I had forgotten all the uproar surrounding the Civil War Centennial, but author Paul Shackel brought it back for me in his thoughtful new book, Memory in Black and White.
It was fairly awful from start to finish, beginning with a small scandal, i.e. the Centennial Commission's scheduling an event that black members could not attend (in a white's only hotel).
This caused publicity that led to leadership resignations, including that of Ulysses S. Grant III. History writers Allan Nevins and James Robertson stepped up to run the show, though Grant came back for ceremonial purposes.
Some genius actually had Grant, the grandson of "Unconditional Surrender" shake hands with the great grandson of Robert E. Lee. Whose sense of history informed this little "drama"?
I had also forgotten how large the reenactments were, how many people they attracted, and how controversial they were.
After seeing the first Battle of Bull Run reenacted, Nevins withdrew the Commission's support for any further such events. He called it "trashily theatrical." The Atlanta Constitution referred to "sleazy imitations of Confederate uniforms" and made other complaints, and a Virginia paper pointed out that reenactments were "carnivals" that dishonored the dead.
The National Park Service's director asked the Commission to halt reenactments with the conclusion, "This soldier playing mocks the dead."
The grandstanding in these comments is remarkable. A quiet, comment-free "We do not approve," would have got the job done without insulting or angering large numbers of participants.
But everyone running a Centennial is going to be, by dint of the event, an amateur. And these were the mistakes of amateurs.
More good stuff from Memory in Black and White next week.