Monthly Archives: February 2015

My Last Sesquicentennial Hurrah

Deon Megan Ian
three history students participate in a scene drawn from letters between soldiers and their wives

Last night, we presented Civil War Songs and Stories: Commemorating Emancipation, a concert I organized and designed with a friend and colleague in the UNCP Music Department, Dr. Jose Rivera. This was a big production for a school our size — Jose’s choir, the University Chorale, with about 50 members, plus a student brass quintet, a guest band, a slideshow of period photographs and images, and twelve speakers drawn primarily from History Department students and faculty (although we brought in one ringer from Theatre). I’m guessing we had about 250 people in the audience.

four of my colleagues imagine what a presidential debate might have looked like in 1860
four of my colleagues imagine what a presidential debate might have looked like in 1860

I did enjoy watching my colleagues yell at each other. Even better, our students really stepped up and did a tremendous job. All the speakers inhabited their characters quite well — and most managed to do their lines from memory. The vocal soloists were fantastic. They sang difficult repertoire (Kurt Weill’s setting of O Captain! My Captain!, Harry Burleigh’s Steal Away, Jon Kander’s A Letter from Sullivan Ballou) with both precision and emotion. The choir was wonderful as well. And everyone was pleasant to work with — even if I probably drove them nuts at some point in the proceedings.

General Butler (my good friend, Dr. Ryan Anderson) contemplates his contraband policy
General Butler (my good friend, Dr. Ryan Anderson) contemplates his contraband policy

We closed the concert with a big chorus from Kirke Mechem’s opera John Brown, featuring a baritone soloist as Frederick Douglass, with text compiled from his speeches in England in 1846. It may seem strange to end with an antebellum text, but it culminates in the choir quoting the Declaration of Independence:

Douglas: “What do we ask of America? We only ask that it complete its own Revolution! That revolution which declared to all the world — We hold these truths, to be self evident …” And then everyone repeats the early lines from the Declaration, concentrating heavily on “all men are created equal.”

I thought it was a nice counterpoint to the segment from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural we had just used. In both the Second Inaugural and the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln spoke of unfinished business, and subsequent generations of commemorative speeches at Gettysburg have taken their cue from Lincoln as well, defining that “unfinished business” as the persistent problem of inequality in American society. Different speakers have highlighted different types of inequality, but the theme has remained consistent, and I thought it was a good one to highlight at the end of our program.

This concert was UNCP’s last sesquicentennial event. I started the Civil War series in the fall of 2010, and I certainly plan to continue it, but I don’t plan on doing anything this large or complex for quite some time. But it was a great evening, and I can’t wait to see the video.

Jose conducting as the male singers make their entrance to The Battle Cry of Freedom
Jose conducting as the male singers make their entrance to The Battle Cry of Freedom

Fort Fisher & the “Anemic” Sesquicentennial

I spent Saturday, January 16, at the Fort Fisher State Historic Site, attending some of the 150th Anniversary Commemoration events. According to the NC Guard and the MPs who handled parking and crowd control at the state park and nearby Air Force recreation area, approximately 15,000 people attended over the course of two days. I know that number is easily dwarfed by the nearly 250,000 who showed up to some portion of the Gettysburg commemorations, but that battle is just a wee bit more famous. And I do think there is a difference between National and State historic sites when it comes to advertising, resources, and the likely reach of its popularity. Besides, the two parks are vastly different in size — 7,000 people or so per day on the remaining grounds of the Fort Fisher site felt pretty crowded, and was complicated enough from a logistical standpoint. There’s really only one road in and out.

2015-01-17 11.13.16

After giving my little talk, I watched the formal “opening ceremony” at the Battle Acre. VIPs were seated in front of the monument, with the rest of us milling around behind. Participants for the battle re-enactment to take place later that day lined up in formation at the back of the grounds. The governor spoke — full of praise for the military, but saying little, if anything, about the Civil War, its legacy, or what happened at Fort Fisher — and then Ed Bearss delivered the keynote address. Most of his speech was predictable and forgettable, from my perspective, although delivered with admirable energy. But toward the end of his address, he ventured to compare the day’s events and crowds with the 100th anniversary of the second battle of Fort Fisher.

2015-01-17 11.18.04

According to Bearss, the sesquicentennial far exceeded the centennial. Certainly, we are well aware that celebrations flamed out after the Gettysburg Centennial, for a number of reasons, and Sesquicentennial organizations have proclaimed their intentions all along to finish stronger than their commemorative predecessors. So I’m not surprised to learn that the Fort Fisher commemorations were more robust this time around. Bearss proposed a potentially controversial reason, though: he said that the Sesquicentennial outlasted the Centennial because it was directed by the states rather than a national commission, and thus better reflected the hearts and will of the people.

Last spring, public historians and bloggers (see Kevin Levin, Craig Swain, etc.) vigorously denied Gary Gallagher’s assertion that the sesquicentennial had been “anemic” compared to the centennial. Gallagher specifically cited the lack of a national commission as one of the factors limiting sesquicentennial events — but Bearss’s opposing view is intriguing. I’ve been very impressed with the North Carolina sesquicentennial commission’s events and programs, especially their ability to bring together groups that reflect the current state of North Carolina. The sesquicentennial events I’ve attended have generally reflected greater racial diversity than we often see at Civil War commemorations, although that diversity wasn’t particularly on display at Fort Fisher. But the turnout for the program, and the range of activities available for the participants, demonstrated substantial continuing interest in sesquicentennial commemorations among the population and leaders of North Carolina, for which I’m grateful.

2015-01-17 09.32.41