Learning about the sesquicentennial

I’ve been seeing the word sesquicentennial more and more lately. There have been articles about the Civil War memorial statue that was recently erected in front of the Muscatine Courthouse (to replace the old one that was taken down last year), and about the Civil War exhibit that just opened at the Muscatine Art Center. Clearly, the sesquicentennial had something to do with the Civil War, but until yesterday I had been puzzling over the word’s meaning.

“Sesqui” is not exactly a common prefix in the English language. As a matter of fact, sesquipedalian is the only other word I could find that I recognized that starts with the same six letters. As it means “given to using long words” or (when referring to a single word) “having many syllables,” that didn’t help much. Would a sesquicentennial mean an anniversary celebrating many hundreds of years? That couldn’t be the case, in reference to the Civil War.

“Ses” looks like it might means six. (A sestet refers to the last six lines of a sonnet.) Did “sesqui” perhaps mean sixty? But while I wasn’t sure quite what year the Civil War started, I was sure it wasn’t a hundred sixty years ago. A hundred fifty seemed more reasonable – and the “qui” could mean five (as in quintuplet) – but what did the “ses” mean?

I finally looked it up yesterday, and learned that “sesqui” means one and a half. According to entry at dictionary.com, it comes from “semis” (a half) plus “-que” (and). So a half and one, or one and a half, times “cent” (100) is one hundred fifty. Wouldn’t it be nice if they could come up with easier to remember and understand names for anniversaries?

Of course, there’s a lot more for me to learn about than the origin of the word sesquicentennial. Of the various eras of American history, the latter half of the nineteenth century is probably the period I know the least about. Of the major wars we have fought, the Civil War is probably the one I know least about (WWI would be a close second). It wasn’t covered much in history classes in school, and I’ve never been particularly inclined to learn more about it on my own.

I started asking myself, yesterday, why that was. Did our history teachers find it easier to teach about wars against other countries, where there was no question which was “our” side and there were fewer uncomfortable questions about why we fought? Was it because curriculum planners failed to take into account how much time it took to get through certain periods of American history, and the beginning got covered multiple times but the messy middle tended to get rushed or skipped over?

I didn’t find learning about WWII all that interesting either, when we studied it in high school, and had to learn the geography of Western Europe. But as an adult, I discovered a taste for historical fiction set in Europe, and while I particularly enjoy novels set in the British Isles during the Middle Ages, I have also enjoyed quite a number of books set in WWII Europe.

There are spy thrillers by Ken Follett, Alan Furst, Jack Higgins, and others. There are novels telling the stories (some true, some fictional) of Jews and other minorities persecuted by the Nazis, and of those who risked their lives to help. I even read one surprisingly interesting book detailing the history of the Krupp family, and their role in arming the Germans during the world wars.

While I enjoy learning about history that way, it’s hardly a reliable way of learning the facts, since I can only guess which parts of a novel are fictional and which are based on historical fact, and I don’t know just how carefully the author researched the subject. (Even the non-fiction The Arms of Krupp is full of errors, according to this review from TIME Magazine.

Like many people these days, I learn a lot from the internet, but it is an even less reliable resource. In this article from the New York Times, a professional historian discusses the problem of young people learning history from the internet – or even from textbooks written by people who do not do careful research. I have considered several times reading Shelby Foote’s Civil War trilogy, which from what I have heard is both well-written and accurate history. But I would first have to be much more interested in the subject, plus have time to read about 3000 pages.

Another way to learn about the Civil War is through reenactments. While I have read very few novels set in the Civil War (the only ones that come to mind are Gone with the Wind and The Red Badge of Courage), I have read others that feature characters who are Civil War reenactors. It’s not something that ever appealed to me to try, and I’ve wondered just what motivates the many people who do it.

I met a few reenactors Monday evening at the local Art Center. (This article in our local paper tells more about them.) As I had my son with me, I didn’t try to engage them in conversation about why they enjoy doing this. Instead, we learned about boy soldiers such as John Clem, who was promoted to sergeant at age 12. Al got to hold some of the guns, though he got nervous when one of the reenactors showed how to load one of them (I assured him that no gunpowder had been used, so no one was going to get shot by mistake).

Inside the Art Center is a display of a soldier from our town, reading letters he wrote home to his family. The letters themselves (or very convincing copies), as well as typed transcriptions of them, are available to read, but for many people it is more engaging to watch the actor dressed as Daniel Parvin read his own letters home. My son was interested in what technology makes the soldier appear to be actually sitting on a tree stump in the realistic-looking encampment (it’s not a hologram but many people will mistake it for one). Some time I’ll go back on my own to actually read the letters.

There are a variety of other Civil War-related events and activities available in town this week. And I imagine there will be more over the course of the year, and perhaps for the next four years. I suppose it’s a good time to finally try to learn more about this crucial period of our nation’s history.

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