What’s up with Civil War Roundtables?

From John Hennessy:

I have done some speaking on the Civil War Round Table circuit lately. The public reaction to all these things has gotten me thinking, and I offer up a few observations.

A couple years ago I made a short circuit through the Deep South, speaking at two Civil War Round Tables. They treated me exceedingly well, and I enjoyed myself. But (you knew that was coming) the experience made an impression on me for other reasons.  Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, conferences and invitations to speak at Civil War Roundtables were rampant. I think one year, before Return to Bull Run came out, I received something like 180 invitations to speak at various places.  And wherever I or one of the others who commonly rode the cannonball circuit went, the audiences were large and sometimes (though not always) enthusiastic . (At one appearance I made before the Northern New Jersey CWRT, 31 of 33 people in the room fell asleep during my talk, a record I surely can never approach again. I still give thanks to the two priests in the front row who managed to stay conscious throughout.)naturalist-sullivan-leads-natl-capital-parks-tour-1951

My latest foray into the deep south took me to two large Southern cities, both with long and deep traditions at it relates to Civil War Round Tables. At one, we had 31 people in the room when I spoke. At the other, 38.  Sixty-nine people from metropolitain areas with combined populations approaching 3,000,000.  Average age;  probably well over 60.  One kid, and few young people. Last month I spoke at another CWRT in a LARGE city. Twenty-five people.

We have long been aware of the flagging interest in CWRTs, but I confess this was a bit of a splash to me (I was told the audience for my talks were typical). Friends and colleagues confirm similar experiences across the country. While some CWRT’s continue to thrive, Clearly, the Civil War Round Table as we have known it–once the foundation for interest in and advocacy for Civil War history–is stumbling, suffering from lack of interest.  Is it because interest in the Civil War is flagging across the board?  At some sites (including ours hereabouts) attendance has dropped 30-40% since 1995 or so, though in recent years the numbers have stabilized, and indeed the last couple have risen.  Or is the Civil War Round Table format just not the medium people use to engage their interest in the war?  Or, as some have suggested to me, has the move to broaden interpretation of the Civil War–to address more than the traditional military story–turned off the traditionalists, the very people who are often most engaged with CWRTs?

These are questions honestly asked.


25 thoughts on “What’s up with Civil War Roundtables?

  1. We are just starting a CWRT here in Central CA, and at the first meeting, we will be asking these same questions. I hate to predict, but I am thinking you are on to something with your last question. The traditionalists want the mud & blood. I call them guidon chasers–they want to now the provenance of every guidon in the whole war. I am pretty old, but I am certainly not wedded to the traditional CW focus. I am much more interested in the sorts of other views that widen and, in my opinion, deepen our understanding of the war. Yet it is difficult to convince others that a 500-page study of Lincoln’s relationship with his “war governors” that barely mentions a battle is worthwhile. What to do? I have no idea. Just keeping my fingers crossed!!

    • Yes, a Civil War Round Table has the potential to get stagnant and be populated by graying older men. So, how does one get more members of all types and keep them coming? Well, in our area of the South we try thinking outside of the box. Our most popular meetings have involved actors and actresses. One of the actors from a Civil War movie brought in a sizable crowd. An actress covering another Civil War subject garnered more than 350 attendees. While we still have the standard Civil War battle or personality meetings, sprinkled in are music concerts and art shows in partnership with local art museum all with a Civil War theme. You also have to cover sensitive subjects like religion, slavery and death. Having a forensic anthropologist bring in heads reanimated from the skulls of Civil War soldiers blew the roof off the place. Every single person in attendance will politely let the speaker talk and ask questions afterward withouit being offensive. There are still people out there willing to learn. Offer a diverse selection of meeting subjects and prepare for the interested parties to come in of all nationalities, races, religions, political affiliations and gender. Good luck!

  2. Our experience is that in our area of NC, at least, interest in the Civil War is seen as being racist among the “enlightened.” History is not as important as image. Mainstream media definitely plays it up this way.

  3. John, your observations parallel mine. I have seen civil war roundtables become almost exclusively the preserve of old white men. It is rare to see a person of color, or a young person. As an old white man myself, I wish that we could find a way to interest people from diverse backgrounds in civil war history, If you come up with a way, please let me know.

