The Non-Civil War Enthusiast's Guide to the Civil War's 150th Anniversary

Craig again.  Let me start out, as “staff historian” of the blog, by noting today is the 150th anniversary (a.k.a. the sesquicentennial) of the bombardment of Fort Sumter, generally considered the “start” of the American Civil War.  Today in Charleston Harbor dignitaries will hold a commemoration observing the anniversary.   This is first of a series of similar events, spanning the next four years, as the nation recalls one of the defining episodes in American history.  I promised XBrad I wouldn’t trash up his blog with a bunch of Civil War stuff.  But I’ve asked him to make an exception here with regard to the 150th observance today.

Without opening up some debate over the causes of the Civil War, let me point out the consequences or results of the war as a way to relate its importance in American history.  A few undeniable results lead the way – three amendments to the US Constitution, 3.5 million people freed with the end of slavery, the American union of states confirmed, and, not the least of which, over 600,000 soldiers killed in the country’s most destructive war to date.  Beyond those somewhat measurable results, let me offer that the Civil War helped to shape America in the later half of the 19th century into the economic powerhouse of the 20th.  The nation that succeeded in World War I, survived the Great Depression, and triumphed in World War II did so with the experience gained (and arguably directly because of the experience) during the Civil War.  That is true from aspects ranging from civil rights to military doctrine.  The Civil War is/was one of the great turning points in American history, without doubt.  (And makes for an even break between first and second semesters of American history…. just saying.)

Most of the Civil War Wonks (which you might call Buffs, although we prefer the refined term “enthusiasts”) who read my blog already have their checklists of events to attend, web sites to RSS, and bookshelves full of reference materials.  On the other hand, there are a few BTH readers who are asking “did we win or lose that one?”  Um…. addressing that, let me offer up some links and resources for those who might have an interest, but don’t want to end up owning a library full of books (as I have!).

First off, if you are indeed asking “who won,” then you may want to start out with a premier on the Civil War.  There are several good “staple” reference books out there.  The most popular are James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, although for those with more time Shelby Foote’s Civil War Trilogy always ranks high.  For those who prefer to watch instead of read, the PBS documentary “The Civil War” remains a classic in many regards.  While us wonks will chide some of the oft cited myths perpetuated in the multi-part series, Ken Burns did a good job bringing the war to the small screen and thus to a broader audience.  And for those who just can’t get away from the computer, I’d also suggest the overview offered at “The American Civil War Home Page” affectionately known as “Shotgun’s website.”  You’ll note many essays and resources within the web site.  Although not updated in a few years, Shotgun’s was among the first web sites to present a broad compilation of content – to include battle reports.

Now let me assume you get the general background about the Civil War and now figure to “participate” in this Sesquicentennial silliness.  Where do you jump in?  Well there are activities to include memorial observations, seminars, battlefield walks, lectures, film showings, and full up reenactments.  Usually the first place I recommend for event listings is the Civil War Travel web site.  Closely associated with organizations placing historical markers, the CW Travel site posts details about what there is to see and do.  The event list is color coded to allow quick browsing when planning weekend trips and such. CW Travel also hosts podcasts that you can use on self-guided tours of selected battlefields.  I know many of those who have contributed podcasts there, and these are TOP SHELF stuff.

Some might wish to “follow along” with the sesquicentennial with perhaps daily or weekly bits on the history.  Civil War Daily Gazette, a well researched and written blog site, posts daily summaries of the wartime activities – works best as an RSS feed.  Professors at Longwood University, in Farmville, Virginia, post weekly podcasts detailing the major subjects of the war, synchronized to the 150th anniversaries, on the That a Nation Might Live website.

If you are preparing to visit one of the battlefields within the National Park system, another “prep” website to check is that of the particular park you plan to visit.  Most parks have a cycle of tours lead by some outstanding park rangers and historians (yes, outstanding!). For instance Gettysburg’s summer schedule is posted on their web site.  Usually these are free, with park admission if applicable.  At most you are talking a few bucks for what some people would pay $100 or more for – a guided tour.  And I would add that Gettysburg is somewhat special with regard to tours having licensed battlefield guides to escort visitors on “personalized” tours of the battlefield (Antietam has a similar program).

