Update: I thought this editorial about the Augusta Civil War Round Table in Georgia was worth reading in light of the post and discussion below.
My good friend John Hennessy posted some thoughts earlier today about his recent experiences presenting in front of Civil War Round Tables. While John references the decline in membership and graying of those who have remained, he rightfully resists concluding that it reflects a lack of interest in history among young people or society in general. There is little evidence to justify such a conclusion.
Membership will continue to decline among the remaining Civil War Round Tables, but it has little to do with what groups are doing internally. Certainly, individual groups are doing better than others and may even have experienced renewed interest in recent years, but the trend is still pretty clear.
Let me suggest one reason that may help to explain John’s most recent experience as well as mine up here in New England.
The narrative that the earliest Civil War Round Tables were built on in the late 1950s was consensus driven and framed by brave white men fighting it out on one of four or five battlefields between Pennsylvania and Virginia. You didn’t have to worry about slavery, emancipation, women, social history, and Reconstruction. Most importantly, you didn’t have to worry about the outside world intruding with news of the war’s “unfinished business” on the racial front.
For a long time members enjoyed each others company and the most popular stories from the battles and leaders grab bag. It is simply impossible for me to imagine a Civil War Round Table culture built around the current state of Civil War memory with its emphasis on race, gender, and a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the soldiers/veteran experience. An innocence about the past that was nurtured and even protected at Civil War Round Tables has been irretrievably lost.
I am not sure that this is necessarily something that should be lamented.