While park visits are down, other measures of interest indicate the field is thriving
For the past few years, at symposiums, on battlefield tours, and in conversations with readers, I have heard a similar worried refrain:
“Is interest in the Civil War dying?” It is understandable for people to feel this way. The ranks of reenactors are noticeably thinning, and monument controversies bring distaste to the study of the conflict and encourage fools eager to deface memorials to both North and South. Recent articles from numerous sources have examined these phenomena, and a May 25, 2019, Wall Street Journal article, “Civil War Battlefields Lose Ground as Tourist Draws,” seemed to put a capstone on those fears when it discussed the decline of Civil War interest.
But the reality is more complicated. 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.
So what are we to believe?
To get a better perspective on the matter, I asked members of CWT’s advisory board and others involved in the Civil War community to weigh in on the matter in the following pages. I wanted their frank opinions, with no guidance from me, and that’s what I got. Their answers speak to the complexity of the issue, but also offer good news.
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.
Keith S. Bohannon
Professor of History
University of West Georgia
I am optimistic that public interest in the U.S. Civil War will remain strong in coming years. Visitation at U.S. National Parks that interpret the Civil War is not decreasing and there are still many Civil War Round Tables across the country that attract sizeable numbers of people. Brick and mortar bookstores in Metro Atlanta and other places across the South continue to carry several shelves of recently published books related to the conflict. The same bookstores, as well as many supermarkets in the Atlanta suburbs, carry monthly Civil War magazines. Whenever I go on Amazon, there are always plenty of new Civil War titles recommended to me.
The Civil War continues to be a topic of interest at the regional university where I teach outside of Atlanta. I think most white students approach the subject matter with a degree of objectivity that wasn’t there a few generations ago. The declining number of publicly displayed Confederate battle flags or old Georgia state flags that incorporate the battle flag suggests that in my part of the state the symbols of the Lost Cause don’t command the same loyalty among younger generations of white Georgians that they do with some older people.
James J. Broomall
Director of the George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War
and associate professor of history, Shepherd University
In The Legacy of the Civil War, Robert Penn Warren contended that the Civil War is felt history. Most Americans, he charged, have a storehouse of “lessons” drawn from the conflict. Warren’s words ring as true today as when first published in 1961. Several well-publicized articles recently have claimed that a decline in visitation to historic sites suggests the Civil War’s decreased popularity. Yet the traditional benchmarks used, battlefield visitation and historical reenactments, demand that the matter be viewed in a different light.
Rather than an erosion of interest in the Civil War, the public has driven the conflict into the national spotlight, albeit in diverse ways. Public spaces have engendered fierce debate over the display of Confederate symbols and statues. Enthusiasts are consuming podcasts, live-stream videos, and video games with an unending appetite. And technological advancements have demonstrated the promise of augmented or virtual reality experiences. Audiences are explicitly and implicitly grappling with what the Civil War means both personally and socially. The war remains a topic of scholarly and popular interest because it engenders emotional reactions and provokes debate. We are witnessing a democratization of the past that is without precedent and gives voice to Carl Becker’s 1931 observation that everyone is his or her own historian.
Peter S. Carmichael
Robert C. Fluhrer Professor of Civil War Studies
and director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College
As we all know from our high school days, popularity contests are pointless exercises in vanity. The current angst over the purported decline in Civil War history has needlessly raised red flags, often waved by journalists and bloggers who survive off controversy.
To my knowledge, there is no metric that can gauge, with any degree of precision, the volume of popular interest in the Civil War. All of this talk is woefully fuzzy and needlessly alarmist.
Numbers are down at battlefields, and book sales are not what they once were, but in both “industries”—cultural tourism and publishing—the fields have changed radically in the last 20 years because of forces that have nothing to do with popularity.
Maybe the family trip to the battlefield is a thing of the past. While I lament this trend, one can still experience these sites through a variety of online portals. Think of all of the children who, in the past, may never have visited a historical site exploring battlefields online, looking at primary documents, examining maps, and studying visual and material culture through an array of digital projects.
How one measures the impact of social media conversations about the interest in history is beyond my skills, but anyone predicting the end of Civil War history is likely the kind of person who believes that everything is in a state of perpetual crisis. Rather than worry whether we are losing ground as a field, we should be popping a cork to celebrate a moment when public and academic historians are producing some of the finest programs, books, and magazines about the Civil War.
