Indeed, 56 percent of Americans, according to a new poll by the Pew Research Center, believe the Civil War remains relevant. That's partly because of its overarching themes, but also because it remains a deeply personal conflict for many Americans: One out of 17 Americans – or about 18 million – can claim a direct line to someone who fought in the war. "It really wasn't that long ago," says Michael Hill, president of the League of the South, a Southern nationalist group in Killen, Ala.
"The dislocations of the Civil War wrought so profoundly upon the entire national character that the influence cannot be measured short of two or three generations," Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner wrote in 1873, nearly a decade after the end of the war. It's now been five generations – Robert E. Lee V is today a high school football coach – and the events still wrench the American zeitgeist.
While the 50th anniversary was marked by surviving veterans from both sides embracing at Gettysburg, and the 100th anniversary celebrated the war's military significance, the 150th commemoration has a more somber, political focus.
"The 150th is very different, as is what people are discussing, which are not just military issues, but political and social issues as well," says William Blair, director of the Richards Civil War Era Center at Pennsylvania State University in University Park. "There's a sense today that war is not romantic. And you see emancipation, slavery, and African-American issues running hand in glove" with more traditional elements in state commemorations.