The Civil War Centennial in the Archives

I have been researching, writing, and planning an exhibit on the Civil War Centennial to be displayed outside the Special Collections Research Center in the Nancy Marshall Gallery. Given that the years 1961 through 1965 were of great historical importance in their own right, one can forget that they also represented the one-hundredth anniversary of the greatest conflict of American history. The relationship between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement may be obvious—indeed, Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Lyndon Johnson alike invoked the ancient promise of emancipation in their efforts to promote civil rights in the 1960s. What I gained from researching the Civil War Centennial is an understanding of the ways in which historical memory of the Civil War was used as much to fight ideological battles and even continue racial discrimination as it was to make good on the American promise of equality.

Most of the non-archival sources on the Civil War Centennial come in the form of government reports. The federal government created the Civil War Centennial Commission in 1957, and that commission left behind public documents including a 1968 report to Congress. In addition to this federal body were 46 state commissions of which Virginia’s was one of the best-funded and most active, leaving behind extensive documentation of its efforts in conjunction with 136 local Centennial committees in the state. While these government reports were very helpful in my research, I was fortunate also to find the work of several historians on the Civil War Centennial. Robert J. Cook’s Troubled Commemoration (2007) is the only book dedicated entirely to the subject, and his lucid study is partly the result of research he undertook in Swem Special Collections. Troubled Commemoration led me to the papers of the late Virginia governor, congressman, William & Mary alum and die-hard segregationist William Munford Tuck. As representative of Virginia’s fifth district, Tuck proposed the legislation that created a federal Civil War Centennial Commission. As vice chairman of that commission, he found himself on the losing side of a battle with the New Jersey centennial commission and Kennedy administration over segregation.

Tuck’s papers are not the only documents relating to the Civil War Centennial in Special Collections. To be sure, I found many vivid and sometimes entertaining pieces in the scrapbooks of the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s Williamsburg chapter as well as the papers of William & Mary President Davis Young Paschall. However, Tuck’s correspondences as vice chairman of the centennial commission provide a uniquely rich record of the commission’s rocky history—at least until Tuck’s resignation in July, 1961. The letters he received between 1957 and 1961, and his usually professional but nonetheless revealing responses, read like an epistolary novel about a man with firm convictions, many friends and supporters who nonetheless finds himself on the wrong side of history. Some of the letters to Tuck are thoughtful and friendly, some self-serving, some concerned, some angry and even violent. From these letters and the newspaper articles, correspondences from others in the government (including JFK!), and assorted ephemera that constitute Tuck’s Civil War Centennial Commission papers, one gets a remarkably intimate view of a time of great importance for racial equality in America. Only archival research can make history feel so human.

To view some of the most fascinating Civil War Centennial documents I found in the Tuck papers and elsewhere in Special Collections, check out the exhibit in the Marshall Gallery!


David Pratt is a graduate student in the American Studies Program and a 2012-2013 Archives Apprentice in the Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library.