Today, as many of you already know, marks the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the American Civil War. On this date in 1861, P. G. T. Beauregard opened fire on the Federal battery at Fort Sumter, initiating a conflict that would last four long years and claim over six-hundred-thousand lives.
But why should we care? Why should we commemorate a struggle whose relevance to the modern world is tenuous at best? Haven't the issues of the Civil War finally been laid to rest? After all, slavery is dead, capitalism is king, the nation is one, and for a few brief moments in November 2008, the naïve among us might have even imagined that we'd put the war's racial legacy behind us. What, then, is the purpose of all this commemoration?
Some might say that we owe it to the dead: that their sacrifices on behalf of the nation require our attention. That may be true. But in our present world of competing demands - where much-needed government funds are being diverted away from public services (including state universities) - arguments on behalf of the dead look a lot less convincing than they might in more prosperous times. Even for historians, the living take precedence over the departed.
Still others might argue that I've got it all wrong - that we have not, in fact, put the war, or the issues over which it was fought, to their final rest: that African Americans continue to occupy an unforgivably marginal position in the narrative of the war; that the promise of Reconstruction has yet to be fulfilled; and that a host of unrepentant Lost Causers continues to mar the national landscape. But while all of this is true, none of it alters the fact that, in important respects, a corner has been turned. Historians of African-American life in slavery and freedom remain in high demand at colleges and universities across the country, the post-Civil Rights generation is making its presence felt on the national political scene, and the ranks of unreconstructed neo-Confederates are thinning every year. The many problems that remain, meanwhile, are now so profoundly entangled with the subsequent history of the United States, that to lay them at the doorstep of the Civil War would be like blaming the signers of the Magna Carta for the Dred Scott decision.
The fact of the matter is this: in one sense, at least, the Civil War is dead. It is no longer a living presence in our everyday lives. It is nearly as old as Dickens's doornail, and every bit as deceased. This doesn't mean that the war is hopelessly irrelevant, however. It just means that it possesses no innate relevance - that the mere memory of Fort Sumter's bombardment, for example, imparts no special insight into the state of the modern world. To make the most of this anniversary, therefore, we'll have to take a very different approach to the Civil War than what I've thus far seen proposed - a more subtle and elusive strategy than commemoration, proclamation, and instruction. We'll have to do away with simplistic formulations that make the war the crucible of modern America. We'll have to avoid framing the Civil War as the pivotal event in American history. And most importantly, we'll have to refrain from making the sesquicentennial a moment of patronizing didacticism.
Instead, it should be a conversation: not about a discrete set of events or a particular collection of conclusions, but about the business of history itself - about how, with great effort and difficulty, we can extract and organize the debris of the past into something that speaks to the present and the future. It should be a moment to convince the public that history is not a closed book, but an open toolkit - a place that challenges our assumptions about what is fixed, and begs us to rethink what is possible - where new answers to pressing issues are waiting to be found, and old ones are ready to be unmade.
So here's to what I hope will be a complex, and complicated four years of commemoration: an extended and challenging conversation that leaves us with a fuller appreciation for the difficult choices and vexing compromises that men and women faced in the past. It's a difficult task, to be sure: to introduce an element of contingency into a process of remembrance; to de-center an event at the very heart of the commemorations; and to teach without providing simple answers. But demanding as it may prove, the process of commemoration - and the chance to get it right - presents a matchless opportunity to make a definitive case for history: for ourselves, for the public, and for the future.