Monday, April 11, 2011

Then and Now: National Geographic Covers the Civil War Centennial and Sesquicentennial, part 1

Here's a link to Civil War Sesquicentennial coverage that National Geographic is offering, with several different articles about this anniversary and related topics. (Please note various pages do include ads for other stories on their website as well as some of the books its society has published. Also, I realize their television channel is offering some programming on the war tonight as well, but my review is limited to the written/published words only.)

Seeing this link reminded me that I own some bound editions of National Geographic from the years of the Civil War centennial; once I saw this link, I decided to try to compare the past coverage of the centennial with the current coverage of the sesquicentennial. In order to keep it at a reasonable length, I have broken this entry up into two parts. (I do fully understand that over 50 years people change as do editorial policies, but I think having information from the same source about both anniversaries provides a good chance to make some basic observations of each era's coverage.)

The April 1961 edition (Vol. 119, No. 4) of this magazine features an overview of the war in an article by Ulysses S. Grant III, chairman of the National Civil War Centennial commission and grandson of Union General U.S. Grant. It includes both wartime illustrations modern photographs of various sites and events.

The article itself is a quick review of the war, touching on topics commonly witnessed in such overviews such as new technologies, the "modern" aspects of the war, the bravery of soldiers on both sides, and the lack of complete unity on both sides (I was surprised to see this article mention that many in the South did not favor secession.) It mentions the Crittenden family as an example of "brother against brother" and also how men of the armies fraternized with each other after a major battle. It does include a section that mentions U.S. Grant's "consideration for the people in territory occupied by his troops" which I have to wonder if any other author would have included.

In the article's last several paragraphs, it moves to a discussion of the centennial and the war's legacy. It uses a phrase much like once seen recently - the Civil War Centennial Commission did not see that time "as an occasion for celebration"  but then adds that it "must give us a new understanding of the way in which Americans built from suffering and sacrifice an enduring Nation" which seems to mean it wishes to focus more on reconciliation after the war rather than the causes of the war itself. Other phrases in the following paragraphs confirm that suspicion, including a mention that the people in the country "have given the world an example not only of how to fight a war, but of how to end a war," which it calls an "inspiring" lesson. The article goes on to claim that "the centennial must be a new study of American patriotism" that would help provide a "deeper appreciation of the bravery, sacrifice, and idealism in the American character." Again, not a word is said about slavery, politics, or any of the causes of the war or the violence it produced (or, really, any negative aspect of the era), but its re-conciliatory, almost jingoistic themes are plentiful.

The final sentence of this article takes this theme to a new level:  "From this added knowledge, from the entire centennial observance, we should and will gain enhanced pride in being Americans." 

Was that really the goal and expectation of the Civil War Centennial Commission? Should it have been? Are we expecting similar results from the sesquicentennial? 

This magazine also includes a brief article of a new map its society had produced and approximately 50 more pages concerning the experiences and drawings of Frank Vizetelly, a British reporter for the Illustrated London News. Topics include events he witnessed and observed, including First Bull Run, his thoughts on the White House (Union) reception on New Year's Day 1862,  Fredericksburg, and other happenings such as Jefferson's Davis' departure from Richmond.  (Here is a link where some of his drawings are available to view)

Please see my next entry for part two of this discussion, where I will mention more about the current reporting and how the two compare or contrast.

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