Get out of the office and see the sesquicentennial, Gary Gallagher

Back when Civil War Trust’s interview with Gary Gallagher first posted, I skimmed through and moved on to other materials.  There isn’t much meat there for my taste.  I perceive the Trust’s purpose with the interview was to produce an article which would attract readers in the educational profession.  And perhaps start thoughts rolling around that would promote discussions in the classrooms.  I get it.  But I am not a member of that target audience.  No harm, or foul.  Just to say Gallagher’s words didn’t excite or inspire me. As they were not intended to.

Heck, I even skipped over this portion of the interview, which in hindsight should have pegged my meter:

CWT: What do you make of the sesquicentennial commemorations so far? Especially compared to the centennial.

GG: I think it’s been anemic. I don’t think many states have done much. Virginia’s done a great deal with a series of what they call Signature Conferences. There’s a state agency devoted to the sesquicentennial. They’ve had these conferences at different universities–one on emancipation; one on military affairs; we’re going to do the last one here at the University of Virginia in 2015 on the memory of the war. A book is published from each of the conferences, and there’s a website and various ancillary benefits. So I think Virginia’s done by far the best job of any state. Pennsylvania’s done a little; North Carolina’s done a little. Tennessee’s done a lot more than most. But most states have done absolutely nothing. And I think part of it is that the Civil War still can become very controversial very quickly because you can’t talk about it without talking about race. Or you shouldn’t, because slavery and issues related to slavery are so central to the coming of the war and the conflict itself. And that part of the history of the war can be so fraught, even in 2013, that it’s just easier not to do it. Which I think is too bad.

In fact, had a friend not passed along a link to Kevin Levin’s take on this, I’d have been unaware of Gallagher’s assessment of the sesquicentennial.  Though I doubt it to be the case, this reads as if Gallagher was caught unprepared.  The only way one can even come to the lead “I think it’s been anemic” is to have remained detached from the reality occurring at those 150th events.

Does this look anemic?


That is the crowd standing on the Federal positions atop Cemetery Ridge, July 3, 2013.  JUST the Federal side.  Some sources put the totals around 55,000 in that section of the field, and thus rivaling the number of men in that location on the day of the battle.  I can’t attest to the accuracy of those numbers.  I didn’t make a head count.  I just know, from being there at that time, there were a lot… A LOT… of people who shared the experience.  Heck, Civil War News passed along the statistic – 900,000 people viewed Facebook updates on Gettysburg’s page during the 150th.  So LOTS of people, and not necessarily people AT Gettysburg on those summer days.

And don’t let me stop with Gettysburg, which we would assume would draw large crowds.  Shiloh’s 150th saw more visitors in a short couple of days than the park normally sees in several months.  Look at the attendance at Chickamauga last September.  So this is not limited to an “eastern theater” following where so many of the “familiar” battles took place.  And beyond that, technology has allowed those not there in person to experience events (as was the case with me on the anniversary of the second assault on Battery Wagner last July).

I could, as long time readers will know, fill up this post with dozens and dozens of photos showing the crowds at these 150th events.  Some small.  Some large.  But not anemic.  Let’s take that word in the context of “of failing health” or “frailty.”  One of the hallmarks of the 150th events is the inclusiveness of the topics interpreted and discussed. Good, healthy, and vibrant discussions. There has been no shying away, as Gallagher alludes to, on the topics of slavery or emancipation (or for good measure southern nationalism and northern unionism).  There HAVE been healthy discussions on those topics.  IN public, TO the public, WITH the public.  And the public has not dismissed or distanced themselves from that discussion.

This has brought a refreshing vitality to the 150th that, in my opinion, was just not there even ten years ago.  The net result has been activities such as the commemoration of the Rappahannock River Crossing at Cow Ford.  You see, these events need not involve thousands of visitors to be “healthy.”  Or at least that’s the way I figure.

I think the problem here is one of perspective.  Don’t wish to lay a personal attack, but let’s be fair here.  Has Gary Gallagher attended any 150th events for which he was not invited to as a dignitary, speaker, or presenter?  And I don’t mean to question if he was compensated or otherwise for showing up.  I’m asking if he’s milled around in the crowd, where the sesquicentennial is taking place?  If not, then I have a challenge for him (though knowing Gallagher doesn’t read blogs, this probably won’t go past you and I):

I challenge Gary Gallagher to hang out with me at the NPS’s ranger walks for the Wilderness or Spotsylvania.  Just show up, incognito, and experience the crowd.  After that, we can discuss “anemic.”

2 thoughts on “Get out of the office and see the sesquicentennial, Gary Gallagher

  1. His answer seemed to focus on academic conferences and publications so I assumed he meant that the academic community’s response has been anemic. In that sense I think he is spot on, particularly compared with the events you describe. I’m not sure that is much of a surprise. Academic interest in the Civil War has been pretty weak in recent decades. There are many good publications but a substantial amount of the best new research on the Civil War comes from outside the academic community.

    • If Gallagher’s response was in regard to academic conferences and publications, then why would he proceeded to focus his response on the state level sesquicentennial programs? Rather, I think if you look at the way phrased the response, it is clear his sights were on the “public history” components, not that in the academic community.

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