Hennessy asks, “What’s up with Civil War Roundtables?”

Last Saturday, my friend John Hennessy offered his observations from the Civil War Roundtable speaking circuit, lamenting a fall-off of such venues.  Specifically, comparing to the 1990s, John noted fewer events.  And at those events, the audiences were somewhat smaller than in the past.  I think John has some sound “field data” for consideration.  And he offers questions that should also be considered:

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?  ….  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?

I would agree that Roundtables are diminished in number and attendance.  However with that, I must put the asterisk out there – we don’t have empirical data to sort through and a lot of this is “what I’ve seen and heard” sort of evidence.  Not that it is bad evidence.  But we must admit this is not exactly Nielson Ratings we are sorting through.

There were many comments on John’s post and also on his corresponding Facebook status for the post. Lots of observations offered as folks addressed John’s questions.   Many approach the matter in generational terms, which is a good tacking approach.  But careful for the reefs there.  I don’t think we can attribute a roundtable decline simply because of Common Core or whatever the latest boogie man of the educational system happens to be. As I’ve often observed in regard to school lunches, we might change what is on the plate but consumption is still based on the student’s appetite.

Some responses turned directly to the last question in John’s list. Perhaps the decline due to an intellectual shift away from the gilded centennial, where the emphasis was on “battle history”, shifting to the complexities appreciated as we approached, and then passed, the sesquicentennial.  There’s a lot of between-the-lines implied with some of those answering the question, to be sure.

The problem I find with that approach is one must demonstrate that in the “golden years”, those roundtables eschewed certain topics.  We circle back to the “no empirical data” disclaimer there, even while one can find ample evidence a wide range of topics were presented back in those old days.  On the other hand, these organizations tend to be focused on the “Civil War”, you see.  And the Civil War, like most wars one is apt to study, includes a lot of battles, campaigns, and… well …. soldier and sailor stuff.  Criticism of a roundtable for discussing battles and leaders would be akin to complaining about getting wet while swimming.

From my perspective, as an officer in a roundtable and someone who has studied the Civil War for pretty much a lifetime, I don’t think the decline is something we must attribute to a specific cause.  Rather to causes.  I say causes because not all roundtables behave the same.  And not all factors play the same within that diverse set.

First off, we need to recognize what we perceive as the “golden age of roundtables” was not necessarily directly outgrowth to the original roundtables.  The earliest organizations I know of assuming the label of “roundtable” were formed in the 1950s.  And I think that decade was significant as we consider these things.  Approaching 100 years after the war, the first generations without direct attachments to the war came of age, and the last veterans passed away.  I would offer there is a cycle of the “memory” of such things.  And one manifestation of that cycle is how some once revered topics slide become simply gilded ideas (of course, then later, tarnished gilded ideas to be reshaped).

And in regard to that reshaping, I think John’s recollections hit upon an important thread. Many readers will recall those breathtaking evenings in the fall of 1990 as Ken Burns reintroduced America to the Civil War. (And do keep in mind I say “many” here and not “most” or “all”… hold on to that.)  While Ken Burns can’t take all the credit for what followed, his work certainly enabled a lot of that… for better or worse (um… like that movie with the beards).  The Civil War, the mini-series, touched a lot of people and made them rethink, and dare I say reconsider, the Civil War. Suddenly it was cool to be a Civil War buff. We can point to a lot of written works (to include John’s Return to Bull Run) that thrived in the light of the renewed interest.  Another manifestation was, as we are discussing here, a re-emergence of roundtables.

But I say “many” readers were familiar with the Ken Burns fad.  We must consider in perspective that documentary series first aired more than a quarter-century ago, at the end of the LAST century.  Attempts to ride on those coat tails, if not completely recapture the enthusiasm, have met with lesser degrees of success.  One might say that is because the public grew tired of the subject.  One might also say it is a fools errand to improve upon a great masterpiece.

I will say that, while I am very active in a roundtable now, I was not active during those “golden years” of the 1990s.  I attended a few events.  Even spoke at several roundtables (who were clearly desperately looking for speakers while the John Hennessys of the circuit were fully booked).  And that brings me to my second perspective point… being in my twenties, my time was prioritized to things that twenty-year-olds do.  The regular roundtable thing was for people with a regular schedule and time to pursue such enthusiasms… like my father and others in in their 40s and 50s.   Given that perspective, I’m not alarmed about the aging of the audience.

