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Commemorating the U.S. Civil War D.C.-Style

March 29, 2013

In D.C., we make our own rules.

On April 12, 2011, D.C. began commemorating the sesquicentennial (150-year anniversary) of the Civil War. On that date in 1861, the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter. My inside-the-Beltway senses tell me this commemoration will last 4 years, 3 weeks and 6 days – the same amount of time as the war. The Internet estimates that 15,000 books have been written about Abraham Lincoln. A person would have to read ten Abraham Lincoln books a day for the length of the Civil War just to cover them all.

Obviously, that’s crazy. But it’s fair to say that inside the Beltway, we’ll have at least three Civil War commemorations going on at any given time for the next two years. Just this week, I was tempted to view the John Hay copy of the Gettysburg Address at the Library of Congress, to attend a National Museum of American History discussion of the book Envisioning Emancipation, and to sign up for a four-day National Portrait Gallery course “The Civil War in Lincoln’s Washington.” For Civil War buffs like me, the sesquicentennial is a great opportunity to learn, meet other Civil War nerds, and make my friends crazy with all my Civil War talk. For instance, it seems not everyone knows Lincoln stood under a canopy during his first Inauguration, but at his second – No Canopy!

My sesquicentennial commemoration this week included seeing Tazewell Thompson’s excellent play Mary T. and Lizzy K. at Arena Stage. The play tells the story of the relationship between First Lady Mary Lincoln and seamstress Elizabeth Keckly, a former slave who freed herself. The Internets won’t estimate how many books have been written about Mary Lincoln, but until the recent commemoration events, Elizabeth Keckly received only scant attention. Her story is a fascinating one. It’s fair to say that author Jennifer Fleischner was one of the first to tell Elizabeth Keckly’s story to the modern world. Fleischner’s book Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly is well-researched, well-written, and touching. Fleischner was kind enough to write a blog for the Potomac Review about her efforts to rescue characters from history. The overall story of the Civil War is fascinating, but I especially admire the abilities of researchers who can discover something new and interesting in a topic about which hundreds of thousands of books have already been written.

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