Analyzing Visitor Attendance to Civil War Sites During the Sesquicentennial

Visitor use statistics for Fort Sumter National Monument.
Visitor use statistics for Fort Sumter National Monument.

In yesterday’s post I raised questions about a Wall Street Journal article that deemed the United States Civil War Sesquicentennial a failure because of declining Civil War memorabilia sales and participation rates in Civil War battle reenactments (another article in The Week argues that the number of active Civil War reenactors has declined by 50% since 2000). While decreasing interest in these activities may be lamentable to some, I suggested that we should proceed with caution before deeming the entire commemoration a failure. Rather, we should consider the ways people are engaging with and learning about the war through their experiences in history classrooms and at a free-choice informal learning settings like Civil War battlefields and museums. Measuring the extent to which people demonstrate changes in knowledge through their learning experiences at Civil War sites can tell us more about the influence of the Sesquicentennial than the purchase of a teddy bear with a Union or Confederate kepi.

A reader left a comment on that post that seems to agree with my perspective but nevertheless asks, “have Civil War sites and museums seen an uptick in visitation during the anniversary?” This question is a fair one to ask, so I decided to take a look at visitor use statistics at several Civil War sites run by the National Park Service (NPS). While there are literally thousands of Civil War-related cultural institutions throughout the United States, I am choosing to focus on a few select NPS sites largely because their visitor use statistics are readily available online. Furthermore, the five battlefields I am choosing to analyze–Antietam, Chickamauga/Chattanooga, Gettysburg, Shiloh, and Vicksburg–are central locations for Sesquicentennial events and activities (they were also the first five battlefields to be placed under federal control in the 1890s through the Department of War). I’m also looking at Fort Sumter because the NPS is using the Sesquicentennial to further discuss the causes of the Civil War. This site is where the war started, making it an ideal place to discuss pertinent issues of citizenship, democracy, race, and slavery.

So what do the numbers say?

  • The Antietam National Battlefield’s peak visitation year was 1986, when more than 700,000 visitors came to the battlefield. In the 1990s, however, attendance took a sharp decline, plummeting to around 181,000 in 1993. In 2008 (the year of the Great Recession) attendance was 352,548. In 2012 (the 150th anniversary of the battle), attendance rose to 510,921, a 45% increase from 2008. Attendance declined to 370,832 in 2013, but that is still a 5.2% increase in attendance from 2008.
  • Chickamauga/Chatanooga National Military Park’s peak visitation year was 1970, when more than 1.7 million visitors came to the battlefield. Interestingly enough, a sharp decline to 674,400 followed in 1971, which is the lowest annual attendance to the site since 1960. Following years of steady growth after 1971 and several years surpassing the one million mark, attendance took another decline in 2001 to 749,913. In 2011 (the first year of the Sesquicentennial), attendance surpassed the one million mark (1,036,699) for the first time since 1998. From 2001 to 2011 annual attendance increased 38.2%.
  • Cameron McWhirter’s Wall Street Journal articles points out that visitation to Gettysburg National Military Park in 2013 (1,213,349) has declined sharply from its peak visitation year in 1970, when nearly 7 million came to the park. These numbers are accurate, but McWhirter conveniently leaves out the fact that in 1979 attendance declined to 994,035, the only year since 1960 in which Gettysburg failed to attract at least one million visitors. So it seems to me that we should be asking what happened from 1970 to 1979 for visitor attendance to take such a sharp decline in the 1970s rather than comparing attendance between 1970 and 2013. Compared to 1979, visitor attendance today is actually up 22%. The Great Recession of 2008 hurt visitor attendance to Gettysburg and the site has not returned to its pre-recession attendance levels (which hit 1.8 million in 2002), but visitor attendance is still up 16.5% from 2009.
  • Shiloh National Military Park’s peak visitation year was 1961, when 927,400 visitors came to the site. Visitor attendance fell to 317,046 in 2010, but in 2012 (the 150th anniversary of the battle of Shiloh), attendance rose to 587,620, a stunning 85% increase in attendance over two years. Attendance remained high in 2013 with 536,206 visitors.
  • Vicksburg National Military Park’s peak visitation year was 1984, when 1,112,881 visitors came to the battlefield. From 1991 to 2004 annual visitation hovered around the 800,000 to one million mark, but since 2004 the park has seen a steady decline in attendance. During the 2008 recession attendance declined to 555,109, and attendance numbers during the Sesquicentennial continue to hover around that number with the exception of a 41.6% jump in attendance to 796,035 in 2011, the first year of the Sesquicentennial.
  • Fort Sumter National Monument’s peak visitation year was 2002, when 922,776 visitors came to the site. In fact, the twenty-first century has been a boon for Fort Sumter. Attendance from 2000 to 2001 rose 188% from around 319,000 visitors to 919,000 visitors, and annual attendance to Fort Sumter continues to hover around 850,000 during the Civil War Sesquicentennial.

