One hundred and sixty years ago, this country was fumbling into dissolution and civil war. Sixty years ago, it was fumbling with how to mark the war's Centennial. In 1961, the Confederate gray was still deemed honorable among the majority of white Southerners. By the time the Centennial came to a close four years later, the civil rights movement had swung into high gear, culminating that August with passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed racial discrimination at the ballot box and was signed into law by a Southern president. These events, plus some surprise ones—like riots in northern cities—coincided with the Civil War Centennial.
Scholars have noted how this patriotic celebration, rooted partly in the needs of the Cold War era, fizzled over four years into something of an embarrassment. The 1960s, as the Dylan song puts it, seemed to be a time for looking ahead—not a time for looking back, or at least, not back in reverence the way we once had. What with a New Frontier, a Great Society, a Second Reconstruction, and a Space Race beckoning, who had time for anything but the future?
The children did. When I was a child in the ’60s, I thought of “history” (which was already beginning to be lost in something called “social studies”) as just another grammar school report card box to tick—and not a very challenging one. Textbooks hewed to the assimilation/national greatness consensus of those times, which in the South, where I was a boy, presented race relations as a matter of states' rights, and in the post-Brown era, embraced gradualism. A few Landmark series books on American history and heroes supplemented classroom fare but lit no fire.
But then the past leapt off the page and into life with the Civil War Centennial. Though I was on the verge of growing up, the Centennial revealed to me the reality of the past; it enchanted me, and wove a spell. And this spell, as I would learn throughout life, proved particularly valuable as a shield against the clamors of the present. I now understand that my encounter with history in the 1960s was like the sequence of enchantment that C. S. Lewis describes in “Talking About Bicycles.” Before we learned to ride them, Lewis writes, bicycles meant nothing; then, having got our balance, our world changed: “Spinning along on one's own, early in the morning, under trees, in and out of shadows was like entering Paradise.” The moment of enchantment may be short-lived or long. But while it enfolds us, enchantment promises revelation, happiness, even joy. The age of enchantment may be a mere mirage—but it is a mirage of something real.
My enchantment with the past at the time of the Civil War Centennial was helped along by American Heritage, that elegantly-illustrated, hardbound, advertising-free bi-monthly founded in 1954 and first edited by Bruce Catton. Catton made the Civil War his own in the early ’50s, with publication of his three-volume Army of the Potomac. Then, for the century mark, he produced another trilogy, the Centennial History of the Civil War. Its first volume, The Coming Fury, which appeared in 1961, found its way onto our family bookshelf. It was a “grown-up” book that at age twelve I was ready to read and wonder over. And it was largely about the place where I lived. Those names adorned not just historical markers, but roads and highways, schools and colleges all over the Commonwealth.
But my enchantment was also the result of a concrete experience that was loud, raucous, visual, olfactory. Reenactments were one feature of the Centennial—fake battles, if you like—that to this day constitute a considerable subculture. In the small town where I lived, the Centennial literally rolled in like thunder sixty years ago, on a train. This was a time when small towns everywhere in America still had depots where passenger trains still stopped to load the mail, or your grandmother heading home after a visit. But on this particular Sunday afternoon, the train screeching down the western slope of the Blue Ridge to stop in Waynesboro was carrying Stonewall Jackson's army, which was on the move.
The train, with its old-time clerestory roof coaches long since out of regular service, was loaded with costumed reenactors in buoyant spirits. 1861 was early days in the Civil War story: the South had Lee and Jackson; the North was divided and Lincoln still weak. It was not unthinkable that the Confederacy, in a bold opening dash, might just win, and secession and compact theory prevail without a bloodbath.
In any case, the crowd down at the depot that hot summer day in 1961 cheered on cue. The high school band played Dixie. Countless little “Stars and Bars” Confederate flags fluttered from the open windows of the train as a couple hundred latter-day Johnny Rebs (a few locals also climbed aboard) pretended to head off to repel the Yankee invader in defense of hearth and home. The olfactory reality of this experience—creosoted ties, sewage from the open drains of passing trains, diesel exhaust and brake-shoe smoke—may not have been quite the scent that Lewis's imagined young cyclist whiffed on that windy ride beneath the trees. But it was like unto it: a mirage, but a mirage of something real.
It did not matter to me then, and it does not matter to me now, whether “the cause” being celebrated and commemorated was by later judgment honorable, or lost, or wicked, or all mixed up. This spectacle, coupled with Bruce Catton, proclaimed to me the sheer largeness of the past at the very moment when my focus was supposedly shifting to the future. This was especially important for a young person in the ’60s, a time of trashing the past and idolizing the future. Only parts of this past may have been true, but to remember it, to “bring it back to life,” served a purpose. It set the present in its place.
Timothy Jacobson writes from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia.
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