an unknowing, non-thinking viewing public and call it... HISTORY."

Vallante's definition of presentism isn't that far afield from the accepted. Merriam-Webster defines it as, "an attitude toward the past dominated by present-day attitudes and experiences." This sounds about how I might define the concept as well.

However, discussing the concept in the abstract does little good. Let's apply it to a strawman problem, one to which the neo-confederate crowd applies it quite regularly: slavery. Whenever the moral inequities of slavery or the cruelties of the system are elucidated by a scholar or public historian, the ready retort is typically an argument that slavery can't be viewed from a presentist perspective. The rebuttal is typically phrased in the simple pronouncement, "that was the morals of their society," or even more simply, "that's just the way things were back then."

In some manner, this is a laudable effort. Viewing the past from a perceived viewpoint in the past is a distinctly postmodern way of looking at the world. It is viewing the world from the shoes of the past. But are those shoes actual Civil War era brogans, or are they a modern reproduced facsimile? What were the, "morals of their society?" What was, "the way things were back then?"

Certainly, slavery was legal. It was morally accepted by a chunk of the nation, North and South, as a viable option. But do we measure a society's intellectual and moral advancement by its best or its worst traits? The inter-war period in Europe spawned Adolph Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Neville Chamberlain. Do we as a world judge that generation by it's murderers and appeasers, or by it's brave members who charged a beach at Normandy to fight for the freedom of the oppressed? I come from a generation which spawned Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Do I measure my generation's advancement simply by their violent rampage, or do I look to the good folks of my generation who are working for the betterment of society? I would argue that a society is typically measured by its greatest achievements, be they technological, moral or philosophical. It is not the mundane which characterizes a society. It is not its worst elements. It is, instead, it's most advanced. The Bronze Age is known as such because the most advanced metalworking abilities in the culture were composed of copper and tin. The Age of Reason/Enlightenment is known as such because the most advanced intellectual concepts were centered around reason.

What, then, were the most advanced thoughts on the extent of the freedom of man, the furthest reach of intellectual progress, in the 1850s and 60s? Could these decades be deemed the Age of Abolitionism and Suffrage, with the most advanced thought on freedom in America being that it was universal and should not be restricted by race or sex?

If I were to posit that all slaveholders could and should have easily emancipated their slaves any day, the response would come from a general audience that that concept just didn't exist in the 1850s. But that vision of America is patently wrong. The concept of immediate emancipation in the face of moral evil did exist, as one of the cutting edge views of the definition of freedom.

Frederick Douglass, himself a former slave, protested throughout his free life against the inequity of the system of slavery. He envisioned a different America than that in which he lived. In 1845, he told a crowd in Limerick, Ireland that, "the Americans, as a nation, were guilty of the foul crime of slavery, whatever might be their hypocritical vaunts of freedom." The dream of a republican nation had been lost; "it was not a true democracy, but a bastard republicanism that enslaved one-sixth of the population.—They were free booters who wished to be free to plunder every one within their reach." Douglass was keen to let the American nation know that, "a slave had stood up in Limerick and ridiculed their democracy and their liberty."

Douglass told a tale of the indignation he saw when he, "took up a book and quoted from it the laws of the slaveholding states," to a group of slaveholders on a ship to the United Kingdom. "A spark of fire thrown into a magazine could not have produced a greater explosion," he recounted, "They could not bear to have the iniquities of slavery exposed, and they reared up against him like demons." The deep indignation shown by this group against the laws they and their ilk had crafted to protect the peculiar institution could be interpreted as subconscious guilt at their continuance of the enslavement of that 1/6th of a nation.

William Lloyd Garrison, Boston's prince of abolitionism, likewise showed open intellectual disdain for America's institution. By the 1850s, the masthead of his Liberator proclaimed each week that he would have, "No Union with Slaveholders," and that "our Countrymen are all Mankind." Garrison famously and repeatedly proclaimed the Constitution, "the source and parent of all the other atrocities - 'a covenant with death, and an agreement with hell,'" burning copies of the foundational document to cheers of, "Amen!" from like-minded Northerners. After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, he began burning it too on stage with dramatic flourish. Garrison heartily believed that the nation had strayed into the territory of evil and wickedness for its embrace of the institution of slavery. He vocally urged for nearly four decades that slavery was wrong. His voice mingled with those of men like Reverend Samuel May of Syracuse, NY, who damned slavery as an anti-christian institution, ignoring the supreme law of Christ's teaching. His hands worked along side those of men like Gerrit Smith, who bought tracts of land with his own family fortune all across Upstate New York explicitly to set up freedmen's communities to harbor the freight ferried Northward by the Underground Railroad.