    • Hello Gordon. Don’t you think we live increasingly in an age where people who are interested in the Civil War are presumed by those who are not to have some sort of secret, nefarious affinity? I expect that will get worse before it gets better.

      But I am constantly on the prowl for the magic bullet that will engage younger people…. I wonder rhough if its just a fact of the world that history comes to people later in life. Since I started in this business, the audiences have changed little in their demographics, and have always been mostly old white guys like us….though I will say many more women are engaged now than before….

  4. I’ve been a living historian since the ’90s, and I’m also a school teacher. I also had the privilege of working at a National Park that partners with a local Civil War battlefield two summers ago. After the shooting in SC, in the South, anyone who is involved in living history related to the Civil War is perceived as a supporter of the Confederate flag and hate. End of story. Last month, I went to Gettysburg to participate in Remembrance Day and see if it’s just happening in the South. My answer is yes. The actual answer is so complicated that I could write a treatise, but basically it isn’t politically correct to show interest in the Civil War, especially anything Southern. It’s discouraging, but hang in there–I’ve always loved the more obscure aspects of history. I just never expected the CW to fall into that category.

  5. Gordon and John-I was comparatively lucky but I’ve heard, from other women, horror stories about the welcome they received from Civil War roundtables if they tried to become active, especially if their interest was in military history and not in home front/fashion (the pink collar section of Civil War history). I do think that social media has made a huge difference in enabling women to become involved and get past the gatekeepers (lest I be too harsh on the Civil War roundtables, I’ve heard the same reports of misogyny coming from younger women in the gaming community about their male contemporaries in the field).

  6. Not all are doom and gloom. Bull Run CWRT has 220 members ( all time high in 25 years) and average 100 a meeting evey month. Of course Nova is unique BUT I say it’s a lot to do with RT leadership. You have to work for every member. Can’t expect people to just show up anymore.

  7. Civil War Round Tables have never really interested me. I belonged to one once and it just seemed the format was always the same thing: go to meeting, listen to someone give a talk, go home. And of course, the speaker would be talking about, Gettysburg, for example, when at that moment I was more interested in say, the Seven Days Battles. So I soon became a “do it yourself” historian. I do my own reading, my own research, and my own interpretation. I never hire battlefield guides and I rarely attend ranger-led battlefield tours. I prefer to learn and explore on my own. I know others who are the same way. I think this trend away from RTs is much like the rise of alternative sports back in the 80s. Kids who wanted to be athletic turned to individual achievment sports instead of joining a school team; i.e., aggressive inline skating in the streets instead of the regimentation of high school football where you’re forced into conformity while being yelled at by a coach.

    • I’m a pretty solitary type myself in how I like learning, but I do think that you’re missing out on a lot. I’ve learned a lot from others too, including John Hennessy (John-Remember the symposium on Leadership at Second Manassas when, in addition to your own talk, you also had to lecture on Longstreet when Jeff Wert had to cancel at the last minute? I was there.) Humans, who have spent a lifetime reading and researching, are, to me, the ultimate interactive resource.

      • You did a great job. The symposium was great, overall, too. I was truly impressed. The day also began my friendship with Dan Paterson, who, as you know, is a great-grandson of James Longstreet. I was wearing my t-shirt from the second Longstreet Memorial Fund symposium which I’d just attended and Dan was working the registration desk wearing the same t-shirt so we started talking.

  8. At the same time, I think we can see how “on the field” programs, such as “History at Sunset”, and successful walk/talks like Harry Smeltzer’s first Bull Run event, and the Dr. Bontecou photography tour, have drawn fairly large attendance, with rather diverse audiences. The rubber chicken, sit-down format has lost much of its appeal, and the “boy’s club” mentality of some old school CWR Tables is indeed antiquated, and unnecessary.

  9. In some ways I liked the CWRT I belonged to more than a decade ago. Meetings got decent attendance of 30 or so people out of 100 members in a suburban setting. There was a strong social aspect, coffee and cake at meetings and a picnic and Christmas Party. I put out the CWRT’s newsletter.

