The Civil War Sesquicentennial: Commemoration in the Digital Age

The American Civil War has left behind layers. When modern Americans visit battlefields, we see not only scars left between the years 1861 and 1865, but also select remnants of eras before and after. We see historic structures, which were the homes and businesses of people who occupied these now hallowed spaces long before the soldiers in blue and gray. Monuments, placed by veterans, heritage groups, and state and federal governments dot the landscape. Fortified earthworks, rebuilt fences, even trees and parking lots all tell complex stories of various attempts at remembering.

I took the photo below on July 2, 2013, standing atop the Pennsylvania Monument as the sun was beginning to set. After a full day of commemorative events, a quiet moment of reflection was interrupted by the excitement of a sudden rainbow, a brief but heavy rain shower, and just enough mist in the rapidly dimming daylight to create one of the most striking natural scenes I have ever witnessed. Looking back on this photo now, I see not only the ironic beauty of the battlefield I called my home for four years, but also the layers. How many different physical features from how many different eras can you count in just this one snapshot?

For generations, Americans have been commemorating the Civil War, and by doing so, transforming the battlefields. Which leads us to question, what has the 150th left behind?

In comparison to other major anniversaries, commemoration of the sesquicentennial has been largely ephemeral. Marked by thoughtful, contemplative ceremonies, focused guided tours, and living history demonstrations, the National Park Service’s commemoration has been program based. State initiatives have been focused on gathering and disseminating information. For example, Virginia’s Civil War 150 HistoryMobile functions as exhibit space focusing on soldiers, civilians, and enslaved people, while the Civil War Legacy Project is an opportunity for individuals to scan family documents related to the Civil War.

The sesquicentennial has been a time of new exhibits, which include more voices and complex narratives. Both the NPS and private museums have used this anniversary as an opportunity to redo outdated exhibits, many of which have been around since the 1960s. These new exhibits, while still telling of battles, generals, and troop movements, also place these events in wider historical context and illuminate stories of civilians, slaves, and the aftermath of war.

Physical transformations to battlefields have largely been centered on “rehabilitating” the landscape. Road surfaces have been repaved, parking lots torn up, all to give battlefields a more nineteenth century look. Conversely, trees, which were planted by previous generations to screen modern encroachments or even hide monuments, have been uprooted to restore the historical viewsheds as closely as possible. These alterations have largely been undoing some commemorative efforts of previous generations, while allowing others to remain. Monuments are seen as acceptable post-war changes, while buildings that appear too modern, such as the former Gettysburg Cyclorama building, are not. Overall, the sesquicentennial’s landscape attempts to provide visitors with as great an understanding of the battlefield as possible while leaving few of our generation’s own structures behind.

The past four years have left few changes to the landscape that historians in another one-hundred and fifty years will immediately associate with sesquicentennial commemorations. That does not mean, however, that we have not created another commemorative layer. This layer is invisible, not easily quantified, yet has the ability to reach millions. 

This is the digital layer.

We live in a world where every National Park has its own Facebook page. Artifacts and sections of exhibits are shared online so that remote visitors can experience them as well. The hashtag #cw150 on twitter has been consistently popular with academics, public historians, and visitors alike. Special social media teams, as depicted below, have been established with the explicit purpose of documenting and sharing the sesquicentennial with as many people as possible. Organizations share each others Facebook statuses, tweets, photos, and videos to reach new audiences.

 Although I believe any visitor would find it preferable to attend the commemorative events in person as opposed to watching it on a fifteen-inch screen, fast-paced twenty-first century lives do not always allow for this ideal. But now interested parties can watch guided tours on YouTube, see photos on Flickr and Instagram. They can follow along with live tweets, and even ask questions. Some programs, such as the recent Memorial Day 2014 “Reverberations,” were specifically designed to connect communities across the nation through digital mediums. Civil War era letters and diaries have been digitized on a massive scale, making them truly accessible to large sections of the public.  

At first glance, it is easy to assume that this layer is less significant than those built of stone. When compared to the dedication of monuments by veterans of the conflict, the quarter of a million people who trekked to Gettysburg to hear President Roosevelt speak in 1938, or the pomp and pageantry of the centennial, the impact of the 150th is harder to measure. However, in terms of involving more people in the commemorative events, this anniversary has been unparalleled.

Digital forms of commemoration provide an opportunity for dialogue that no other major anniversary has. Individuals from remote locations can interact with historians on Facebook. Visitors can preserve their own commemorative experience instantly, through uploading their own photos and sending their own tweets. People can comment on, add to, and even drive commemorative efforts. Even this aptly named blog is an exercise in discourse made possible by the digital age.

We live in a digital world, one that has changed the way we commemorate our past. Therefore, it should change the way we gauge the success of our commemoration as well. We can no longer judge the power of an event purely on the numbers of people in attendance alone. We must also account for those who watch guided tours on YouTube, who engage with #cw150 on twitter, and those who write, read, and comment on blogs such as this.  

Many look at falling visitor statistics, compare the scale of the sesquicentennial to previous commemorations, and find it somehow lacking. They worry people are losing interest in the past. They worry we are leaving nothing behind. However, these people are only seeing part of a larger and changing picture. We are leaving behind huge amounts of information, digitized documents, records of commemorative events, and the public’s reaction to them in ways we never have before. We are also leaving a new way of engaging not thousands, but millions.

Every generation commemorates differently. And every generation leaves layers. Ours is not written in soil, wood, or stone, but instead in pixels and HTML. But that does not make it any less real.  

Our layer is not what we can see in the digital photo. Our layer is the photo itself.  


Becky Oakes, a graduate of Gettysburg College, is currently finishing her master’s degree in 19th-century U.S. History and Public History at West Virginia University.  Becky’s research focuses on Civil War memory and cultural heritage tourism, specifically the development of built commemorative environments.  She also studies National Park Service history, and has worked at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park, Gettysburg National Military Park, and the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College.©


Sources and Further Reading:

Photos courtesy of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and the Civil War Trust