The 100 year anniversary of the Civil War was 1961 – 1965. Its kickoff coincided with the dedication of the Mosby Woods neighborhood in 1961. Adopting a civil war theme was part of the marketing strategy for the development, which sought to capitalize on increased interest in the centennial in particular, and the civil war in general.
Civil War Centennial Commemoration
Smithsonian Magazine addressed this time period in their article from 2011 (published at the 150 year anniversary of the Civil War.) “By 1961, interest in the [Civil War] was growing. In the previous decade, the emergence of Civil War Round Tables had created a cadre of eager history buffs and enthusiasts; tourism at battlefields was up and popular histories on the war by writers such as Bruce Catton had become best sellers. According to historian Robert J. Cook—whose 2007 book Troubled Commemoration looks at the 1961-1965 centennial—an opportunity was seen to create what he calls an “ambitious Cold War pageant” overseen by a federal commission.”1
Cook further explains in his article “The Civil War Centennial 1961-1965”:
The centennial had been planned in the late 1950s as a way of preventing ordinary TV-obsessed, hamburger-munching Americans from going soft in the battle against the godless Soviet Union and its communist allies. Several high-profile heritage projects in the era were designed to highlight America’s commitment to liberty and freedom. The Freedom Train, a traveling collection of the republic’s canonical documents and the Colonial Williamsburg project in Virginia were prime examples of how public and private elites tried to craft carefully constructed historical memories to build support for the anti-communist crusade in the midst of the Cold War. The approach of the Civil War centennial offered national policymakers another chance to forge a usable past in order to promote contemporary goals.2
However, at the time of the centennial observance, Jim Crow laws were coming under increasing attack, and the Civil Rights movement colored any look back at the Civil War era.
The centennial brought new energy to the Lost Cause effort. The “Lost Cause” was a narrative that arose soon after the conclusion of the Civil War. The Lost Cause story “seeks to present the war, from the perspective of Confederates, in the best possible terms,” according to Encyclopedia Virginia, a resource provided in partnership with the Library of Virginia:
Developed by white Southerners, many of them former Confederate generals, in a postwar climate of economic, racial, and social uncertainty, the Lost Cause created and romanticized the ‘Old South’ and the Confederate war effort, often distorting history in the process. For this reason, many historians have labeled the Lost Cause a myth or a legend. It is certainly an important example of public memory, one in which nostalgia for the Confederate past is accompanied by a collective forgetting of the horrors of slavery. Providing a sense of relief to white Southerners who feared being dishonored by defeat, the Lost Cause was largely accepted in the years following the war by white Americans who found it to be a useful tool in reconciling North and South. The Lost Cause has lost much of its academic support but continues to be an important part of how the Civil War is commemorated in the South and remembered in American popular culture.3
According to the Atlantic’s article “Not Your Grandfather’s Civil War Commemoration,” also published on the 150 anniversary of the war, in the early 1960’s:
…as much as white Americans wanted to celebrate and remember their preferred interpretation of the war, the continued problem of race and the ongoing Civil Rights struggle served as a reminder that not all was well. Indeed, the images of Lee and Jackson were even then being challenged on a daily basis by the names of Martin L. King, Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers, Emmett Till, and news of school desegregation, lunch counter sit-ins and Freedom Riders. Writers emphasized the centrality of racial issues as a cause of secession. Robert Penn Warren wrote in The Legacy of the Civil War, a history published during the centennial, ‘Slavery looms up mountainously’ in the Civil War narrative ‘and cannot be talked away.’ And the Richmond Afro-American noted that “the Union might not have been saved but for the sacrifices made by colored soldiers.”4
The Civil War Centennial Commission
The Civil War Centennial Commission was formed in 1957 as a federal agency under the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior. Leadership included Major General Ulysses S. Grant, III, (grandson to the former General and President) and his “deputy Karl Sawtelle Betts, a public relations expert and former high-school friend of the president.” They:
…conceived the centennial as a compelling national pageant that would genuinely excite Americans, young and old, while simultaneously educating them about the courageous and patriotic deeds of their forebears. To opponents who sensed in the wake of mob violence at Little Rock that the centennial might be undone by rising African-American protest against segregation, Karl Betts responded tellingly that black slaves had been loyal to the proslavery Confederacy. ‘A lot of fine Negro people,’ he told a journalist from The Nation, ‘loved life as it was in the old South.’2
The commemoration kickoff in Charleston, SC, led to a highly publicized issue highlighting that city’s segregation when when a female Black delegate from New Jersey’s state centennial agency was unable to stay at the designated event hotel. The federal commission was criticized for not intervening to overcome the issue caused by South Carolina’s segregation. Subsequent events took place throughout the South in which Confederate enthusiasts organized around a clearly segregationist theme. “Celebrating the historic moment when the southern states seceded from the Union made perfect sense to the embattled segregationists who dominated the region’s state centennial agencies.”1
By the summer of 1961 a decision was made to sift leadership from Grant and Betts to historians Allan Nevins and James I. (‘Bud’) Robertson. They “worked effectively to take the heat out of the whole exercise, prioritizing public education, historic preservation, and academic scholarship over what they regarded as empty (and potentially damaging) spectacle and making some moves to accommodate valid African American concerns over the whole event.
