Talking About the Civil War and Emancipation

February 1861. Abraham Lincoln has been elected the sixteenth President of the United States. Seven states have seceded from the Union. Representatives from the seceding states gather in Montgomery, Alabama, where they frame and adopt a constitution for their new government. Jefferson Davis is elected President of the Confederacy. Within the next two months, Lincoln will be inaugurated. Promising not to invade the South, he will yet vow to “hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the Government.” Fort Sumter, off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina, is one of those places. After a standoff lasting some three months, Confederate troops will bombard Fort Sumter, igniting America’s Civil War.

One hundred and fifty years later, Americans across the country, now restored to one nation, prepare to commemorate the Civil War. In fact, the commemoration has already begun. Although the War did not officially begin until April 1861, we have already witnessed sesquicentennial observances of events leading up to it, including “Bleeding Kansas,” the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 2008, John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, and Lincoln’s election to the Presidency.

Like the Bicentennial of the Nation’s founding in the 1970s, this anniversary is seized upon by politicians, state and local governments, teachers, historians, museums, historic sites, and chambers of commerce for a number of purposes: to teach history, to inspire patriotic remembrance, to build community spirit, to reflect on the meaning and legacy of historical events, to promote tourism, and, of course, to sell things. As we learned from the Columbian Quincentenary (1992) and the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial (2003–2006), Americans can have very different perspectives on these signal historical events. Thus we have learned to call our observances “commemorations” rather than “celebrations.”

Educators—in schools, museums, and historic sites—see the Civil War Sesquicentennial as a “teachable moment.” It is an opportunity to engage the public, both young and old, in recalling a seismic period in our nation’s history, to reacquaint ourselves with its people, places, and stories; reflect on the issues that were in conflict; and consider what we as a people won and lost, what has changed as a consequence, and why that war still matters to us.

Programming librarians can play a significant role as educators in this teachable moment. Difficult as it may be in this economy, libraries are finding ways to ensure that their collections include some of the more recently uncovered Civil War stories—please share your favorite Civil War titles in the comments below. Libraries can highlight books, films, and other media resources they have available for patrons to learn more about the history of the Civil War. They can also lead readers to explore a variety of Civil War experiences through literature and help them to locate historic sites and trails that will allow them to stand—actually or virtually—in places where these stories played out.

Given the heated political environment of the moment, and the controversy that still pervades public understanding of the Civil War, public libraries are also ideal places to conduct public discussions about the Civil War. They provide neutral space in which members of the public can express different points of view without resorting to incivility. The number of resources about the Civil War has expanded enormously over the past several decades, and so has the scope of the subject. In addition to the stories of generals and battles, historians have published accounts illuminating the experiences of common soldiers, of women in battle and on the home front, of the acts undertaken by enslaved men and women to free themselves. Accounts of state secession conventions, long buried in state archive files, are now available for public review. Historians have shone new light on the story of emancipation, and traced its course through passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow, up through the Civil Rights movement. Questions have been raised about the relationship between “history” and “memory” of the war. Many newly discovered stories about the Civil War can be found on the daily blog “Disunion” in the New York Times online.

Unlike some of the past commemorations—the U.S. Bicentennial, Columbian Quincentenary, and Lincoln Bicentennial, for example—there is, at the time of this writing, no national commission for the Civil War Sesquicentennial. A number of states have formed state commissions, some of them well funded. Even where official commissions are not established, much sesquicentennial activity is being conducted, mostly at the state level.

State humanities councils are among the organizations working at the state level to engage the public in the Civil War Sesquicentennial. The Pennsylvania Humanities Council, for example, offers a public library reading and discussion program of its own, “Facts in Fiction: The Civil War Era," and offers regional “Live and Learn” programs on the Civil War and the Underground Railroad. The Oklahoma Humanities Council offers “Rebirth of a Nation: Nationalism and the Civil War” as one of the discussion topics in its “Let’s Read About It, Oklahoma” program. Public libraries are often the venues for presentations of the Illinois Humanities Council’s Road Scholars Speakers Bureau, which includes programs on the Civil War among its topics.

Taking the lead among federal agencies in observing the Civil War Sesquicentennial is the National Park Service (NPS), which has identified seventy of its sites as “Civil War Parks.” You will notice the list includes a number of parks not usually connected with the Civil War, such as Brown vs. Board of Education National Historic Site and the Women’s Rights National Historical Park. Under the rubric “Civil War to Civil Rights,” the Park Service has included sites that help “to provide a broader historical context for our understanding of the war.”

You may with to consult the NPS Civil War website for more information about the Civil War Sesquicentennial in your state. The Civil War Trust and the American Association for State and Local History can also connect you to local resources and events. In addition, NEH offers high-quality learning resources about the Civil War on EDSITEment, its educational website.