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Effective Commemoration: The Changing Approach to Observing the Civil War
03 / 02 / 12 | By: Robert Colby
As the Civil War Sesquicentennial (150th) anniversary enters its second year, we have noted significant differences between this observance and the war’s Centennial. These changes demonstrate a shift from national to local commemoration and from a celebratory view of the war to one cognizant of its toll and its multifaceted meaning. Through our work with the Civil War Trust creating battlefield tour apps for smartphones, developing interpretive plans for historic sites, and collaborating on publications, we at History Associates have had a front row seat to observe the development of Sesquicentennial commemoration.
Given budget limitations, Sesquicentennial commissions and tourism boards work together in many states, making decisions with an eye toward attracting visitors and tourist dollars. While the extent to which the Sesquicentennial will benefit local economies remains to be seen, there are some positive indications. Events in Manassas brought in an estimated 27 million tourist dollars for the town (though they fell short of the desired 30,000 visitors). The city also saw increases of 10 percent in hotel tax revenues and 14 percent in meals tax revenues from 2010. Tennessee’s initial Sesquicentennial “Signature Event” drew approximately 9,000 spectators. Georgia’s Kennesaw Mountain has seen an increase of more than 127,000 visitors, with other sites also seeing increases. Beyond direct contributions to local coffers, these events provide publicity; Manassas reported that its events resulted in positive exposure for the city, potentially providing benefits beyond the Sesquicentennial. Heightened public awareness, local partnerships, unique event experiences, and marketing have helped increase attendance at Civil War sites.
The Sesquicentennial is also notable for its somber tone and expansive focus. Thus far it has been thoughtful rather than celebratory, a reaction appropriate for the deadliest conflict in our history and for the ever-shifting collective memory of the war. According to James Robertson, executive director of the U.S. Civil War Centennial Commission, the Centennial celebrated the war rather than commemorating it. Understanding of the cost of the war, sensitivity to racial issues, and a desire to include all Americans have encouraged programs to engage the multifaceted, contentious nature of Civil War memory. For example, in 2010, the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission dedicated its annual Signature Conference to race and “the tough stuff of American history and memory.” This stands in contrast to the Centennial’s often contentious relationship with the contemporaneous Civil Rights Movement. Though certainly not free from controversy, the Sesquicentennial thus far has focused on the war’s cost and legacy. For example, Virginia’s governor, after initially proclaiming a “Confederate History Month,” quickly backtracked and declared “Civil War History in Virginia Month” instead. He praised the war for bringing the end of slavery and enunciated the legacy of the “cost and pain of the War.” Additionally, President Obama’s dedication of Fortress Monroe, a critical site in the African-American history of the war, as a National Monument shows a new emphasis on the war beyond the battlefield. We hope that in the years to come the Sesquicentennial will continue to draw attention to historical education and preservation, and will benefit communities both financially and in their efforts to preserve the war’s legacy.
Article image: U.S. Postage Stamp, 1961 issue commemorating the Civil War Centennial of the Battle at Fort Sumter, April 12-13, 1861. Photo courtesy Gwillhickers, Wikimedia Commons.
Originally published in our HAIpoints newsletter. View newsletter page.
 http://www2.insidenova.com/news/2011/jul/26/4/tourism-group-touts-civil-war-sesquicentennial-out-ar-1196047/; http://www2.insidenova.com/news/2011/jun/23/civil-war-sesquicentennial-ticket-sales-lag-ar-1129416/
 Kevin Levin. “Not Your Grandfather’s Civil War Commemoration.” The Atlantic, December 13, 2011. http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/12/not-your-grandfathers-civil-war-commemoration/249920/