    I came to see the Roundtable as offputting to blacks and Latinos in the community. A Confederate Battle Flag was displayed at every meeting. I quit when news of some attempt to remove the CBF from some Southern govermental institution was met with cries at a meeting that “they” (blacks) were trying to take “our” (white) heritage away. This was at a CWRT on Long Island in New York! I am not sure that any of the regulars at the meetings even claimed any Confederate ancestors or Southern roots. None would have described themselves as racists.

    I have only been to a few CWRTs in the New York area. Most have been almost all-white in membership. Although none would exclude non-whites, and seemed puzzled that blacks did not join a group that focused on “the war that ended slavery,” the folks at these CWRTs seemed genuinely out of touch with people of color living in their own communities:

    First, they did not see the fact that everyone was white at these meetings as one problem in recruiting non-whites. I asked one person, “What if you went to a meeting and everyone was black?” While he said that he would assume that the meeting was not for him, it did not seem to dawn on him that a black person having the same experience would find the situation off-putting.

    Second, none of the people I spoke with seemed to understand that even an appeal to recruit more African Americans was pretty incomplete in broadening the base. I brought up outreach to Latinos and Asian-Americans and this seemed to be completely unthought of. One person said that since very few folks from these groups served in the war, there were not a lot of dscendants of Civil War soldiers from these groups. I pointed out that some Civil War enthusiasts I knew were Jews and Italians whose familes arrived in America decades after the war.

    Third, when I think back to the behavior of white CWRT members to the few blacks who attended meetings, the word microagression comes to mind. How many ways can you point out to someone that he is black? I saw at least a dozen.

    Fourth, most CWRTs divorce discussions of the Civil War from important events that grew out of the war like the passage of the 14th Amendment that have a vital relevance to people of color. When I talk about the Civil War to Latino or Asian groups I begin by saying “People like you were not U.S. citizens before the war even if you were born here. You were citizens after the passage of the 14th Amendment.” Too many CWRTs seem to think that the war only “Preserved the Union” and “Ended Slavery”. They forget that it also established birthright citizenship for anyone born here. Because so many native-born white heteronormative Americans devalue, misunderstand, or outright oppose the 14th Amendment, this tool for recruitment of people of color and immigrants is set aside by CWRTs.

    Fifth, leaders of CWRTs need to stop talking about inviting “minorities to join.” I don’t know many people of color who refer to themselves as “minorities.”

    As for whether interest in the history of the Civil War Era is dying, I would say that it is eminently rescuable. I have gone to a couple of events organized by a local African American group called Che Edutainment that highlights blacks in the military from 1776 to 1865 here in New York. It is a small group of young and middle-aged men and women and their events draw very diverse crowds. I was honored to be asked to speak about immigrants in the Civil War at one event and had 200 people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds listen attentively. Even though I spoke mostly about Irish, German, and African Canadian immigrants, I had Carribean and Asian immigrants ask me questions about parallels between their experiences and those of immigrants in the 1860s.

    I have also spoken to Latino, Asian, and Jewish communities about immigrants during the Civil War, and they are interested in issues of language hegemony and access, how exotic religions like Catholicism and Judaism were viewed in the 1860s, issues of race and whiteness, etc.

    I do think that observations that the younger Civil War community has moved away from the monthly CWRT meeting is correct. My old CWRT had 100 or so members, but my The Immigrants’ Civil War facebook page has more than 8,000. How do we gauge the big audiences that a lot of bloggers have, the large membership of different CW-related social media communities, and the availability of free youtube videos of talks by historians against declining attendance at CWRTs and in-person lectures? I am not sure.

    I was approached to write a scholarly book on immigrants during the Civil War a couple of years ago. When I was told that fewer than 1,000 copies of the book would be printed, I wondered why the book would be a superior platform for deliving the information I wanted to convery. My blog posts almost always get at least 1,000 readers and one has been viewed more than 135,000 times. Upon further discussion, it was clear that the book was seen more of an artifact of passage into the world of serious historians than a way to reach readers. If a writer gets large numbers of hits on his web page but sees the sales of his book drop from 1,000 to 800, does this really signify declining interest in the field?