The existence of a Frederick Douglass or a William Lloyd Garrison, of a Samuel May or a Gerrit Smith, invalidates the cries of "presentism" when we damn slave holders for holding slaves. The institution of slavery in the 1840s and 1850s were rife with men and women who felt slavery wrong, immoral and evil. It was not a nation blindly accepting the vile institution which held 4 million in bondage. The bare truth of the matter is that the advanced and modern thought that people should never be property, but should have universal freedom, existed and thrived in the 19th century. So to did the backward and sinful thought the man should be no more than property, no better than dog. But the impulse of freedom for all was the era's furthest reach of the slow human march of progress. It could be said to characterize the American intellectual meaning of the age itself. The very fact that these men could visualize a land without slavery means that those who clung to that system were inherently backward. Slaveholders were intellectual anachronisms in their own time, holding the line against the age's defining characteristic: progressing universal freedom.

Presentism might exist in historical study, but it certainly isn't us judging slaveholders as evil, immoral or unjust. That perspective is a distinctly period viewpoint, not one we impose from the realm of today.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Rebel Flag: Offputting Symbol or Point of Pride?

A young man sports
a Confederate Flag
cape at a Peterboro, NY
CC / DSC01297 by
In 2004, Gettysburg College hosted an art exhibit by John Sims, a Florida based artist and ethnomathematician. The exhibit focused on varied recolored versions of the Confederate Flag. The press outrage was quick and damning. I should know, I was quoted in it (in the Civil War News).

Back in 2004, I called the exhibit, "sickening," and condemned the college for, "trying to distance itself from the town by rejecting the Civil War past in which it is steeped." I was wrong. I figured that out no sooner than passing through the doors of the art gallery and viewing the exhibit. Sims' presentation was provocative and jarring, but had some of the most profound things to say about the Confederate Flag that I think can be said. It's been six long years, my views have shifted and solidified, and I now look back on those words I spoke against Sims' project in shame.

What does this have to do with the proverbial prices of tea in China? It all swam back into my mind this past year, during a class session at Shippensburg University. While working on my Masters in Applied History, I had the privilege of taking classes not only with young folks like myself, but teachers returning to school for another degree. One teacher, when we were talking in class about tourism in Gettysburg, brought up the fact she can't bring her class to the town. She has the budget to pay for the buses and admission fee for the museum. She can get the chaperons. Her chief problem is that half her class is black.

I was floored. I constantly wish that Gettysburg had more African-American visitors. The battle that took place there firmly secured freedom for 4 million and acted as the basis upon which the modern Civil Rights movement stood. For a teacher to say she wouldn't bring her class because some of her students were black flabbergasted me.

I probed and challenged. Her answer was sound and succinct. To get her students into the visitor center or around town, she would need to take the bus down Steinweir Avenue. And she feared having to explain to her black students why a Confederate Flag was still allowed to fly high on the flagpole above the wax museum and from nearly every souvenir shop in town.

Protesters against school integration wield a Confederate Flag (1959) / PD / LC-U9- 2919-25

I completely understand the quandary. The feeling she has scouting out the town and deciding if a trip is the right thing for her students is the same I have in my town every day.  I live in Gettysburg, under the watchful gaze of the Confederate Flag at almost every turn.  And sometimes I, a short white guy from New York, feel exceedingly uncomfortable with that flag flapping over my shoulder.  What does that flag mean?  Proponents of the Confederate Flag's display have shouted about pride and heritage and history.  That flag is a representation of their grandpappy's struggle for his "rats".

That answer is bunk, pure and simple.  The sheer fact is that for every person who says that their grandpappy fought under that stainless banner, I could find someone whose grandpappy fought to destroy that flag and the treason for which it stood.  My own great-great granduncle fought in the United States Regulars to tear that flag down from the 11 poles which ran it up in early 1861.  He died at Gettysburg firing his gun against troops carrying that flag, trying to keep them (through force of arms) from destroying the nation his grandfather had helped win in the American Revolution.

Another type of flag flies from the NAACP's
New York Offices in 1938 / CC / LC-USZC4-4734
The popularly understood Confederate Flag, that elongated version of the flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, has been a potent symbol in America since the day that my uncle died.  The symbol cropped up again and again, each time employed for hateful and spiteful speech.  By a century following his death, that flag was a banner stained not simply with the blood of Confederate soldiers, but intermingled with the blood of those who died at the hands of those bearing that flag.  The countless victims of Jim Crow laws, Leo Frank, Medgar Evers and eventually Dr. King all stained that banner with blood and altered its meanings.

