Confessions of a Civil War historian


This weekend thousands of Valley residents will descend upon Kearney Park for Fresno’s annual Civil War Revisited reenactment.  They will be treated to “the sights and sounds of the 1860s,” as self-styled “living historians” — most clad in Union blue or Confederate gray — set up camp, march in formation and demonstrate antebellum crafts.  The centerpiece will be a reenactment of the Battle of Bull Run, pitting Yanks and Rebs against one another as if it were 1861.

This year’s event takes on a special significance.  It comes on the 150th anniversary of the start of a war that nearly tore the nation in two.  It is high time that we take stock of how we remember this pivotal moment, both at our annual Kearney Park event and beyond.

I confess that as a Civil War historian I find events like Civil War Revisited frustrating.  On the one hand, I am thrilled to see people engage history — especially my period of expertise — with enthusiasm.  Many of the students who turn up each year in my classes say that trips to the reenactment stoked an early interest in the past.

On the other hand, I am discouraged by what tends to be remembered and forgotten at such events.

Fresno’s Civil War Revisited, like countless reenactments across the U.S. and the popular histories of the war that dominate big-box bookstores, focuses on military minutia to the exclusion of more significant issues.  Meticulous attention is paid to how soldiers marched, what they wore and where they slept.  Yet little time is devoted to the unprecedented horror of a war that claimed more American lives than World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War combined.  And next to nothing is said of the larger meaning of the conflict, especially for the four million slaves it helped to emancipate.

One of the unfortunate byproducts of this narrow approach to the Civil War is that the general public is misinformed about the conflict.  Take its causes.  Despite consensus among professional historians that slavery was the most important factor in precipitating the war, a recent Pew Research Center poll found that almost half of Americans believe states’ rights was the main cause.  Among the under-thirty set, that figure climbs to a galling 60%.  The unwitting victims of a propaganda campaign — which sought to resurrect the reputation of the Confederacy by downplaying the issue of slavery — much of the country misunderstands the origins of our most destructive war.

Other Americans make the mistake of turning the Civil War into a simple morality play, as if the North held the keys to what Robert Penn Warren once called the “Treasury of Virtue.”  Yet we must also be wary of glorifying the victors.  Fresno State’s own Victor Davis Hanson has fallen prey to precisely this sort of thinking, portraying Union General William Tecumseh Sherman as a moral crusader.

Although Sherman famously set aside land for slaves he helped to free during his march through Georgia, the general’s primary aim was to be rid of the thousands of impoverished freedpeople who trailed his army.  Sherman had little sympathy for African Americans, whom he deemed “not fit to marry, to associate, or to vote with me or mine.”  A moral warrior he was not.

Events like Civil War Revisited are not the prime culprits in the spread of such misconceptions about the war.  But they are a lost opportunity to redress them.  As such, reenactments do a disservice not only to the past but also to the present.

After all, we still live in the shadow of the Civil War.  The racial inequalities that continue to plague America — from alarming incarceration rates for black men to income and educational gaps for African-Americans more generally — testify to the racial legacy of the war.  Meanwhile, our polarized political culture hearkens back to sectional crisis.  When conservatives today appeal to states’ rights, talk of nullifying federal laws, even threaten disunion, they sound a lot like antebellum secessionists.  Sadly, these connections to the Civil War are lost on many Americans.

As we commemorate the Civil War sesquicentennial over the next four years, both at Kearney Park and elsewhere, we would do well to keep in mind the full scope and enduring legacy of our most important conflict.  How soldiers marched matters.  But bigger issues — why the war was fought; what it changed and left standing; and how it continues to shape American culture — matter more.


Ethan Kytle is a history professor specializing in 19th century American history and the Civil War at Fresno State.

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