Liberty Rifles Living History Association
As with all pop culture interests, popularity ebbs and flows. The American Civil War, however, continues to enjoy perennial popularity and interest with memorials, parades, site visitation, books, movies, television shows, reenactments, etc. It is an incorrect assumption to identify an “ebb” as the end times of Civil War interest. Many public historians and scholars might acquiesce that the post-Sesquicentennial years have come with new challenges: Current events and a volatile political climate have added new layers of complexity when discussing the Civil War.
These events, however, have created an unprecedented fertile environment for new ideas and innovation, and have become the catalyst for a burgeoning new era of Civil War interest. New methods of interpretation and outreach like podcasts, and virtual battlefield tours rack up hundreds of thousands of views on social media platforms. New avenues of scholarship are examining concepts that were previously unexplored or overlooked.
Living history, too, is changing. The carnival atmosphere of large-scale national Civil War reenactments is being replaced by intimate interpretive programs on actual battlefields that are well received and attended. One recent example at Gettysburg drew hundreds of visitors, and the subsequent digital media from the event enjoyed well over 100,000 combined views the first week. Civil War interest is not in decline; rather it is expanding and evolving, reaching wider audiences in new ways and continuing to enjoy longstanding popularity and interest from the American public.
Civil War Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh, Pa., might not be the first place you think of enjoying a growing interest in Civil War history. But thousands of young transplants have recently settled into the historically unique neighborhoods of the Steel City.
The recent attention being placed on Confederate monuments and namesakes across the nation has actually helped reawaken a curiosity among many of the city’s residents as they seek to tie the larger story of the Civil War to its impact on Western Pennsylvania.
I established Civil War Pittsburgh in late November 2018 to continue to pique interest in the war and interpret the region’s role in the Civil War through public programming. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram have served as effective tools to tell the stories of local figures and locations. For example, our story on the 1863 fortifications built to protect Pittsburgh was a revelation to many.
In its opening six months, Civil War Pittsburgh reached more than 2,000 followers. The positive response has led us to partnerships and invitations to speak about Pittsburgh in the Civil War, often to younger audiences. And Civil War Pittsburgh’s Facebook Live features have further expanded our outreach as we work with other historians and educators such as Shepherd University’s George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War, Civil War Times magazine, and National Park Service sites.
From my perspective, the rapid growth and success of Civil War Pittsburgh indicates interest in America’s Civil War is alive and well.
William C. Davis
Professor of history, retired
In early June 1897, Mark Twain responded to a report of his death by saying that it was an exaggeration. Similar exaggerations of waning interest in our Civil War are about, citing diminished tourism, fewer reenactors, and closings of retailers of Civil War memorabilia. To blame are an aging audience, lack of interest among younger Americans, controversy over Confederate iconography, and more.
While the particulars may be different, we have heard all this before, first after the 1961-1965 Centennial’s glut of junk, and then in the backlash against all things military following Vietnam. Yet it has always come back. Forecasts of its demise today are just as wide of the mark.
Look at the continuing publishing boom in books, magazines, and other formats, which is if anything stronger than ever. Look at the Civil War Round Tables. Thirty years ago, 50 was a good membership for such groups. Today Hilton Head, S.C., has more than 300, and the Southport, N.C., Round Table has 600 or more members. Myriad newer networks make Civil War documentaries and drama regular staples of their programming, and producers don’t waste money on things that demographics say we won’t watch.
The interest is still there, and probably growing, though the ways in which people manifest interest shift and evolve in step with technology and our times. Despite reports of its frail health, the Civil War is robust and very much alive and well.
Gary W. Gallagher
John L. Nau III Professor of History Emeritus
University of Virginia
The Wall Street Journal’s article about waning interest in the Civil War triggered considerable discussion. In terms of visitation at National Park Service sites, I will observe only that John Hennessy’s treatment of how NPS counting methods have changed over the years might explain much of the apparent drop. It is also important to acknowledge that interest always fluctuates, with various factors bringing surges as in the late 1980s and early 1990s because of 125th anniversary celebrations and Ken Burns’ immensely popular The Civil War. The Wall Street Journal also failed to place Civil War visitation within the context of lower attendance at historical sites of various kinds.
