Monday, April 11, 2011

Then and Now: National Geographic Covers the Civil War Centennial and Sesquicentennial, part 2

Please see part one of my coverage of this subject

For convenience's sake, here is the link to the National Geographic coverage of the sesquicentennial.

While the coverage of the centennial featured a review of the war and how the centennial commission wanted it to be viewed, the reporting on the current commemoration features more about the sesquicentennial itself than on the war; even this focus stays on the basics (how/whats/whys) of this commemoration and not how the readers should interpret it . It does include a couple articles and images about the war, but it also has multiple stories about various issues involved in the remembrance of the war, making for a nice selection of old and new issues.

The article by Mark Collins Jenkins, Civil War at 150: Expect Subdued Salutes, Raising Voices strikes me as representative of the basic themes of the magazine's current coverage (though it repeats the "commemorate, not celebrate" theme that apparently is a staple of Civil War anniversaries. Maybe that - the fear of "celebrating" the war - is a topic for future thought and blogging.) 

I also like how it includes several stories rather than just one or two that try to tell the whole story. This provides a broader picture of the issues involved in the anniversary and how it is being marked. These stories include a list of the top 10 Civil War sites to visit, discussion of battlefield preservation, a link to an "inside" look at a re-enactment and more. (Of course, in 1961 magazine space was much more limited than modern website space, but it is good that the current editors are taking advantage of that additional space.)

The main difference between this coverage and the 1961 reporting lies in what appears to be the focus of each era. The 1961 article by U.S Grant III featured a high-level review of the war, with a few specific incidents or battles mentioned, followed by discussion of reconciliation and reunion at then end of the war.That main article basically directs its readers in how/what to feel about the war and does not make any mention of the causes of the war or anything that could have offended supporters of either the Union or Confederacy. A modern article like this may be accused of "political correctness" in its attempt to avoid controversial topics altogether. (Even the article on Vizetelly mostly featured well-known events, battles and personalities; it did not discuss the actual centennial.)

The current coverage, as mentioned above, provides a broader view of the issues surrounding the sesquicentennial, including issues of resources budgeted for this event (or lack thereof) and does not push any certain agenda on its readers.The centennial's apparent obsession with making everybody feel happy about the Civil War (while paying little attention to anything negative about it) is the biggest difference between the coverage in the two eras. Perhaps responsibility for that falls more on the Centennial Commission than on National Geographic but the magazines editors at the time did choose to publish the article as written.

I am certainly no expert on Civil War historiography, but maybe this exercise will help me gain a new perspective on that subject. It was fascinating to see the earlier coverage show the Centennial Commission's focused more on patriotism, pride and general good feelings about the war's end and the reunited nation rather than increased knowledge or understanding of the issues that led to the war and the destruction it caused.The sesquicentennial coverage strikes me as being more balanced, reporting on issues but not leading its readers to a preordained opinion.I do wish the current coverage included more discussion on issues from the war (such as causes, or how the war affected people on the home-front, or any of many other possibilities) but the variety of articles on the magazine's site is a good start to studying the sesquicentennial.

I also have other editions of National Geographic from 1963 and 1965 that include articles about the war. I will try to review them in the near future and see how those descriptions compare to what appeared in 1961 and we see here in the first year of the sesquicentennial.


  1. Hi Richard,

    As a kid my family were given a bunch of NG magazines, amongst which were several with ACW articles. In my mind my memory has turned them into a series. But years of searching for such a series has never resulted in any discoveries.

    Although I'm not certain, I believed that there was more than one such issue, and that it/they might've dated from the 1960s. I'm obsessed with finding these back-issues, and have just (literally five minutes ago) ordered a copy of the April 1965 issue, containing a feature on Appomattox.

    You mention in your post that you have 'several' NG issues with ACW stuff. Can you tell me which these are please? At present I'm only aware of:

    Vol. 124, No. 1 (July, 1963) - Gettysburg & Vicksburg
    Vol. 127, No. 4 (April, 1965) - How to End a War: Grant & Lee at Appomattox

    Many thanks, Sebastian

  2. May 1865, vol 127, no. 5 includes a part of a series on US Presidents, from Lincoln through McKinkey. It's not a pure Civil War issue, but that's obviously a topic impossible to avoid for that stretch of the Presidency

    April 1961, v. 119, #4. has several articles and illustrations including a lead story written by US Grant III. If you want more info on the stories (they are almost like one large story with several parts) , let me know

    I thought there were more but don't see them tonight. I will check again tomorrow and update this if I find others.


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