What if the Civil War Had a Birthday and Nobody Came?

The sesquicentennial of the War Between the States has been a shocking failure. Maybe that’s a good thing.



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.

Follow @SandyHingston on Twitter.

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  • PAPlan

    Again, with the youth bashing. Just like the last article you are ignoring that Philly’s historic sites are doing quite well. Also, Williamsburg was doing great before the recession. It’s more likely that people are being thrifty, not that they’ve lost interest in history. Finally, Williamsburg’s problem (and don’t get me wrong, I enjoy Williamsburg) is that it feels more like Disneyland than an actual colonial town. Notice that in the very article you linked to they note that Charleston and Savannah are doing quite well. They feel more “real” and as a result are drawing more tourists.

    • Johnny Domino

      Similarly, Gettysburg had boffo attendance over the summer, and still gets jammed on weekends like the last one when the weather is nice.

      Maybe the Chickamauga CVB should take some notes.

      • Sandy Hingston

        As the Journal article notes, Gettysburg has been the exception to the rule in the sesquicentennial.

        • Johnny Domino

          But Gettysburg didn’t wait for 150, they relentlessly promote all the time. They did not put all their eggs in the sesqui basket.

          • Sandy Hingston

            You could read Gettysburg’s game plan, which has been decades in the making, as “relentless promotion.” Or … just as really smart long-range thinking. Sort of like Temple and its could-be on-campus football stadium.

          • Johnny Domino

            Wouldn’t call them mutually exclusive.

            ETA: And Temple is decades late to that party, but if they want to hitch their wagon to a 2024 Olympic bid they could increase their traction.

  • Christoforus von C

    Sigh. How about I write it in capital letters, with some symbols? !!!WE HAVE NO MONEY FOR TRIPS!!! We dont go on vacations. There are no jobs and we are riddled with debt. This year we were tasked with a MANDATORY bill to pay for health care. No one is going out. No one is jetting off. Everyone is staying home and hoping that if we skrimp and sacrifice, MAYBE someday it will get better. Don’t blame the millennials, we CAN’T afford to care.

  • I was interviewed for the WSJ article that is referenced in this piece. Here is my response: http://cwmemory.com/2014/04/11/this-civil-war-buff-has-not-been-disappointed/

    • Johnny Domino

      Nice rebuttal and comments, especially re: the memorabilia barometer.

      The Civil War seems to run neck and neck with all things Nazi as programming on History, H2, AHC (nee Military Channel) et al, so somebody demands it, whether their interest is academic or prurient.

  • Glenn Green

    The economy will never improve with any fuel prices over $2 a gallon = America is built on and depends on cheap fuel. Obama has failed America. Get rid of the 20 million illegal aliens and demand will drop along with prices.

    • PAPlan

      What a genius. They should hire you to chair the economics department at Penn.

  • Wordly

    The 150th anniversary celebration of the bridge burning in Columbia, PA (which led to the Battle at Gettysburg) was a huge success. Maybe it depends on the area. South-central PA has always been nuts for Civil War events, and I don’t see that waning even in this economy.