Rediscovering Civil War Roundtables

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Last night I gave a talk to the Charlottesville Civil War Roundtable and I had a great time.  Somewhere around 50 people showed up and I tried my best not to disappoint.  Most Roundtable attendees are not familiar with the subject of Civil War memory so it is always a gamble in terms of whether they will respond enthusiastically.  I encouraged the audience to ask questions during the talk rather than at the end.  A roundtable discussion ought to be interactive; there is nothing worse than having to sit and listen to someone read a paper. I can read the paper on my own if you are willing to make a copy.  I used 20 slides, including both popular images of the battlefield and a number of documents that I’ve collected during the research process, as a way to frame the talk.  I touched on various aspects of memory as it relates to the battle, including the postwar career of William Mahone and the disappearance of U.S.C.T.’s from public accounts of the battle.

A number of people came up to me to say thank you for the talk.  I was surprised by how many people admitted that they never thought about Civil War interpretation as a process that evolves over time.   Given that most Civil War enthusiasts are interested in straight-forward battle accounts or hagiographic sketches this is not surprising.  On one level the process should seem obvious if we reflect on how each of us constructs self-narratives.  I actually began the evening with a brief reflection on this connection.  We constantly reshape or reinterpret narratives about our lives.  I can think of a number of traumatic moments in my life and I am very confident that how I understood the event at the time is very different from how I now conceptualize it.  These reinterpretations are as much a function of where the interpreter is at the time as it is about the event in question.  In that sense each of us is a work of history that is continually being revised.  Given this observation it should come as no surprise that groups and even nations navigate through a similar psychological process. 

The largest numbers of people are over 60 years of age so you can easily measure how well you are doing by how many are sleeping.  I can honestly report that only a few people dosed off.  I hope to have the opportunity to speak with more Roundtables in the near future.  By the way, I’ve been asked to take part in a three-day conference on Civil War memory that will be open to the public and involve both lectures and tours.  Details forthcoming soon.  Now if I can only wake up and get ready for classes…

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