Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Arkansas Commemorates the Civil War Centennial: An Exercise in Pragmatism

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Arkansas Commemorates the Civil War Centennial: An Exercise in Pragmatism

Article excerpt

ARKANSAS CAME LATE TO CIVIL WAR CENTENNIAL PLANNING, in part because of its preoccupation with desegregation. The Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in May 1954 led the Little Rock School Board to adopt the Phase Program (Blossom) Plan a year later. The NAACP's filing of the Aaron v. Cooper lawsuit in February 1956, formation of the Capital Citizens' Council and Mothers' League of Central High, the dispatch of National Guardsmen, then the 101st Airborne Division, to Central High School in 1957, and the closing of public high schools in Little Rock the following year crowded out thoughts of commemorating the centennial. While the Arkansas Gazette's Harry Ashmore called for reason and obedience to the law during the crisis, Arkansas Democrat associate editor Sam Dickinson urged no such restraint on Gov. Orval Faubus.1

In parts of the nation not as fixated on race and desegregation, such as New York, Chicago, and the District of Columbia, interest in a Civil War centennial observance had developed by 1956. Leadership of this grassroots movement fell to the Civil War Round Table of the District of Columbia, especially Karl S. Betts, who chaired its committee to establish a national centennial commission. Congress created the twenty-five-member Civil War Centennial Commission (CWCC) in 1957, headed by Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant III (ret.) and with public relations consultant and investment broker Betts as its executive director. They envisioned a "carefully coordinated program involving every part of the nation" and emphasizing national unity. It would deplore the war's great tragedy-lives lost and property damaged-but celebrate how it bound the nation together rather than tore it apart.2

Some envisioned a celebration, an entertainment featuring a mock re-fighting of all battles. Grant believed such activity would prove too expensive and divisive. Instead "a series of dignified observances" should form the commemoration's backbone. What was needed, he argued, was an extensive educational effort to "tell in accurate detail the war's true story," discover and preserve valuable records, mark and preserve significant sites and landmarks, and honor the commitment and valor of men and women, soldiers and civilians, of both sides, while stressing the nation's ultimate unity rather than its momentary division. Such a plan should encourage unified appreciation of the trial through which both sides passed. Initially budgetless, the national commission relied on charm, political connections, and moral suasion to fulfill its charge. It encouraged states to form counterpart commissions, which in turn would organize their observances. Centennial commemoration was decentralized by design as well as by necessity.3

Arkansas also came late to the planning because forming a state group to work with the national commission and coordinate Arkansas commemorations turned, in the words of one involved, into a political football. Lack of communication and states' rights concerns exacerbated by the civil rights movement slowed progress, too. The situation was worsened by the chronic ill-health and hospitalization of Arkansas History Commission (AHC) executive secretary/director Ted R. Worley, which culminated in his resignation and eventual replacement by Dr. John L. Ferguson in 1960.

In the absence of early state action and on the advice of Sen. J. William Fulbright, the CWCC, on September 9, 1958, appointed Sam E. Gearhart of Fayetteville (retired vice-president and general manager of the Northwest Arkansas Times, which Fulbright's family had long controlled) to its advisory council as official Arkansas representative.4 Gearhart convinced a chiropodist and founding Washington County Historical Society member, Dr. Tom C. Feathers, to act as executive secretary for an as-yet-unappointed state commission. Gearhart listed a dozen prospective members for an "Arkansas Advisory Council to the Civil War Centennial Commission": himself, George H. …

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