So, what does it mean to fly a Confederate flag today?  Why did a number of southern states, rife with racial strife and challenges to institutional segregation, decide to re-hoist the Confederate Flag from their state capitols in the 1960s?  Was there any question in the minds of those legislatures what that flag really meant?  Could a dogged defense of the Confederate Flag's display dissuade visitors from coming to places like Gettysburg?  Put yourself in an African-American visitor's shoes.  Would you visit a place festooned with flags screaming hatred at you?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

On Dogs and Ponies and 'Three Days in July' Syndrome (Part 2)

(Part 1)

What happened in Chambersburg and Fairfield in April of 1861? Certainly not events which were earth shattering for the nation as a whole. But to the citizens of the bustling southern Pennsylvania urban centers, it was their world.

A modern look at Chambersburg's Square
/ CC / by jmd41280
Chambersburg, just four days after Major Anderson officially surrendered his post in Charleston Harbor to rebel forces and three days after Lincoln made his call for 73,000 troops from the loyal states to put down the rebellion, held a reportedly unanimous meeting for Union. Honorable Wilson Reilly, chair of the meeting and former Democratic Congressman (1857-1859), was reported to have, "made a powerful and patriotic address which was received with deafening applause." The politician, "stated his readiness to support the Government by every means at his disposal and his willingness to shoulder a musket and march to the field of battle if needs be to save the flag of his country from dishonor." Reilly would not quite shoulder a musket, although he put his money where his mouth was and became an officer in the McClure Rifles. He lasted through July as commander of the company serving in the Pennsylvania Reserves, before bowing out due to health reasons.

At the same union meeting in 1861, entered Captain P. B. Housam, the commander of the Chambers Artillery, a local militia unit which chiefly participated in patriotic ceremonies before the war. Housam was almost instantly cheered by the assembly. The Captain's appearance, the Valley Spirit reported, "was greeted with three of the heartiest cheers we ever heard in a public assemblage." The citizens of Chambersburg presented their hometown defenders with a banquet the following night, as well as scraping together, "a fund of several thousand dollars... to aid the families of the absent soldiers should they need it, during the service of the men from their homes."

These events of April 1861 are not as exciting as the Burning of Chambersburg, when war hit Chambersburg's doorstep for the third time, but they are the events in which the people of 150 years ago participated. Certainly one could see in their mind's eye a reenactment of a political rally, followed by a community dinner and firing of a battery of reenacted "Chambers Artillery" guns. The historical events seem tailor made for modern reenactment for modern visitors.

It is easy to envision modern folks
helping raise a 110 foot Liberty Pole on the
streets of Fairfield / CC / by jmd41280
Fairfield, likewise, had citizens rise up in support of their government and against the rebels in South Carolina. On 22 April, Fairfield's men hoisted a, "Liberty Pole," above the borough. "The Pole is 110 feet long, and the flag a neat and graceful one." The banner was the, "handiwork of the ladies, who ever exhibit their true devotion to the Union." The community, men and women, were, "ever willing to contribute all they can to their country."

The union festival, punctuated by, "long-continued, enthusiastic cheers," included a number of patriotic speeches by local lawyers. The speakers, "extolled the object and commended the zeal and devotion of the brave sons of Hamiltonban [township] in this exhibition of their loyalty to the Government of our Country."

The Liberty Pole or Union Pole was a symbol which popped up across Adams County and the nation in April of 1861. Gettysburg's diamond sported a 120 foot pole by late April. A quick search of the American Memory collection will turn up dozens of images like that which the Gettysburg Sentinel ran the week following its coverage of Fairfield's Liberty Pole, a man nailing the Stars and Stripes to the apex of a pinnacle.

A town picnic in Fairfield, a festival with food and period actors, centered around the reenactment of the raising of the Liberty Pole and the patriotic orations presented that day would allow citizens and visitors to gain a glimpse of what Fairfield's citizens experienced in 1861.

Stepping outside the comfortable box of repeating the same events can be hard. New events require new research. Falling prey to 'Three Days in July' syndrome is inherently human. Once we have an event which works, we tend to continue the success by cloning it over and over. But in this case, success is bred through variety, not through rote repetition.

I am not saying that the Three Days in July (or whichever days in whichever month) are not important. On the contrary, they are what give a place the special meaning which magnifies the previous and subsequent events. Gettysburg or Chambersburg's reaction to the outbreak of war is not in and of itself unique or important. But the events of April 1861 take on a special meaning when viewed through the lens of the carnage to come. Gettysburg can become a unique lens, as the battle just two years later colors how visitors view and process the scene of men marching off to war. We all know those men will return home to disastrous results.