My own experience suggests continuing vitality for the Civil War. In more than 20 years at the University of Virginia, I experienced no fall-off in enrollments, and that despite offering my Civil War class at 8 a.m., a time most students shun. I also have worked with hundreds of teachers during the past 12 years in a week-long summer seminar on the Civil War. Conversations with attendees at the seminar suggest enthusiastic engagement with the subject among high school students across the United States. Finally, historian and author Joan Waugh and I have co-convened Civil War-related conferences at the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., over the past 20 years. Aimed at a popular audience, they consistently have attracted large and enthusiastic crowds. All of this evidence is anecdotal, but it suggests very different groups of Americans continue to be drawn to the Civil War.
Director of Education
& Visitor Experience
Soldiers Memorial Military Museum
Reenacting may be declining, but interest in the Civil War is steadily growing. In the 1960s, reenactments surged in popularity among white Americans, offering families a chance to watch a battle, eat funnel cake, and remember a “simpler time.” Museums peddled in Lost Cause mythology or took a reconciliation approach to the rebellion, marginalizing the role of black Americans. During the Sesquicentennial, historic sites pivoted toward inclusion, highlighting the contributions black Americans made during the war. The 2015 terrorist attack on Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., forced a national debate on how we interpret the rebellion in public spaces. Rather than focusing on troop movements and weapons, many museums and historic sites began interpreting individual stories that bring insight to the diverse perspectives of the era, making the Civil War accessible and relevant to a broader museum audience. Historic sites are offering public programs that feature a diversity of stories. They partner with living history organizations like the Sons and Daughters of Ham and the Hannibal Guards, who interpret the lives of black Americans. TV shows such as Underground and movies including Lincoln (2012), The Birth of a Nation (2016), and the upcoming Harriet are all evidence that public interest in the war is strong. There may be fewer people willing to dress up and play war, but interest in the Civil War is expanding, particularly among communities whose stories have traditionally been marginalized.
Drew A. Gruber
Civil War Trails, Inc.
Civil War Trails and our partners have been busy. When you consult the facts it would appear that the nation’s interest in Civil War sites has grown, not atrophied. The strong numbers rival or beat the incredible numbers seen during the 150th cycle.
CWT and its partners distributed more of our paper guides in 2017 than any single year of the Sesquicentennial. The CWT’s office alone distributed 40,000 maps the first five months of 2018. That’s over 250 per day. Fort Fisher saw a whopping 871,676 visitors in 2017—42,000 more than the year prior. Consider Monocacy NPS’s 92,624 visitors in 2018 compared to 56,187 for its Sesquicentennial anniversary in 2014.
History travelers also appear to be getting younger. Two Virginia Tourism Corporation studies between 2015 and 2018 recorded the percentage of history travelers between the ages of 25-34 increased from 13 to 21 percent. According to a 2017 National Trust survey, 71 percent of millennials reported that they visit historic places while traveling.
In 2005, the average Civil War traveler spent $1,000 during their trip. Two VTC studies recorded the average spent by Civil War or history travelers rose from an average of $689 in 2015 to $1,116 dollars in 2018. Overnight visitation in Virginia is also on the rise from one night on average in 2005, to 2.4 during the Sesquicentennial to 3.5 nights in 2018.
Unique, authentic landscapes cannot be downloaded. They are evocative places that can only be consumed standing there, in their footsteps.
Lincoln Scholar and Jonathan F. Fanton
Director, Roosevelt House Public Policy
Institute Hunter College
It’s no surprise that fewer people—and almost no young ones, unless dragged along by their grandparents—are participating in reenactments or joining Civil War Round Tables. I ascribe the decline to three factors: the perpetuation of discardable myth; the ignorance of the rising generation due to the shameful absence of American history from high school and college curricula; and the overall preference by most millennials for online, rather than in-person, experiences. My fear is that this combination may prove fatal to group learning across the board—a tragedy for the entire culture.
On the other hand, Civil War books still sell well, and TV documentarians continue to explore the conflict. I just signed up to advise a CNN Lincoln documentary. There is no magic wand solution here; the problem is bigger than the Civil War. But if we want to perpetuate interest we must look to broaden both the medium and the message: Use the Internet to corral aficionados into online groups; deploy Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to encourage debate and discussion; and make in-person meetings (as we strive to do at the annual Lincoln Forum) engaging experiences that combine learning with social bonding.
Finally, to increase audiences, widen the net to embrace social, women’s, and African-American history. Above all: enough toying with the long-absurd ideas that the war was about regional pride, federal overreach, or runaway tariffs. It’s slavery, slavery, slavery—and the sooner we free ourselves from the old dogmas, the sooner we will restore interest in the period.
American Battlefield Trust
Those of us at the American Battlefield Trust readily acknowledge the challenge of making history relevant to modern audiences—but it is a challenge we believe today’s historians and preservationists are rising to meet, both ably and admirably.
Recent suggestions that interest in the Civil War—and, with it, visitation to related sites—is waning are simply not reflective of reality.
Take Gettysburg, for instance, where annual visitation to the battlefield has consistently averaged between 1 to 2 million people in and across the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s alike. That’s the entire period for which the National Park Service expresses confidence in its data collection. Tennessee’s Stones River National Battlefield has experienced two of its four all-time top years since 2016.
What’s more, preservation increases visitation. Richmond National Battlefield Park once had fewer than 1,000 acres of preserved battlefield and was often host to fewer than 100,000 annual visitors. Now measuring nearly 4,000 acres, the park’s visitation has doubled.
Today’s travelers crave authentic, genuine, experiences. A recent study found that 78 percent of millennials prefer investing in experiences over material objects.
America’s battlefields are enriching outdoor classrooms that bring history to life for young and old alike, benefiting the communities that surround them in countless ways, economic and otherwise. They are smart investments, worthy of our continued protection and care.
Megan Kate Nelson
I first saw Civil War battlefields from a car window, annoyed by my older brother’s proximity in the back seat of our sedan and complaining about the summer heat. It was not until 20 years later that I visited them again, by myself this time, driving through Virginia on a research trip for Ruin Nation. Most journalists who have discussed the waning popularity of Civil War history (or not) have cited battlefield visitation rates to prove their competing claims.
At Gettysburg, some argue, numbers are down. But at other sites in Georgia and Tennessee, numbers are up. It’s hard to say if these shifts are meaningful, or just blips in a longer-term pattern of general interest. It’s also difficult to track the consumption of Civil War history in other forms, mostly because those forms have diversified and proliferated in the last ten years.
Anyone interested in learning about the war has battlefields, museums, and books at her disposal—but she can also watch documentaries; check out YouTube videos; play video games; or listen to podcasts. To me, the recent debate about the popularity of Civil War history (or not) does not reveal a crisis, but a plethora of new opportunities to reach public audiences. If there is a failure here, it is the failure of historians to embrace these diverse formats. If we do so, we will have more ways to convey exciting research in the field, and enrich Americans’ understanding of their past.*
*annoying brothers not included.
Steve T. Phan
National Park Service
Historian and Ranger,
Civil War Defenses of Washington
A half-decade or more has passed since the 150th, and it appears, according to observers, that there is a noticeable decline in visitation and interest in the conflict. That assessment is hard to dispute if you compare current conditions to the seeming heyday of Civil War enthusiasm in the 1990s, but as with everything, things change. The way visitors interpret and visit historic sites has evolved. It is incumbent on professional historians, many who work directly with the public, to adapt.
I have seen a dramatic uptick in interest at our programs at the Civil War Defenses of Washington. For one reason, Civil War Washington provides a bounty of sites and human-interest stories that are waiting to be discovered and shared, and that are now presented to an eager public. The evolving narrative of the Civil War reflects the diversity of our country, particularly an urban center like Washington, D.C., the very nucleus of the Union. For 40,000 former enslaved African Americans, the city was a beacon of freedom, employment, and eventual citizenship. These layers of dramatic, critically important history lie beneath the cemetery infrastructure of the nation’s capital. By simply peeling back one layer at a time, we have been able to connect the public to a broader, compelling understanding of the conflict—one that still resonates in
Ethan S. Rafuse
Professor, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth
One only has to look at the Round Tables, magazines and journals, and books devoted to it, as well as the popularity of battlefields, to see that the Civil War is a popular subject of study for Americans. Yet, at the same time, it is not difficult to detect a drop in the war’s popularity.