But what if the “kids” never find the Civil War?  Certainly a possibility.  But circle back to my premise about the “cycle of the memory” here. Maybe what we are transitioning through, with the observed demise of the Civil War roundtables, is the next progression.  If so, should this not be lamented but encouraged as we evolve on this subject?

We are in the middle of the 100th anniversary of World War I.  And we are soon approaching the centennial of World War II. Neither have, thus far, inspired a vast number of groups dedicated to the discussion those wars. A few, yes.  But maybe we are a few years short of that cycle kicking in.  Or, perhaps, the cycle will manifest through a different sort of medium, given more evolved platforms for communication.

Consider… very few, if any, of you readers would have seen my first Civil War related web page, which went live in 1993.  Maybe more than a few will recall the “Mason Dixon Line” chat forum on America-On-Line.  But here you are, reading about the Civil War across the world-wide-web at the close of 2016.  It’s actually kind of fun coming up with new ways to share the captivating story of the Civil War as the communication tools evolve.

Maybe that’s just my rambling way of saying that I’m not concerned about where Civil War roundtables are headed.  Nobody ever made a clean living off the roundtable circuit anyway.  Not like we are watching the demise of proper cabinet-making or other practical art form.  Civil War roundtables were always about the sharing and consumption of information about the Civil War…. sometimes “the Civil War, period” and perhaps more and more now days “the Civil War period.”  Matters little what venue or forum is used, that information will continue to entertain, and captivate, a select audience.



Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

2 thoughts on “Hennessy asks, “What’s up with Civil War Roundtables?”

  1. As mentioned above, many people had different reasons for their interest. I am 91 years of age and grew up in the mountain’s of Virginia, not far from Lee’s first “failed” campaign and one of Jackson’s more successful battles. My interest was first aroused in 1949 by an acquaintance who had been reading Freeman’s books; and I realized that I had grown up 30 miles from Lexington, with all of its relationships to the war, as well as not far from the theater of the Army of Northern Virginia. So I read Volume 1 in 1949. The next ten years. I had lived in Memphis, Norfolk, Washington, Richmond.New Orleans and Birmingham. All of that time I was reading extensively, photographing in detail, and visiting every battlefield. I have been a member of The Civil War Round Table in Richmond, New Orleans and Birmingham. I accumulated a respectable-sized library on the subject. I mention all of this in order to try to establish some credentials for my following opinions.

    I found a sudden public interest in the Civil War at the time of the Centennial in 1960. Commercial interests, journalistic interests, chambers-of-commerce interests and book-publisher interests compounded to produce a sudden groundswell of “experts”. In addition, history graduate students in colleges found a subject that they could now research and write about, without seeming like nerds to their peers, and giving promise that publication would add necessary line-items in their future applications for academic career positions. All of this was very helpful and useful.

    The Ken Burns series made a whole new class of “couch-potato experts”.

    The advent of the computer to facilitate research and authorship; and the paper-back reading time in airport waiting rooms added to the interest in the subject. Civil Rights concerns added another, and different type, of interest group.

    But, the inevitable Bell Curve effect has now entered the picture. We are now on the down-slope.

    Tom Brokaw and other excellent historians have resulted in an up-curve in a new “Bell”. The greatest generation of WWII, the Cold War, the Korean War, Vietnam, and the Middle East have produced a huge interest in reading, television and other “media” outlets’ which have had the effect of rooting Civil War subjects out of the way of public interest.

    I understand also that public education of history now seems to place the beginning of American History at about 1958. The American Civil War has been put in a bad light by this teaching. Sensibilities must now be considered above all else. High School and college young people are not proud to hear that their parent is a member of The Civil War Round Table.

    So, perhaps we should rethink the issue. Perhaps a more-inclusive concept should be considered. Such thinking could include a change of name and subject-matter to “American Conflicts Round Table”. I’m just thinking out-loud, not advocating!

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