    • Patrick, some in the NPS don’t like to admit it, but we reach far more people digitally each day than we do in person. By far. While none of those encounters is close the equivalent of a visit, their cumulative effect over time is, I think, powerful. We have many people who follow what we do very closely and appreciate it much when we make what we are doing available to them digitally. We live streamed one talk this fall that was received more than 4,000 views during the program itself. There were 40 people in the auditorium. John H.

      • I used to attend a few talks by historians every year on the Civil War after I left my CWRT. Now I watch 50 or 60 videos of lectures, panel discussions, etc every year. Was I learning more when I went to a few “live” presentations than I do now watching videos?

    • Outside of the comments made about the changing way that we socialize, I believe for me, Pat’s comments resonate the most.

      Ethnically speaking, I am classified a “minority” — complete with two feet of black hair and beige skin, and all the self-conscious hang-ups about being “different”. I have attended other history related groups in the past, and the reception has been somewhere between observing the arrival of an exotic zoo animal to pity that I must not have anything better to do “at my age”. It was uncomfortable. I would offer to anyone that if someone “different” shows up at a group function, do not acknowledge it, rather, great them as a guest — no more, no less.

      Contrary to all of the social media freaks that I hang around with, I crave real human interaction. I feed off of the shared enthusiasm and common passion, as It is both reassuring and encouraging. Quite frankly, it makes me feel more alive to actually speak to someone about my interests, rather than email, text, & PM about a video, so I would like to see the CWRT survive for like-minded individuals.

      I am going to give the Civil War Seminar/Conference format a shot next year — going big: CWI2017. It is a large investment both financially & logistically, and it is my sincere hope that it will be both an educational and social experience of a lifetime. Might even make a few new friends, too.

      • I think it’s terrific that you’re going to do the Civil War conference/seminar trip. I don’t do it much any more for health reasons but I truly enjoyed it while could. It’s also a way to develop human connections that make the social media route more rewarding because you can use it to maintain those connections.

      • Shoshana–join us in Central CA! WE are just beginning, have mined these convos for “what not to do,” and would welcome any & all who want to make history important again. Huzzah!

  10. John, our Round Table – Bull Run Civil War Round Table – just ended 25 years of existence in Northern Virginia. it was given Best Round Table of the Year in 2011 by CWT. Your latest lecture brought in over 80 people and we have audio of your talk up on our web site. I don’t think anyone fell asleep during your talk – and I the question and answer period afterwards was animated. We try and survey our members (over 200 at latest count) and try to bring in lecturers to meet their expectations. There is a diverse interest in our membership – some want Western battles and most seem to be content with Eastern front stories. We print an excellent newsletter and are active in providing advice to local governing authorities about preservation projects and they are pro-preservation for the most part.

    Our core objectives are preservation and education of our members and general public about Civil War history and sites. Our lectures are attended by a mixed crowd of male and females and we do suffer from lack of younger members. Part of this lies in having meetings on School nights and at a distance. Our meetings are held in Centreville Regional Library and it does require a steady hand to get there in traffic. We have asked if changes of meeting nights should be made and the answer has been keep it the same.

    Our membership includes historic living history participants – male and female – and some reenactors – parts of Lee’s Lieutenants – who regularly show up to enlighten our members with descriptions of various events held outside Northern Virginia. Some of our members volunteer or are part of the Bristow Station or Manassas National Battlefield Park and they provide updates on important issues that affect those historic sites. We also have snapshot talks about events in other parts of Northern and Central Virginia by members who are active in those areas. We try to have tables advertising the RT available at local Civil War events.

    Still, your questions get to the heart of the matter. Our Executive Council remains cognizant of the possibility of flagging interest after the Sesquicentennial events. We need to bring in younger members. We have begun a close relationship with George Mason University- some Civil War sites are on its property and we recently presented a history class to students in the History Department. We have an active scholarship program for local high schools. We do see that civil war history being taught in high schools and middle schools are not in the detail we would prefer to see. The recent changes in the AP History objectives and examinations need to be considered as well.

    I would venture to say that BRCWRT is an active, thriving organization, but we need to remain cognizant of member interests and continue to look for methods to increase younger membership. Some of the comments made on your website about Round Tables are helpful. I think sharing the experiences of various RTs will assist all of them. Please keep up a continuing effort to that end.

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