Three years ago, Don Dodson planned to make a killing selling the Civil War artifacts he and his metal detector have uncovered near his hometown of Ringgold, Georgia. In Jersey City, New Jersey, Jamie Delson designed and packaged up special sets of toy soldiers from famous Civil War battles that he planned to sell. Louis Varnell opened a military memorabilia store near Chickamauga, the site of a bloody 1863 battle. They—and a lot of historians, reenactors, hoteliers, restaurateurs and fellow businessmen—were counting on the sesquicentennial of the Civil War to stir up a flood of action commemorating what was, arguably, the most cataclysmic event in American history.
Today, according to a story last week in the Wall Street Journal, the relics sit unsold. So do the toy soldiers. And Varnell is shipping more World War II collectibles than Civil War stuff. Three-quarters of the way through the four-year commemoration of the war that pitted brother against brother, the general consensus is, nobody gives a damn. “If it’s a celebration,” Delson told the Journal, “it’s a celebration that the public is either not aware of or not interested in.”
Coupled with a recent report on plummeting attendance at the living-history extravaganza that is Colonial Williamsburg, the bomb laid by the Civil War sesquicentennial could be viewed as just another example of how young people today don’t care about what came before them. And God knows, I don’t think they do. The anniversary’s underwhelming reception could — and should — also give pause to Sam Katz and his crazed dreams for an all-out Philly-centered history-palooza in 2026 to honor the nation’s 250th birthday (complete with the Super Bowl at the Linc and the Academy Awards at the Kimmel Center). In the social-media world, the contretemps over Jim DeMint’s recent assertion that big government didn’t free the slaves has been dwarfed by photos of Kim Kardashian’s rear in a thong. (But what wouldn't be?)
Still, in defense of the apathetic-seeming public, it’s also hard to figure out how we’re supposed to feel about the Civil War after a century and a half. On the one hand, the slaves were freed, ending a wretched chapter in U.S. history. On the other hand, another wretched chapter — filled with lynchings and firebombings and the twisted legal acrobatics of separate-but-equal — promptly began. George Wallace. Martin Luther King Jr. David Duke. Thurgood Marshall. Barack Obama. Clarence Thomas. “Being White in Philly.” All those men who died in battle … and all those men who still put Confederate flags on their trucks. What exactly are we “celebrating” when we commemorate that war?
So maybe it’s not a bad thing that the public has been leery — that the geegaws aren’t selling, and the reenactors play out their pantomimes to empty fields. We have our first black president in the White House — something a lot of us didn’t believe we’d ever live to see. A hundred and fifty years is a long time, but we may need still more to process what the Civil War meant to the nation, how it changed us, and the “great task remaining before us”: turning into the land of the free we have yet to become.
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