So lets say you visit a battlefield and get “bit by the bug.”   Many people start inquiring about their own family’s ties to the war.  I won’t go into the great number of genealogy web-based companies out there, as you see them advertised all the time.  But perhaps an initial check might be the Civil War Soldiers and Sailor system.   This site, run by the National Park Service, is great if you know the name of your ancestor, but only returns the unit and rank information (although the microfilm reference number is handy for follow-on research).

Another “bit by the bug” symptom might be the urge to visit more battlefields.  So let me make a not-too-subtle-pitch here.  Civil War battlefields are a diminishing resource, what with all the progress and what not.  There is an organization out there dedicated to the preservation of these battlefields and sites across the nation – the Civil War Trust.  Now not only do I call your attention to considering helping out with preservation efforts, I’d also suggest reviewing their excellent battle resource pages.  For example the page for Fort Sumter provides more information than most of us “wonks” would ever need.

And… I’ve actually carried on a bit more than I should here.  As you can see there are a wide array of resources out there, and I’m really only scratching the surface.  The study of the American Civil War has more twists and turns, facets, and angles than most are able to fully digest even given a lifetime.  If you have a specific topic area you’d like to explore, drop a comment and I’ll try to help out.  If I can’t I’ll call upon one of many subject matter experts of even the most trivial of topics that I’ve met during my studies.  I will say that if you have a question about artillery, you should first check this site ->  To the Sound of the Guns.

11 thoughts on “The Non-Civil War Enthusiast's Guide to the Civil War's 150th Anniversary”

  1. Shelby Foote takes more time and effort, but is very worth the time. McPherson, on the other hand, is just a yankee ax grinder. If you want to see yankee propaganda, then McPherson is your man. If you want to get closer to the truth, Foote is your man.

    I ran into both McPherson and Davis on Usenet many years ago, along with another lesser loser, Mark Pitcavage. None of the three know what they think they know. They are just standard liberals that currently populate the academy these days.

    1. Sounds like sour grapes with regards to McPherson. And yes, I’ve read both. They come at it from different angles but to call McPherson an ax-grinder is unfair.

    2. Sorry, but McPherson is simply a conformist. He’s not worth the title of historian. The man isn’t worth the time of day.

      Harsh? You bet it is. But, I have little use for some one that parrots propaganda and calls it history. McPherson, and Davis, are such men.

    3. I guess my point is for the person with no perspective on the war, McPherson is the most accessible and readable of the books one might start with. Certainly if someone wants to learn about the different interpretations, one should read a multitude of works, sampling each.

      I’m personally not a big fan of McPherson or Davis, as I think both fail to present the war at the tactical and operational level to the degree necessary for military history. But in their defense, they are not really addressing military history (in the sense of cannon blasts and bugles), but more so history in a broader context. And I agree that anyone seeking to understand the military history should understand that context.

  2. Thank you so much for all the info, Craig. I had a chance to visit several sites while we were stationed at Ft. Bragg. I wish we could have gone to more, but then terrorists declared war on us on 9/11.

  3. There is nothing in the dry pages of history books to compare to standing at Gettysburg and looking across the field to Cemetery Ridge, or crossing Burnside Bridge at Antietam, or watching soldiers solemnly place thousands of U.S. flags oh so close together at Andersonville for Memorial Day. Thanks, Craig, especially for the link to the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System.

  4. Craig, you missed the true anniversary by a few months… the War of Northern Aggression really started on 9 January 1861.

    1. Hmph.

      I missed it, somehow. Not sure how, since I seem to get sucked into reading this stuff you people write every day … 🙂

      Ah, well … my brothers in that particular long grey line thank you for remembering them and observing their glorious deeds.

Comments are closed.