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The Civil War in Perspective: Our Evolving Story

Full Day Lecture/Seminar

Saturday, May 22, 2021 - 9:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. ET
Code: 1M2133
This program is part of our
Smithsonian Associates Streaming series.
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Civil War reenactments became a growing hobby in the 1960s, a century after the war

No event has altered the United States more profoundly—or been analyzed more exhaustively—than the American Civil War. Yet the question remains: Why have Americans returned to the war to find answers in their present?

Contemporizing the war began soon after Appomattox as memories faded and Americans sought to use the conflict to find new meaning in a modern society. That process of re-evaluation spanned pivotal decades of the 20th century, and today Americans are still debating how to contextualize Confederate memorials, monuments, and flags. Historian Stephen D. Engle traces 150 years of an ever-changing narrative of the Civil War and why we still contend with reaching an acceptable version of its legacy.

9:30–10:45 a.m.  The Civil War’s Lost Causes: Beyond Appomattox

In the decades immediately following the Civil War, Americans struggled with setting the record straight and establishing a common narrative about causation, military strategy, and how and why the North won. A “Lost Cause” narrative emerged that shaped a military-centered view that dominated the popular culture as veterans, journalists, and essayists assessed the war’s turning points to explain victory and defeat.

11 a.m.–12:15 p.m.  The War at 75: Abraham Lincoln and Gone with the Wind

By the 1930s, Americans had little connection to the Civil War, but found a “usable past” in the conflict as New Dealers, civil rights activists, and Hollywood tried to provide relief by looking backward. Abraham Lincoln’s popularity surged but so did author Margaret Mitchell’s, whose novel, Gone with the Wind, offered a sympathetic portrayal of the Confederacy.

12:15–1:15 p.m.  Break

1:15–2:30 p.m.  The War at 100 Years: Bruce Catton and Shelby Foote Meet Jim Crow

Americans were enthusiastic in the 1960s at the prospect of the Civil War’s centennial. Bruce Catton’s and Shelby Foote’s popular trilogies contributed to the conflict’s memorialization but did little to confront the problems that remained below the surface resulting from the war. The Civil Rights struggle and Jim Crow served as a reminder that all was not well in America, and Reconstruction took center stage in the public arena.

2:45-4 p.m.  The War That Won’t Go Away: Today’s Search for a Usable Past

That Americans continually return to the Civil War to interpret the present confirms the conflict’s centrality to the ongoing public discourse about what unifies and divides us. Even today, a national debate questions how and why Confederate symbols square with the unfinished business of Reconstruction. Such emblems remind us that as we grapple with the politics of race in America, we continue to encounter the Civil War.

Engle, a professor of history and director of the Alan B. and Charna Larkin Symposium on the American Presidency at Florida Atlantic University, has written extensively on the Civil War and Reconstruction Era.

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