Approaching Appomattox: Evaluating the Future of the Civil War at the Close of the Sesquicentennial

Union soldiers at Appomattox

Union soldiers at Appomattox

The 150th anniversary of the surrender at Appomattox is less than a month away.

If you have spent any time around a battlefield or related Civil War historic sites, you have probably heard people musing about what these commemorative landscapes will look like after the sesquicentennial closes. In short, many (most) people presume: they won’t look like much. Even die-hard Civil War buffs are predicting a sharp decline in visitation, interest, and enthusiasm once Appomattox passes.

I find that deeply troubling.

In an age when headlines bemoan race-based violence, ideas of police brutality, criticisms of the industrial prison complex as a new form of slavery, domestic terrorism, and Kanye West trying to “reclaim” the Confederate flag, the Civil War - with its causes, meanings, ramifications, and legacies - is more relevant than ever.

So why has that relevance not been communicated to the public? Why is there a broad perception that the next generation will not appreciate the Civil War the same way that our parents’ generations did? Why do we think people will not care enough to visit these hallowed places?

On one hand, it is absolutely because we as historians have failed to fully conceptualize the ways in which our past resonates into the present. Gordon Wood recently criticized modern scholars of United States history for spending too much time focused on the inequalities of the past. Wood described the field stating, “It has no real interest in the pastness of the past.” The inherent flaw in this statement is the implication that the “pastness” of the past - in this case inequality and discrimination - remains squarely isolated in the pages of history. It does not. The past never fully passes away and the issues historians have highlighted (Wood believes highlighted too much) as existing 200 or 150 years ago persist today. The roots of our problems (and our accomplishments) lie in our past. A far more accurate assessment would have been, “modern historical study does not have enough interest in the presence of the past.”

More importantly though, we have assumed that the vast majority of modern generations are not engaged. Complicated and problematic as it might be, the advent of social media has ensured that those raised in the digital age are almost always engaged. 24-hours a day, 7-days a week, information is being exchanged, interpreted, retweeted, and pinned. Yes, a lot of it is about Justin Beiber and that is unfortunate. But a lot of it is not - and we make a monumental mistake when we assume that millennials are only concerned about the composition of their selfies.

It should come as no surprise then that in a world where information is disseminated in completely revolutionary ways it is also processed and interpreted in equally diverse ways. The next generations of Civil War enthusiasts, battlefield protectors, and memory makers do not engage the same way their predecessors did. They are not content to stand and watch, to listen and walk away believing whatever they have been told. Most of them would never consider taking up a reproduction rifle and mocking war. The old ways, though largely successful for a long period of time, are not sustainable in this new culture.

Ask modern audiences about Ferguson, Missouri though, and they will tell you what they think. Ask them how or if they think the modern prison system can be compared to slavery and they will have an opinion. Ask them if they think racism still exists and if it will ever go away and they will have something to say. Ask them what they think of the military, of ideas of honor and sacrifice and courage, of loyalty and civic duty, and they will talk to you about it. Ask them what they think of the fact that an icon of the Civil Rights Movement is named after a Confederate general and member of the KKK, and they will wonder about it and respond. The key, of course, is asking them.

Visitors solemnly remember the devastation at the Bloody Angle during the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House

Visitors solemnly remember the devastation at the Bloody Angle during the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House

These are generations who engage through dialogue. They are participants, perhaps because mass media has made everyone a participant (use a hashtag and you can hold a little digital signpost), but perhaps all the more because they are a generation who has been told everyone has something important to say. Additionally, and symbiotically related to this phenomenon is the reality that these generations personalize almost all information that is presented to them. Call it narcissism if you will, I prefer to call it relevance, but they connect to history by understanding how it relates to their present.

Lucky for us, the Civil War is perfect for both of these realities. It is deeply relevant and its issues, the reasons why it still matters, affect everyone in ways that take little digging to reveal. They are inherently universal, national, and personal.

I find this deeply encouraging. There is fertile ground on which to pioneer new methods of interpreting and communicating the past.

For the record, I do not think we have entirely failed. I do not think the Civil War is doomed or that we have wasted our efforts. We have come a long way in the last 150 years, but we also have a long way to go. The question is not finding new audiences, they are already here; the question is opening up a conversation with them and illuminating all the reasons why the Civil War still matters. The question is not if anyone will listen, the question is if we will listen and if we will adapt accordingly.

Becca Capobianco is an educational contractor with Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and an adjunct faculty member at Germanna Community College. ©

Sources and Additional Reading:

Bellows, Amanda. "How the Civil War Created College Football." Opinionator, 1 Jan. 2015.

Friedersdorf, Conor. "The NYPD Officers Who See Racial Bias in the NYPD." The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 7 Jan. 2015.

Lewis, Paul and Mae Ryan. “The White Confederates Defending the South’s Honor in Selma.” The Guardian. 10 March 2015.

“Remove Selma’s KKK Memorialization: Rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge.” StudentsUNITE petition.

Serwer, Adam. "How Ferguson's Legal System Echoes An Ugly Past." BuzzFeed. 11 Mar. 2015.

Sokol, Jason. "The North's Shameful Refusal to Face Its Own Tangled Racial Past." Time.

Wood, Gordon. "History in Context." History in Context. 23 Feb. 2015.