Is Civil War History Losing Ground?

This was a question Dana Shoaf, publisher of Civil War Times, consulting editor of America’s Civil War, and involved with other history-themed magazines, posed in this article to some well-known historians. He writes, “Yes, some aspects of Civil War culture appear to be on the wane, but others are thriving. I’ve experienced that surge of interest both factually and anecdotally. Sales of Civil War Times were up from 2017 to 2018 and I had trouble finding a parking spot at the Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center on a cold Wednesday afternoon in March.  In conversations with the owners of relic shops, I’ve learned that sales have been brisk and are increasing, book sales remain strong, and conferences keep selling out. This past August, seminars held by two organizations, Emerging Civil War and the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation, sold out on the same Saturday in Virginia. The American Civil War Museum, newly imagined and interpreted, celebrated its grand opening in Richmond in May. The number of visitors has exceeded the museum’s expectations.”

The conclusion he gets from his interactions with the historians is positive. “The general consensus is that the study of the Civil War is changing, but its future is bright. It’s moving beyond old interpretations of the war and diversifying to tell the stories of people–slaves, black troops, and civilians, for example–that have been formerly overlooked or marginalized, while developing new approaches to the traditional studies of battles and soldier life and motivation. At the same time, technology is fueling innovative methods of consuming Civil War history that do not show up in visitor counts to battlefields. People are still eager to learn about the conflict. Civil War interest isn’t losing ground. We are finding new ways to explore it.”

From the article: “While reenacting ranks may no longer be as full as they were at this 2013 event, it’s also true that using reenacting as the only measure of interest in the Civil War is a flawed construct. (Getty Images)”

One of the reasons for this article was the now-infamous Wall Street Journal article claiming interest in the Civil War was waning. Ranger John Hennessy of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park has a response included in the article. He writes, “Of course the nature and extent of interest in history and the Civil War has changed. There’s no denying that. It’s been changing, upward, downward, and in swirls, since my first day at Manassas in June 1981. The WSJ chose 1970 as their baseline for comparison. I’m not sure why, or even from whence their statistics come. I do know this: however it was that the NPS counted visitors in 1970 is different than it is today. The NPS had no systematic way of counting visitors prior to the mid-1980s, and even today, various parks count visitors in different ways. And even those methods, with their (to me) mysterious algorithms, change fairly frequently. By way of example, at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP, in 2010, the statistics gurus changed the algorithm for counting “recreation visits” to the park, and our numbers rose from 460,000 to more than 900,000. I can assure you that our visitation did not nearly double—just our way of counting it did. I don’t know if the old figure or the new figure is more accurate (I suspect the latter), but it all points out the danger of using government statistics. The WSJ article claims that visitation at Gettysburg today is 14% of what it was in 1970. I suspect most of that change is in fact a reflection of how visitors have been counted. But I think the gist of the WSJ article is to suggest a more recent dive in interest.”

He gives us some numbers from 1995 to 2008:

Park Trend 1995-2018

Gettysburg                                     1,147,305     1,130,595      FLAT

Antietam                                         158,330        227,808         UP

Fredericksburg-Spotsylvania       136,258        165,828        UP

Appomattox                                    106,140        66,413           DOWN

Chickamauga-Chattanooga        162,344        92,299           DOWN

He concludes from these numbers, “I don’t have numbers from 1995 for Manassas, but I can assure you that the 131,831 coming into their buildings last year was a great deal more than the numbers that arrived in the 1990s. The visitation at all these parks has eroded in the last few years, but the drop is well within the normal fluctuations we have seen since the NPS started publishing park-level stats in 1992. And the 25-year trend is, generally, about flat, with a bump upward in the late 90s. This is not to say that visitation isn’t changing and won’t change more. It is. And we who work at these sites feel it. But I thought it might be helpful to put some hard data out there so you can draw your own conclusions. One personal observation: While the level of interest in the war will continue to evolve, and perhaps trend downward, there is no question in my mind that we have far more people USING the parks today than we have ever had. I suspect that’s true at Gettysburg, too.”

5 comments

  1. The sad fact is that the sesquicentennial celebrations had negligible effect on Civil War history. This was a departure from the 100 and 125 observances.

    1. I don’t think that can be sustained. The sesquicentennial led to a huge amount of letters previously unknown to scholars and therefore unpublished being brought in, copied, and archived. Visitation at Civil War sites was up during those years. We don’t know about book sales because publishers are notoriously close-mouthed about sales figures, but anecdotally it seemed to me there was a huge increase in publishing books.

  2. Everything in our history is losing ground. More and more our school systems, including colleges, are reducing the amount of history they teach – and what they teach are their own opinions of it rather than facts. It’s up to people like yourself to help get the data out there.

    1. As someone who is in the classroom, I can tell you the facts are being taught, not opinions. Unfortunately, history and social studies are being squeezed by the increased emphasis on STEM and what parents perceive as job-related subjects, not realizing that history and social studies impart some terrific job-related skills.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: