The Long Recall


I discovered The Long Recall blog over at the American Interest site a couple of months ago, but only now am I getting around to posting on it.  The folks there have decided to do a real-time, day-by-day blog of the Civil War, on its ongoing 150th Anniversary.  It’s a brilliant idea, and so far, they’re pulling off what must be a great deal of unpaid work quite beautifully.

The effort seems to be led by Walter Russell Mead, and I’ll quote from his intro to the blog, but it’s worth reading the whole thing:

We will use a modern form to present the daily news: our Civil War aggregator that combines a short daily summary of the news along with links to articles that a well-informed Civil War-era reader would have wanted to read.  Our goal is to allow readers today to get a feel for what it was like to experience the conflict in real time, to hear the many voices trying to make sense of the conflict, and to sift through sometimes confused and misleading news accounts to try to discern what was actually taking place.

The Long Recall will do its best to help 2010 readers understand the economic dimension of the conflict.  At times this will involve us in something more active than simply linking to Civil War era news sources; we will provide commentary that helps the readers of today understand what yesterday’s news meant to intelligent readers of the day.

In The Long Recall, we will carry foreign news as it became available to American readers, not the day it actually happened.  At times of crisis, as during the Trent Affair late in 1861, this uncertainty about foreign events was a major factor in American politics and policy.  Because the US economy and financial markets were so dependent on London at this time, the uncertainty about foreign developments was also an important factor in the economic news….

Finally, a word on language and ‘political correctness.’  The United States has always been and remains a prudish society with strict limits about the kind of language that is allowed — and about the subjects that may be discussed.  In the Civil War era, Americans were very strict about sexual matters — but when it came to race, they were extremely permissive.   …words that could never be used today in polite discourse were routinely used in those days to describe different racial groups.  Worse, racial humor and stereotypes were deeply embedded in the culture.  Politicians and political writers frequently resorted to anecdotes and humor that would justifiably end careers today to score points with public audiences.

At The Long Recall, we have made the decision to link to Civil War era material without censoring or toning down racial language, images and ideas that modern readers (including, we must say, ourselves) find offensive.  The use of such language and the prevalence of such ideas is too central to American life and culture at the time — and too vitally involved with attitudes toward the Civil War — to be edited away or softened down.

While I was born after April 1965, when the Centennial ended, I do remember this Peanuts cartoon from a book I had as a kid:

Cultural Literacy, Circa 1961

For some reason, the Sesquicentennial hasn’t attracted the same amount of publicity as the Centennial apparently did, when even kids reading comic strips could be expected to know about it, and possibly even recognize some of the songs.  It’s probably a combination of a decline in cultural literacy, and a harrowing sensitivity about race.  Or maybe the Civil War was just unlucky enough to have its 150th Anniversary start in a year when the Founders were hogging all the attention.

One has to admire the audacity of the authors to undertake such an effort, and the courage of their approach.