These statistics clearly show that when it comes to some of the more prominent National Park Service Civil War battlefields (and Fort Sumter), there has been a significant uptick in visitation during the Sesquicentennial. Of course, these numbers don’t tell us much about visitor learning experiences at these sites. Nevertheless, I think these numbers do much to challenge any claims of “public apathy” or an “anemic” Sesquicentennial since 2011.


11 thoughts on “Analyzing Visitor Attendance to Civil War Sites During the Sesquicentennial

  1. I would also be curious if other historical sites have been doing with attendance. My sense is that in today’s information overload, unlimited opportunities to get entertainment content via Netflix, etc., and with shorter attention spans in general, historical sites might be suffering to remain relevant overall.

    Just a hunch…it really doesn’t matter because the impact of the Civil War exists whether people today take notice of the 150th anniversary or not.

    1. Hi Bill,

      Thanks for the comment.

      Like you, I’m also curious to check out visitor statistics for other historical societies during the Sesquicentennial. I’m not going to make any claims one way or the other without looking at some numbers and seeing what sorts of activities and programs those institutions are undertaking. Some sites are probably suffering, but there are others that are doing fine. The Missouri Civil War Museum in my native hometown of St. Louis opened around the opening of the Sesquicentennial and regularly hosts thousands of visitors every month. The owner told me in December 2013 that he’s actually on the verge of turning a profit from the museum.

      I think both the advent of digital technology and the huge popularity of recent Civil-War related movies provide wonderful opportunities for new audiences to learn about and discuss the history of the American Civil War. Local historical institutions could host viewing parties/discussions of these movies, build digital websites/resources for sharing primary source documents, and utilize social media platforms/blogs to share history-related articles and promote events at their sites (among other ideas). Museums and related cultural institutions of all types are struggling to redefine themselves and maintain relevancy amid all of these technological changes. I personally am optimistic about the future relevancy of public history sites in the United States.

      “it really doesn’t matter because the impact of the Civil War exists whether people today take notice of the 150th anniversary or not.”

      You are correct in asserting that the history of the war remains with us whether or not we choose to acknowledge it. But as a historian, teacher, and engaged citizen of the United States, I believe learning about the war and its influence on this nation’s history and our society today can better help us deal with the legacy of this war and address the questions it raised in its aftermath. And I’m dedicated to teaching as many people about that story. We all choose the ingorances we’re willing to live with, and I tend to think there are consequences for ignoring history. Just talk to Senator Jim DeMint.

  2. Fort Sumter added a new unit in 2001 leading to the sharp increase in annual visitation. The park has experienced counting growth of those numbers every year of the 150th

    1. Hi Brent,

      Thanks for the additional bit of context for explaining growth at Fort Sumter. It’s great to see such high visitation numbers at the site.

  3. Reblogged this on Student of the American Civil War and commented:
    Nick Sacco does a great job with a preliminary analysis that debunks the idea that the Sesquicentennial is a huge bust. Perhaps the Wall Street Journal and other outlets ought to consider that people today aren’t interested in expensive toy soldiers, playing soldier, or the product of theft from the historical landscape and instead are interested in actually learning about the Civil War. I think that’s a big win.

  4. There were several civil war reenactments here in Virginia during the month of May. Many, many people came! The children loved talking to the reenactors about the American Civil War. So much easier to learn when it is presented LIVE , and not just studied from words in a book.

    1. Hi Mary,

      Thanks for the comment! I am glad to hear that attendance levels were good at your site in Virginia and I hope all the students who attended had good learning experiences. If definitely helps students when they have the chance to experience history in an informal learning setting outside the classroom.

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