Ask anyone who belongs to an organization connected with the American Civil War, and one detects an underlying concern regarding the future. So many members seem to be longer in age and experience than the younger generation they hope to attract to their ranks.
This does not mean persons of all ages do not take an interest in the conflict in particular or in history in general. Some embrace these subjects at an early point and continue their historical passions and pursuits throughout their lives. But these numbers appear small when compared to the general population. Furthermore, the increased diversity of the population, with more and more people with no direct ties or links to the turbulent events of the 1860s, is worrisome as well.
The concern persists that with the passing of the Sesquicentennial or 150th anniversary of the Civil War, there may also be the loss of this piece of the American story before another milestone.
Perhaps there is reason to be troubled. Yet with Georgia set to serve in 2013-2014 as the foundation for activities that occurred in the crucial Western Theater of the war, 1863-1864, there are fewer grounds for concern than might be thought on the surface.
Whether they are long-term natives or recent arrivals, Georgian residents will find that the power and poignancy of the collective history we share is hard to resist. No one who has an interest in any aspect of life — from politics and religion to food and communication — will fail to find something in the conflict with which one can be engaged.
Personalities in the story may not trigger the visceral reaction attached to William Tecumseh Sherman, the Union general who vowed to “make Georgia howl” and then did. But even “Cump” Sherman had complications and complexities of personality and experience that are compelling. Thousands of similar individuals existed as well.
Can the Civil War sustain itself for generations?
If we remember that the diversions of youth and the demands of early adulthood regarding families and employment were true for many of us, too, before we came to a closer connection with history, and that the stories include human beings of all races and genders who experienced these difficult times and often sacrificed so much to endure them, then we will recognize the value that remains in examining these events.
Fresh eyes and interpretations promise to reinvigorate interest in the Atlanta Campaign and the March to the Sea. In a way, that will demonstrate the vibrancy and vitality of Civil War history, especially to those who might not notice otherwise or who believe their stories are not caught up in this one.
Your story is there. You have only to find it.
Brian S. Wills is director of the Civil War Center at Kennesaw State University.