Are Civil War Buffs an Endangered Species? – Historians Bemoan Public’s Fading Interest in Past Conflicts

Unknown Soldiers -- Most Americans would be hard pressed to identify many of the faces in this picture. In fact, people have been staying away in droves from the the recent events marking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, accruing to media reports.

Unknown Soldiers — Most Americans would be hard pressed to identify many of the famous faces in this picture. In fact, according to some historians, public interest in the Civil War is at an all time low, despite the conflict’s 150th anniversary.

A surprising number of Americans seem entirely indifferent to the ongoing celebrations marking the 150th anniversary of the U.S. Civil War. It’s a development that’s led to much handwringing within the ranks of the ‘military history industrial complex’, reports the Wall Street Journal.

An article in Friday’s WSJdescribes how public apathy has both dismayed and disappointed many enthusiasts of the period. In fact, interest in the War Between the States is at an all time low, writes the article’s author, Cameron McWhirter. And that’s put a damper on a number of commemorative tributes to the conflict that have taken place around the country over the past three summers.

“The whole thing fizzled,” one antiquarian told the paper.

While sesquicentennial reenactments of the Battle of Gettysburg drew huge crowds in July of last year, the story points out that overall attendance at the historic site is way down. The legendary Pennsylvania battlefield attracted barley a million visitors in 2013, writes McWhirter. That’s a fraction of the 7 million tourists that used to travel to the site annually in the 1970s. Even as recently as the 1980s and early 90s, the Civil War was still top-of-mind among Americans. The four-year struggle was the focus of well-received television mini-series like The Blue and the Gray and North and South, Pulitzer Prize-winning bestsellers like James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, and a landmark 10-part PBS documentary by noted filmmaker Ken Burns.

Yet according to the WSJ, today’s Americans are much more interested in the Second World War. Even in the South, where passions for the Confederacy supposedly still run deep, barely half of Georgians could even identify William Tecumseh Sherman, the reviled firebrand Yankee general who laid waste to much of the state in 1864. Yet the author reports that in the very same poll, almost two-thirds of respondents were aware of TV star Honey Boo Boo.

Historians approached by the paper speculate that this modern-day malaise may be a by-product of the culture wars that are poisoning social and political discord in contemporary America. “[The war] is hard to talk about if you don’t mention race, emancipation and slavery,” one historian told the WSJ. Other sources chalked the phenomenon up to ordinary apathy on the part of citizens.

To read the full article, click here and for an audio podcast by author, click here.

Incidentally, 2014 will mark the final summer of Civil War 150th anniversary events. The tributes will conclude next April with a commemoration of the 1865 final surrender of General Lee at Appomattox.

Americans haven't exactly cornered the market when it comes to historical apathy. Vast numbers of Canadians know next to nothing about the Battle of Vimy Ridge. The World War One clash was once heralded as the defining moment for Canada. But as many as a tenth of Canucks in 2014 didn't know Vimy from a Sochi ski slope.

Americans haven’t exactly cornered the market when it comes to indifference. Vast numbers of Canadians know next to nothing about the Battle of Vimy Ridge. The World War One clash was once heralded as the defining moment for Canada. But as many as a tenth of Canucks in 2014 couldn’t tell Vimy from a Sochi ski slope when surveyed.

Vimy Ridge — Canada’s Hamburger Hill
North of the border, Canadian historians are lamenting a similar lack of interest in the past as that country approaches the 100th anniversary of the watershed 1917 Battle of Vimy Ridge.

Calling all colonials, the Mother Country needs you! A First World War recruiting poster for the British Empire.

Calling all colonials, the Mother Country needs you! A First World War recruiting poster for the British Empire.

The bloody three-day clash of arms was part of the larger British Arras Offensive of the First World War. The Canadian charge up Vimy has traditionally been a source of tremendous pride for that country’s citizens, at one time approaching the same level of prominence that the Gallipoli Campaign holds in the hearts and minds of Australians and New Zealanders. The Easter battle saw Canadian troops dislodge elements of the German Sixth Army from a stretch of high ground on the left wing of the Allied advance in France. The operation represented the first time the 170,000-strong Canadian Corps had ever fought together as a complete unit.

While overall, the British Arras gambit was a bust, Canada’s Vimy assault was a resounding success, albeit a costly one. More than 10,000 of the attackers became casualties. Several historians characterize Vimy Ridge as a defining moment for Canadian nationhood. Although having gained its independence from the United Kingdom a full 50 years earlier, even in 1917 the former colony considered itself little more than a junior partner in the British Empire. The battle helped dispel those notions.

Yet despite its importance as a national milestone, 21st Century Canadian historians are alarmed that a full fifth of  citizens surveyed had no idea what Vimy Ridge even was. Up to a tenth of those polled identified it as a Canadian mountain range, while another nine percent thought it was the name of a practice slope at the Sochi Winter Games. And although 60 percent identified Vimy as a battle, nearly a fifth believed the clash helped liberate millions from Nazi concentration camps in World War Two; one-in-ten rated it as a key moment in the Allied victory over Japan. Even 12 percent pegged Vimy Ridge as a 19th Century battle against rebellious tribes on the Canadian prairies.

According to John Moore, a columnist with Canada’s National Post newspaper, numbers like these, while deeply troubling to anyone invested in military history, are hardly surprising. The pundit argues that Vimy Ridge was a relatively minor dust up in an epic and ultimately futile war fought largely by (and for the benefit of) European empires – “an apocalyptic, nihilistic clash of blood,” he calls it.

“The mere fact that teachers and textbooks so relentlessly harp on the battle doesn’t make it meaningful to the average Canadian,” writes Moore. “And there’s no evidence to suggest that banging the Vimy drum more vigorously is going to compel Canadians to care…. Canadians have proven highly resistant to coordinated efforts to tell us what matters to us.”

To read the article, click here.

Meanwhile, Across the Pond…
All this comes in stark contrast to the seemingly unquenchable thirst among many Britons in the 100-year anniversary of the outbreak of World War One.

In recent months, the national airwaves in the U.K. have been saturated with documentaries and dramas about the war, while newspapers continue to parse every conceivable aspect of the conflict no matter how minute. The war’s legacy has even become a political issue with government cabinet ministers blasting the recent revisionist narrative of the conflict, and an army of pundits eagerly returning fire.

For a complete wrap up of World War One coverage, check out CentenaryNews.com.

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