With a little ingenuity, we can tease out the sesquicentennial events as they come along. The last thing this commemoration needs is a flat retelling of the same tale every few months. We as an historical interpretive community need to help the public treasure the commemoration of each sesquicentennial anniversary as they come, acknowledging and highlighting the uniqueness of each day of the war and each American's experience on those specific days.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

YouTube Wednesday: Why I'm CELEBRATING the Civil War 150th (and why you should too).

Second in our on-again, off-again series... YouTube Wednesdays!

There's quite a bit of talk within the interpretive community about the word, "celebration." The word is tiptoed around and eschewed. Its use raised ire in Charleston Harbor this past December. These debates over commemoration versus celebration, no doubt, will crop up again and again over the next few years. We, as a community, are nearly afraid of one misstep. We catch our words as they escape our mouths, quickly correcting ourselves every time "celebration" accidentally emerges trips over our teeth. We seem afraid to say that we are celebrating an American bloodbath of biblical proportions. I can understand this reticence.

I agreed with that sentiment. I agreed up until a few weeks ago. Then I came across this interview with Hari Jones, Curator of the African American Civil War on U Street in DC:

The choice sections:
"For those who win their freedom in the Civil War, this is a celebration. For those who fight for the various reasons they fight and, in particular, lose, this is a commemoration... So when our community was witnessing this secessionist movement reaching a point to where they were really about to dissolve the Union, then that meant the opportunity to strike a blow for liberty was really about to arrive. So there was a great deal of celebration. Frederick Douglass writes about that as well, that there's joy in our community because now we have a genuine opportunity to strike a blow for liberty.

"So commemoration for those who are seceding from the Union, and right now, as in 150 years later, we know how the story ends. They're commemorating when they seceded from the Union. But for Americans who believe in the ideals of the founders, we must see this as the opportunity to really create a, "new birth of freedom." We must see this and we must understand this war even, itself, much like we understand the American Revolution and the 4th of July: independence, freedom, liberty, to secure the blessings of liberty for all was made possible in this war. So we're celebrating this genuine opportunity to end the tyranny of slavery."

The passion in his voice is palpable. Jones is owning the word celebration, making it his own. He is redefining how we should look at the war. His argument is relatively keen. Why aren't we focusing on celebrating the Emancipation moment? Why can't we celebrate the notion that a "new birth of freedom" and newfound liberty for 4 million Americans spurned for so long is just on the horizon?

I can't wait for that museum on U Street to open in July. I want to be there.

So, I am celebrating the Civil War Sesquicentennial. I am celebrating the fact that, each and every moment of the war, the future definition of freedom in America hung in the balance. I am celebrating the Emancipation moment, not simply on January 1st, 2013, but everyday for the next five years.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

On Dogs and Ponies and 'Three Days in July' Syndrome (Part 1)

Reenactors on 22 April 1961
manning a cannon in salute
of the"Independent Blues"
/ from Gettysburg Times
In 1961, Gettysburg played host to a kick-off event for the Civil War Centennial. The town commemorated the sendoff of the Independent Blues, a militia company which marched off to war in the aftermath of the firing on Fort Sumter. The affair was huge. The Diamond was closed off to traffic as actors in old time clothes strutted through a political rally on the square. Spectators watched from the sidewalks as speakers mounted a wagon and gesticulated wildly at the crowd. Gettysburg College's students, wielding trumpet and drum as they did for Football games on Nixon Field, stood in for the town's 1861 marching band.

The event was at times insensitive and downright weird. Save for the College's band, the event was a dumb show, with speakers mounted on the Hotel Gettysburg piping in speeches for the historically dressed mimes atop the wagon calling for Union. Among the photos of the event in the collection of the Adams County Historical Society is one that, for all the world, looks to depict a white woman in black face and dressed as an old style "mammy" parading in Carlisle Street in front of the Majestic Theater. This only a stone's throw from the Third Ward and Gettysburg's real black community.

"Civilians" look on as Gettysburg's "politicians"
pledge support of Lincoln's government
/ from Gettysburg Times
Narrating the event was, among others, Joseph Rosensteel, one of the prince's of Gettysburg's Civil War dynasty. The town swarmed to the event. Cannon fired from behind the train station as Gettysburg's 1961 civilians watched Gettysburg's 1861 civilians see their soldiers off to war.