…The centennial had been planned in the late 1950s as a way of preventing ordinary TV-obsessed, hamburger-munching Americans from going soft in the battle against the godless Soviet Union and its communist allies. Several high-profile heritage projects in the era were designed to highlight America’s commitment to liberty and freedom. The Freedom Train, a traveling collection of the republic’s canonical documents and the Colonial Williamsburg project in Virginia were prime examples of how public and private elites tried to craft carefully constructed historical memories to build support for the anti-communist crusade in the midst of the Cold War. The approach of the Civil War centennial offered national policymakers another chance to forge a usable past in order to promote contemporary goals.2
Local Centennial Era Commemoration
The Fairfax County History Commission Confederate Names Committee addressed the 100-year anniversary of the Civil War in their December 2020 Fairfax County Confederate Names Inventory Report. The report, commissioned in June 2020, aimed to catalogue all County place name references to the Confederacy; while the primary focus of the survey was on County-owned locations, Confederate naming in the City of Fairfax was included for informational purposes and the Mosby Woods neighborhood is mentioned.
The report states:
The Lost Cause element of “remembering” reemerged during the 1960s, when Fairfax County experienced a variety of circumstances as the Civil War Centennial was enthusiastically commemorated nationwide. There were battle re-enactments, publications, installation of monuments, and, in the South, certainly including Fairfax County, the naming of places to honor the memory of the Confederacy. With the county experiencing significant residential growth, opportunities to apply Confederate names of individuals or events to streets, subdivisions, and public spaces were plentiful. The emerging Civil Rights Movement challenged neighborhood segregation; some name assignments were reflective of conflicting social agendas. Finally, the history of Fairfax as a crossroads of war was also remembered through place naming. In some instances, new neighborhoods were being established in areas that had been sites of military action. Names referencing those actions and the troops involved, both Confederate and Union, found their way onto county maps. This practice continued, as did development, into the following decades. While the Lost Cause is no longer a specific motivation behind the practice of Confederate naming, the county’s history as a crossroads of war continues to be reflected in various references to the Civil War events and participants.5
Close of the Centennial Era
According to Cook, in the later years of the centennial observance, Americans were distracted by a growing war in Vietnam. Additionally,
African-American efforts to use the centennial for their own benefit began to make genuine headway. Martin Luther King failed in his 1962 attempt to prod President Kennedy into issuing a new version of the Emancipation Proclamation, but his contention—rendered memorably in his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech at the March on Washington in August 1963—that the Civil War was unfinished business now resonated with white moderates and progressives alike.2
Cook identifies some positives in the centennial observance:
…By the time the centennial drew to a close in the spring of 1965 most Americans had forgotten about it. Yet despite its faltering progress it did leave a positive legacy. The event saw the publication of two particularly thoughtful books, Robert Penn Warren’s The Legacy of the Civil War (1961), and Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore (1962). The much-derided commercialism, moreover, generated real popular interest in the Civil War. American children in particular were excited by the war’s raised media profile, the sudden appearance of war-related souvenirs, historian Bruce Catton’s highly accessible books and articles on the conflict, and family visits to the battlefields. Many adults today recall the centennial fondly. According to William Piston, a prominent military historian, the commemoration was ‘such a wonderful experience. Every newspaper and magazine was flooded with pictures. We traded bubble-gum cards. Every restaurant’s placemat had a Civil War theme and every packet of Dixie Crystal sugar on the table told a Civil War story on the back.’ In most respects Karl Betts’s bloated and racially blinkered pageant was an object lesson in how not to conjure the past. In its capacity to capture the imagination of young people, however, it may have had the edge over the low-key sesquicentennial of 2011–2015.2
The centennial ended with what Cook called “a suitably dull ceremony held under lowering skies at Appomattox Court House in April 1965,” and little media attention was given to the 100th anniversary re-enactment of the surrender that marked the Civil War’s end.2
Read More of:
- The Smithsonian Magazine’s article from 2011, the 150 year anniversary of the Civil War: “How We’ve Commemorated the Civil War: Take a look back at how Americans have remembered the civil war during significant anniversaries of the past”
- Cook’s “The Civil War Centennial 1961-1965” available as part of the “Essential Civil War Curriculum” from the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies at Virginia Tech
- The Atlantic’s 2011 article, “Not Your Grandfather’s Civil War Commemoration”
- Encyclopedia Virginia’s entry describing the Lost Cause of the Civil War
- Fairfax County History Commission Confederate Names Committee’s Fairfax County Confederate Names Inventory Report