Sesquicentennial excess: must we erase evidence of later commemorations at Civil War sites?

Author:Clausen, Christopher
Position:Tuning Up

One morning in March I read some disquieting news in AAA World magazine. With the 150th anniversary of John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry coming up this October, the Civil War Sesquicentennial lumbers onto the runway for its official takeoff two years hence. It's always inspiring to watch a useful word rise from the dead--sesquicentennial hasn't seen much use since celebrations of the American Revolution in the 1920s and early 1930s--but I wonder whether this relatively unpublicized commemoration is really a good idea. The long-anticipated Civil War Centennial, as those old enough to remember may have forgotten by now, had a strong beginning about the time President Kennedy was elected but gradually petered out, eclipsed by, among other things, dramatic events in the struggle for civil rights across the South. By the time the 100th anniversary of Appomattox rolled around, the nation was preoccupied with what soon became the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (not to mention Vietnam).

The style and substance of commemoration have changed so much since the early 1960s that studying it has become a thriving field of neohistory. One conspicuous innovation is that armies of meticulously garbed reenactors now overwhelm each major Civil War battlefield near the anniversary of the battle itself.

The National Park Service seems to be driven by some of the same impulses toward what can only be described as pseudo-authenticity. With the Sesquicentennial approaching, its campaign to restore the major national military parks as nearly as possible to their preconflict condition has gone into high gear.

As John Summers observed recently in The New Republic, trying to return Gettysburg and other battlefields that have been saturated with monuments and tourism since the 19th century to something like their platonic state is not only impractical and questionable on other grounds, but horribly expensive. Hence the multiplying signs of corporate involvement for example the Gettysburg Park's grandiose new visitor center. The day may not be far off when visitors can enjoy the Utz Foods Accessible Bloody Angle or even, for smaller sites, the M&T Bank Monocacy National Battlefield and ATM. If venerable sporting events and stadiums can do it, why not historical locations? For a vision of the future of the past, look at the gleaming ghost town the Park Service and its partners have made of John Brown's own Harpers Ferry.

Of course, our controversies about such matters are as nothing compared...

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