Analyzing Visitor Attendance to Civil War Sites During the Sesquicentennial

Nick Sacco does a great job with a preliminary analysis that debunks the idea that the Sesquicentennial is a huge bust. Perhaps the Wall Street Journal and other outlets ought to consider that people today aren’t interested in expensive toy soldiers, playing soldier, or the product of theft from the historical landscape and instead are interested in actually learning about the Civil War. I think that’s a big win.

Exploring the Past

Visitor use statistics for Fort Sumter National Monument. Visitor use statistics for Fort Sumter National Monument.

In yesterday’s post I raised questions about a Wall Street Journal article that deemed the United States Civil War Sesquicentennial a failure because of declining Civil War memorabilia sales and participation rates in Civil War battle reenactments (another article in The Week argues that the number of active Civil War reenactors has declined by 50% since 2000). While decreasing interest in these activities may be lamentable to some, I suggested that we should proceed with caution before deeming the entire commemoration a failure. Rather, we should consider the ways people are engaging with and learning about the war through their experiences in history classrooms and at a free-choice informal learning settings like Civil War battlefields and museums. Measuring the extent to which people demonstrate changes in knowledge through their learning experiences at Civil War sites can tell us more about the influence…

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  1. Bob Nelson · · Reply

    Good piece, thanks Al. Can anyone account for Vicksburg having a banner year in 1984? Or Fort Sumter in 2002? Those years did not coincide with any major Civil War events or celebrations. Interesting too, that for all the hoopla about the centennial, only one of the sites set an attendance record during the centennial — Shiloh in 1961. To blame the sesquicentennial for failing to jumpstart an industry — and like it or not Civil War history is an industry — is simply ridiculous.

    Given that the population of the U.S. grew 34% between 1984 (the year Vicksburg set its peak attendance) and 2014, it would be reasonable to suspect that battlefield visits during those thirty years would have remained stable or even grown. But there’s much more to this than simply stating (as I often do) that it’s because we don’t teach Civil War history in public schools. Here’s an interesting corollary. During the same thirty years, museum attendance, movie attendance, musical/concert attendance, state and national park attendance, magazine subscriptions, newspaper subscriptions and more have all taken a huge hit. Let’s face it, we’re a different country demographically than we were thirty years ago.

    I’m not a CW reenactor but I have a number of friends and former students who are and they tell me their membership has declined dramatically — about 40% in a Zeeland, MI infantry unit. Some of it, they say, has to do with start-up costs for equipment but they also tell me there just seem to be fewer and fewer people who want to do it. Last summer Beth and I went to the reenactment in Battle Creek. I don’t have numbers to prove this — I’m sure they’re out there — but there were a lot fewer participants than I remember from about 12 years ago. Attendance at our Round Table has steadily declined in recent years. Participation on blogs and CW discussion groups has also slumped.

    The economy has a lot to do with numbers of battlefield visitors. I have a lot of younger middle class friends who rarely travel or go on vacation because they simply can’t afford it. There are only so many dollars for travel and vacations. “Staycations” seem to be more and more common. And if money is tight and they ask their kids whether they want to go to Disney World or do some Civil War battlefields, which do you think will win? This is a very complex issue that I for one would like to learn more about.

    1. Economics is one factor. Sociology is another factor. Who has the time to invest? Usually it’s folks who are retired and don’t have to go to work or have kids in school. The bar graph by itself is good information, but a timeline of events, including events in popular culture and events held at each battlefield as well as economic events such as recessions, needs to appear along with it. There is a lot of analysis still to be done.

  2. Jimmy Dick · · Reply

    Part of it has to do with the shrinking middle class. They were the ones that did the reenacting. As that group shrinks [modern politics] there are fewer people that can afford to get into that fairly expensive hobby. Toss in the stitchcounters who tend to alienate those who can’t pony up the money to be perfectly accurate and you have a declining hobby.

    1. And the old guys dropping out for various reasons, younger folks with multiple demands on their times, and the novelty wearing off for some.

    2. Bob Nelson · · Reply

      “Stitchcounters.” Good one. Have never heard the term but have met quite a few.

  3. Pat Young · · Reply

    Always great stuff here Al. One question: did you find that there was a drop in page views for your blog during the Sesquicentennial compared with the Centennial?

    1. Pat Young · · Reply

      The Civil War Community Inc. loves to preserve the past, not just the battlefields of 1864 but also the metrics of 1964.

      1. Pat Young · · Reply

        I understand that railroad arrivals at Gettysburg were down substantially in 1963 v. at the 50th, evidence of slipping interest even then.

        1. Well, when there weren’t any Civil War veterans to see the interest began to wane, I suppose.

      2. Who’s the CEO of TCWC, Inc.?

    2. Actually, Pat, since I was four years old when the Centennial began, my blog posts weren’t nearly as comprehensive, so I would have to say the page views are higher now, but then again I think the content is better now. 😉

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