It would be too much to expect the “boom” that followed Ken Burns’ PBS series, the movies Glory and Gettysburg, and James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom to be permanent, as it was the product of a timely convergence of factors. Included among these was Burns’ series, which appeared as the country headed into the prosperous 1990s. Baby boomers had the resources to patronize subjects of a “middlebrow” sensibility and the Civil War fit this nicely—close enough in time and space to feel connection, but far enough away that blood and gore could be marginalized. Of course, like all booms, the forces behind it invariably faded, leaving an oversaturated market. (How many books “rediscovering” Ulysses S. Grant do we really need?)
Moreover, we have seen an unmistakable anti-Southern turn in Civil War scholarship. James McPherson’s works have, in conjunction with the elevation of race, gender, and memory over traditional military history in academia, given us a generation of scholars for whom it is unacceptable NOT to root for the North or wish the war had done more to steer the entire country in a certain direction. For this to not have a negative effect on the war’s popularity (and not just in the South), would be surprising indeed.
National Park Service Ranger
Chickamauga National Military Park
The Civil War has been on our minds a lot the past few years, from the number of controversies over the display of Confederate flags to the ongoing debate over Confederate monuments. I find it ironic that now we have a controversy over the decline of interest in the Civil War. If the last few years are any indication, it is very much the opposite. What we are seeing is a change of how that interest is expressed and what narratives we are now reading.
Interest may no longer be in Civil War battle reenactments that have experienced declining participation from a number of factors for years, or even going on traditional battlefield tours. The number of attendees at National Park Service living history programs, however, remains high, and attendance at new kinds of talks that explore previously untold stories on the battlefields are not only well attended, but drawing in new demographics.
In short, I don’t think we have a decline in interest, but a decline in the old way of telling the story and what chapters we are now interested in. Visitation for Gettysburg’s 156th Anniversary living history programs were high, as well as their special tours, while living history programs around July 4 were high at Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park, so it really is an overreaction to say people no longer have an interest. They are interested in different tales and aspects of our National Epic.
July 12, 2019
We’re writing from one of the most strategically significant battlefields of the American Civil War. Over the last several days, we walked Vicksburg’s park roads in the early morning hours where townspeople and tourists greeted each other, some there for the peaceful landscape while others, like us, marveled at the dramatic ground where Union and Confederate soldiers changed the course of the war. Later on this day, as temperatures rose to match the humidity, we watched visitors crane their necks and ponder the dominating Illinois memorial, study the monument honoring Mississippi’s African-American soldiers, and marvel at the power and innovation embodied in the U.S.S. Cairo. As we listened to tourists’ conversations and chatted with rangers and local historians, it became clear that interest in the war is not declining. If this field is dying, why do debates about monuments and new approaches by old and new museums continue to appear in publications from the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and the Washington Post to the top newspapers in the nation? Why do Civil War classrooms continue to fill despite the declining number of history and humanities majors? Why does the Pulitzer Prize go to a biography of one of the leading figures of the Civil War era? The younger generation may want to debate monuments and memory more than their elders, but they share an interest and deep curiosity about everyday Americans who experienced the conflict. Students today might approach the war differently—they are as interested in studying the unheroic as the heroic; of exploring failures as much as successes—but their curiosity, like that of the public at large, is not declining. It is changing. Disagreements about the causes and legacies of the war do not mean it matters less to people. Indeed, just the opposite is true. We are grappling with the Civil War and its legacy, one could argue, as much as we ever have. And that is healthy.
The dispatch writers in front of Vicksburg’s Illinois memorial, from left to right:
Susannah J. Ural, Professor of History, University of Southern Mississippi; Lesley J. Gordon, Charles G. Summersell Chair of Southern History, University of Alabama; Anne Sarah Rubin, Professor of History, University of Maryland-Baltimore County; Judith Giesberg, Professor of History, Villanova University
Facebook post about battlefield visitation numbers by John Hennessy, author and chief historian at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park
Since The Wall Street Journal published its piece on declining interest in the Civil War, it’s been making the rounds. I have a few things to say. 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.
So let’s look at that—some real numbers, going back to 1995—a time when interest in the Civil War was high in the wake of Glory, Ken Burns, and the Gettysburg movie. The surest and most consistent way to count visitors for comparative purposes is to count those who come in the doors of various visitor facilities. If you come into the space, we count you. It’s almost a religion in most NPS areas. No algorithms involved. Just a person with a clicker. Not perfect, but consistent and timeless.
Here are the numbers for various parks, counting visitors into their visitor centers and other contact stations (at FRSP we count visitors at two visitor centers and three historic structures).
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
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.