Book Review: Contested Commemoration: The 1876 Centennial, Independence Day, and the Reconstruction-era South


by Jack Noe

Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2021. Pp. viii, 232. Notes, biblio., index. $45.00. ISBN: 0807175587

A Contentious Centennial

From the planning for the 1876 Centennial Fair in Philadelphia to the actual event, southerners viewed the commemoration of the one hundredth anniversary of American independence as a northern Republican event of little interest to the average southern white. Each state could send two representatives to serve on the planning committee, but white southerners rejected the appointment of Republicans and even moderate Democrats to represent them. The appointment of Congressman John Roy Lynch, African American and Republican, as one of Louisiana’s commissioners, would misrepresent the state, suggesting the nefarious desires of those who supported the southern states supporting the national commemoration and exhibition. If the southern states decided to participate, only white Democrats who redeemed their states from the evil of Republican and black rule could accurately reflect southerners. Many southern politicians and newspaper editors denounced the commemoration as northern avarice and trickery. Only two southern states, Arkansas, and Mississippi, agreed to create state exhibitions at the fair. A faction of Democrats, “New Departure” Democrats shared the reservations about the commemoration but argued southern participation in the Philadelphia exhibition would bring economic benefits to their states. Southern states generally refused to donate funds to support the Centennial because of antipathy to Republicans and widely expressed anger at Republican rule in the South during Reconstruction and the extension of rights to African Americans. Southern whites portrayed themselves as an abused population making a mockery of the values of the American Revolution that northerners intended to celebrate in 1876. African Americans viewed the commemoration as an opportunity to reinforce their identity as Americans and their place in American society as equal citizens.

For African Americans, their hopes failed to turn into reality at the exhibition. Efforts to create a sculpture of AME founder Richard Allen got sidelined and the bust of Allen spent a century in storage at Wilberforce College. Members of the Centennial organization showed little interest in the active joining of African American women with other women’s groups at the Exhibition. African Americans were banned from employment as guards or service on the Centennial police and were hired only as barbers and waiters. There was truly little African American presence at the Centennial except for the work Death of Cleopatra by African American sculptor Edmonia Lewis. Members of the Centennial Committee showed no interest in promoting the accomplishments of African Americans or treating them as equal citizens. Although the Exhibition was held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for African Americans it felt like Philadelphia, Mississippi.

The second-class status of African Americans at the Centennial did not placate southerners. A repudiation of Reconstruction would have endeared southerners, and the failure to include a commemoration of the valiant Lost Cause of the Confederacy alienated southern public opinion. From a southern perspective, the inclusion of a large painting Battle of Gettysburg, a second painting Emancipation, and a bronze The Abolition of Slavery insulted the sentiments of any real southerner and showed a lack of sensitivity by the organizers of the Centennial. Southern visitors and newspaper editors denounced the Exhibition for sectionalism and as an expression of Radical Republicanism. Any commemoration of the end of slavery or emphasis on the negative aspects of slavery outraged southerners. The Battle of Gettysburg appeared intended to honor the brave Union soldiers and discredit the valiant efforts of the courageous men of the Confederacy. Organizers of the Centennial hoped for national unity, but it reinforced the southern identification with the Lost Cause and a separate regional identity.

In the period after the Civil War during Reconstruction most southerners refused to honor Independence Day. Few communities celebrated the holiday. Southerners did not identify with American nationalism that Independence Day symbolized. People in the South, although defeated, remained loyal to the memory of the Confederate States and to the Confederate war dead. The South was in America but not part of the United States. Southerners saw Independence Day as a commemoration of northern tyranny and Republican efforts to humiliate and torture the South. As southern Democrats redeemed southern states and ousted Republican governments, communities in 1875 and 1876 became more amenable to bring back celebrations and parades on the Fourth of July. In 1876, some tied sectional issues to the celebrations, used them as an opportunity to raise funds for monuments for the Confederate war dead, and flew the Confederate Battle Flag beside the Stars and Stripes. At many of the celebrations in 1876 southerners emphasized the time had come to redeem the national government from Republicanism by electing Democrat Samuel Tilden of New York to the presidency. The Solid South would back the Democrats and redemption from misguided and torturous Republicans. In the South in 1875 and 1876 the resumption of Fourth of July events expressed a sectional and partisan perspective.

Jack Noe has written an engaging and compelling account of the use of commemorative activity for sectional and partisan purposes. Southerners viewed the Centennial not as a celebration of national unity, but as a reinforcement of the South’s grievances from the Civil War and Reconstruction. It became an opportunity to stress the unique southern identity and the southern view of the Civil War and Reconstruction later adopted by the Dunning School of historiography and the popular presentations in The Birth of A Nation and Gone With The Wind.


Our Reviewer: Henry Strum is professor of history and political science at Russell Sage College and 2021-22 Sherman David Spector Faculty Fellow in Humanities




Note: Contested Commemoration, a volume in the LSU series “Conflicting Worlds: New Dimensions of the American Civil War”, is also available in several e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium and

Reviewer: Harvey Strum   

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