There is no doubt that the event was hokey and smacked of the kitsch that seems to permeate early reenactments and the Centennial as a whole. But it was chronologically specific. The Independent Blues left Gettysburg in early April, 1861. The event was held in early April, 1961. It was a Centennial commemoration.

Fast forward fifty years. This April, the Gettysburg Convention and Visitor's Bureau, along with Main Street Gettysburg and a number of other partner organizations, will begin the 150th commemorations in Gettysburg. The Convention and Visitor's Bureau promises that, "...we will unveil special events and programs that will add to the Gettysburg experience, offering a special glimpse into the lives of those who lived during the American Civil War and how that war shaped our country today." (emphasis added)

What are the offerings for April 2011, the 150th anniversary of the opening days of Civil War in 1861?

First, on April 7, 8, 9 and 10, Greencastle will reenact the skirmishing that town witnessed as Confederate forces crossed the border into Pennsylvania during Lee's 1863 Gettysburg campaign. They will also offer the ubiquitous 5K run that now seems to accompany every community event anywhere, this one, "for History."

Next, on April 15, 16 and 17, Chambersburg will reenact the burning of Chambersburg in 1864. The press material paradoxically notes that, "This April," those who suffered from the July burning of the town, "will be remembered." To add to the schizophrenia, J.E.B. Stuart will be representing his 1862 raid into the state, and Robert E. Lee will be having an 1863 Disney-esque 'Character Breakfast.'

Third, on April 22 and 23, Fairfield joins the fun, presenting, "a day of living history activities to recreate the skirmish that took place in Fairfield on July 3, 1863." For those counting, that would be a celebration of the 147 year, 9 month and 20 day anniversary of that skirmish. I know about golden and diamond anniversaries. Is this the aluminum anniversary?

Finally, Gettysburg culminates the series on April 29 and 30. Touting Saturday as, "the official 150th Gettysburg Kick-Off Event," much as their forebears did in 1961, the site details perhaps the oddest of the four weekends' festivities. The event will feature a, "Holding the Line," skirmish representing the Federal defense of Cemetery Ridge, as well as a reenactment of the street fighting along Baltimore Street of July 1, 1863. Route 15 will be closed to allow reenactors to fire finicky reproduction weapons in historic streets, play acting in cartoonish images of death where brave soldiers actually died. Following a, "Kick Off Ceremony," at the Pennsylvania Monument, a 150 round, one-hour cannonade will shake Gettsyburg's windows and tables from different locations surrounding the Borough (just in time to disrupt the peace of anyone enjoying a late Saturday dinner hour). The Bureau promises that the, "highlight of this event will be the firing of 150 cannon shots to salute the brave men and women who fought in the American Civil War."

The events cover every year of war SAVE 1861. Remember my emphasis added line above? "...offering a special glimpse into the lives of those who lived during the American Civil War..."

This kitschy, marginally tasteless license plate from the centennial helped
commemorate the 1864 burning of Chambersburg in 1964 / CC

This speaks to what I'm beginning to call 'Three Day in July Syndrome.' In phrasing it this way, I am not picking exclusively on Gettysburg. It's simply that, "One Day in September" (Antietam) or "One Day in July and Another One in August" (Manassas) don't have the same ring. This syndrome's greatest symptom is a singular fixation on a narrow view of a landscape's wartime connections.

Remove the battle for a place like Fredericksburg and you still have a rich Civil War landscape with deep connections that can make the events of 1861 relevant to a modern audience. John Hennessy and his crew at FRSP have been doing yeoman's work looking beyond their five days of battle in December to the larger picture of the Civil War (and Civil War commemoration) in the community of Fredericksburg.

The Civil War was not fought in hermetically sealed bubbles. Battlefields, as landscapes, existed long before Robert E. Lee and George McClellan decided to have a tiff upon them. The farmers who worked those fields were, as is any American today, political creatures with opinions and feelings. Some of them were, on deeper southern fields, slaveholders with integral ties to the larger war. Others, on northern battlefields, were freedmen who equally had a vested interest in war even before it arrived on their doorstep. Ken Burns titled the 1863 portion of his documentary, "The Universe of Battle." But to study the landscape of battle solely through that universe, as if the ground was made from time immemorial explicitly as the ground for two armies to let each others' blood upon, does the American public a disservice. The people of Adams County, Pennsylvania's war began in April of 1861, not on July 1st of 1863. These citizens' war did not end on July 3rd of 1863, but continued on (some would argue into the present day).

So what could actual sesquicentennial events for April 2011 look like in south central Pennsylvania? I'll discuss that in part 2 next week.