Thursday, July 11, 2013

Observing the Sesquicentennial: Some Personal Reflections

All of the publicity surrounding the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg got me thinking. I really wish I had been able to attend last week's commemoration, but long-standing family plans in the Boston area kept me away. I took the opportunity during my time in New England to reflect on how I've observed the 150th of the Civil War over the last couple of years. I suppose there are many different ways to earn that "merit badge" in the Sesquicentennial. Here are just a few of the things that I've done to mark this important anniversary.

The Virginia Civil War Sesquicentennial logo, one among many state, local, and private logos for the 150th commemoration.

"Official" Sesquicentennial Events
There's been no shortage of 150th-themed commemorations, both big and small, to capture my attention since 2011. I maintain a long list of official events that I'd like to attend, but the competing demands of work and family have not always been so accommodating. The reenactment of the vote on the Virginia Ordinance of Secession in Vienna was one of the more interesting and instructive living history events that I have witnessed. I also went to the massive First Bull Run reenactmenta somewhat smaller staging of the fight at Antietam, and a rather odd recreation of the "Battle of Vienna." Even better, I had a chance to attend National Park Service (NPS) commemorations for First Bull Run and Antietam, including the opening ceremony for the Manassas 150th on Henry Hill. I missed some other wonderful NPS programs, including those for Second Manassas, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg. Hopefully I will make up the deficit in 2014 and 2015 at places like the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Petersburg, and Appomattox! And there is always Bristoe Station later this year.

Union reenactors march across a section of the Antietam battlefield during the 150th commemoration in September 2012.

Site Excursions
Recognizing multiple time constraints in my own life, I created Sesquicentennial-themed itineraries that could best fit my schedule. I pledged to visit battlefields and other sites each year of the 150th that are associated with the corresponding year of the Civil War. In 2012 I toured Kernstown and Winchester, both part of Stonewall Jackson's Valley Campaign. I also visited the hallowed ground of Second Manassas. Later that year I went to the small but impressive Ox Hill Battlefield Park, as well as the Second Manassas Campaign-related sites of St. Mary's Church and Fairfax Station. This spring I finally got to Gettysburg after many years. Knowing that we couldn't get to the 150th commemoration, my Father and I planned our trip for early May, well ahead of the recent crowds. We hired a Licensed Battlefield Guide and also spent some solo time stomping around the battlefield. It was an incredibly moving experience, and I know that I will be back much more often in the coming years. I hope to squeeze in Chancellorsville, even if a visit later this year is out of chronological order. 

Museum Exhibitions
Museums in the DC-area have sponsored several exhibitions in connection with the Sesquicentennial, and I've taken full advantage of living nearby. In 2012 I viewed a captivating display of Civil War photography at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, while this year I saw an impressive array of paintings and photographs at the Smithsonian's "The Civil War and American Art" exhibition. I still need to get to the Civil War exhibitions at the Library of Congress and National Portrait Gallery.

I also have committed to reading books each year of the 150th that cover topics corresponding to the parallel year during the Civil War. Among those I've finished include A Single Grand Victory: The First Campaign and Battle of Manassas by Ethan Rafuse, Shiloh--In Hell Before Night by James L. McDonough, and Chancellorsville 1863: The Souls of the Brave by Ernest B. Furgurson. Of course, I've supplemented books with Sesquicentennial-themed articles appearing in Civil War TimesThe Civil War Monitor, Hallowed Ground, and Blue & Gray. This focus on the Sesquicentennial timeline has led me to pay more attention to the Western Theater, while at the same time expanding my knowledge about battles already familiar to me. And I just don't study the military aspects of the war. For example, in this year of the Emancipation Proclamation, I plan to read Steven Oakes' Freedom National.

I was really glad that I started blogging when I did. The Sesquicentennial has given me an opportunity to explore various events in "real time." Among other topics, posts have examined the debate over secession in Virginia, the occupation of Alexandria, the Confederate seizure of Munson's Hill, the Battle of Lewinsville, Union Army camps around Washington, the defense of the capital during the Antietam Campaign, and the establishment of contraband camps in Northern Virginia. I also was asked by the Civil War Trust to contribute an article on the Battle of Dranesville to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the engagement. This focus has enabled me to make my own contribution, however small, to the growing literature of the Sesquicentennial years.

Social Media
One of the factors that sets the Sesquicentennial apart from the Centennial is the existence of social media. Blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds allow individuals to follow a constant stream of news, analysis, and information related to the Civil War in ways that Americans could never have imagined fifty years ago. I consume such social media on a frequent basis (perhaps on a too frequent basis according to my wife). Social media has kept me aware of what happened on nearly every day of the war. I also learn about Sesquicentennial events and human interest stories that might otherwise have escaped my attention. And because of blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, I was able to participate in the Gettysburg 150th during my family vacation in Massachusetts. Thanks to fellow bloggers like Craig Swain and Robert Moore, I felt as if I were actually a part of the commemorative events. Gettysburg National Military Park also did a commendable job of bringing the days' activities to life through photographs and videos on Facebook.

I am sometimes accused of being an avid collector of all things Civil War. I've already starting amassing Sesquicentennial-themed items in my home office, including event programs, calendars, and commemorative stamps offered by the U.S. Postal Service. Such souvenirs will someday offer a way to look back on how we commemorated the war during the 150th anniversary. By the way, my car is also graced with a Virginia Sesquicentennial license plate, and I'll even admit to owning a few 150th anniversary T-shirts, although I skipped getting one in Gettysburg because I didn't much care for the logo.

As readers know, I am a passionate advocate for historic preservation. The public focus on the Sesquicentennial offers a chance to promote preservation causes related to the Civil War. I've taken an active part in a local debate over the use of Salona, which served as headquarters for William "Baldy" Smith during the first winter of the war. I also have contributed to the Civil War Trust, which is leading the fight to preserve battlefields across the country through Campaign 150.

As we march forward into the second part of the Sesquicentennial, I am amazed at the sheer number of ways available to commemorate the nation's bloodiest struggle. Overall, I am glad that I've been able to do my part in remembering the war, and I hope that my readers have likewise found interesting and satisfying ways to participate in the 150th anniversary. Drop a line and let me know how you have crafted your own personal Sesquicentennial.

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