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.

About Kevin Levin

Thanks so much for taking the time to read this post. What next? Scroll down and leave a comment if you are so inclined. Looking for more Civil War content? Join the Civil War Memory Facebook group and follow me on Twitter. Check out my book, Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder, which is an ideal introduction to the subject of Civil War memory and the 1864 battle.

39 comments add yours

  1. Dear Kevin:

    You write: “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.

    Where is the evidence for such a sweeping criticism? I would encourage you step back from what I consider to be low-grade elitism, and to abandon a conclusion that overlooks some hard facts

    Just off the top of my head here are some academic historians who continue to speak at CWRTs Lesley Gordon, Susannah Ural, Carolina Janney, Keith Bohannon, Angie, Zombeck, Gary Gallagher, Megan Kate Nelson, Aaron Sheehan-Dean, Jennifer Murray, Jason Phillips, Anne Marshall, Katie Meier, Jim Broomall.Brian Jordan, Brooks Simpson, Ken Noe, James McPherson, Ashley Luskey, and Jim Broomall, Lorien Foote, and Barton Myers. And here a quick list of public historians who are on the CWRT circuit: Eric Mink, John Hennessy,Jim Ogden, Scott Hartwig, Cathy Wright, Ernie Price, Bert Dunkerly, and Chris Gwinn.

    God knows how many people that I have left off of both lists. This small sample should suffice, and my apologize for the many omissions.

    Although there is incredible diversity in the scholarship and backgrounds of the historians above, they are the intellectual products of the “current state” of scholarship and their work reflects it. Unless CWRTs have no clue as to why they are inviting particular speakers–which of course is not the case– it is safe to assume that the rank-and-file have broader interests that what you claim.
    CWRTs are inviting these scholars because they can speak on a range off topics that include memory, race, gender, and the veteran experience. In fact, look at the lists of topics and speakers for the Chicago CWRT. You will be surprised by some of the topics addressed in the 19960s

    We all can all come up with war stories from speaking engagements gone awry at CWRTs. These anecdotes are entertaining but lead to sloppy thinking and a general lack of empathy for people who we should see as fellow historians. When people doze off in in my talks, my response is that I wasn’t doing a good enough job and that I need to give a better presentation. Although if a CWRT serves dinner before the talk, I would appreciate a menu light on carbs.

    Just as you are uneasy about the quick-fire criticisms directed at the blogger world, I think you will agree that we need to be less judgmental about CWRTs so that we might better appreciate thier more expansive take on the Civil War. Yes there is still plenty of “red meat” on the table for those who are interested in tactics. I see nothing wrong with that, and I know you don’t as well. And let’s not forget that CWRTs shy often away from academics because they don’t want speakers who read their papers as if they were at a conference. Can you blame them?

    The decline in CWRTs has little to do with subject matter and more to do with shifting demographics. I also believe the transportation challenges that face every city discourage people from driving back into an urban area for a talk after a long day at work. just to hear a scholar that they could catch on C-Span This is not a problem for D.C., Chicago, NYC. I know that Indy has faced the same issues

    How one measures interest in the Civil War is damn difficult to do. But I am a little weary of the jeremiad that our field is losing its hold on the American imagination. Then again I live in a bubble at Gettysburg College, where I have incredibly talented students who have a zeal for Civil War history. I would rather focus on the rising generation of historians than complain about our loss of relevance. I just hope there is a place for them in the world of public history, teaching, preservation, and the academy. We need to focus our energies on ssues of employment. The NPS is in need of some serious lobbying when it comes to the place of historians/interpreters. See the on-line document Imperiled Promise. It is a chilling warning and it has had no impact on the NPS Sorry, I am getting of topic!

    By the way, in January I will be speaking to the Louisville CWRT on desertion and executions in Lee’s army after Gettysburg.

    • Hi Pete,

      You missed one person on your list: me. Over the past ten years I have spoken to numerous CWRTs and I very much enjoy these speaking opportunities. I almost always meet people whose interests and knowledge of the subject surpass my own. The main point that I was trying to make is that Round Tables began at a certain time when the Lost Cause/reconciliationist narrative was still quite potent. My claim is that the focus of most Civil War enthusiasts made it easy to find consensus around a shared passion. I am well aware that the people you list above have been welcomed at Round Tables across the country. Please, let’s not turn this into another round of academics v. popular historians and consumers of history. I’ve grown weary of it.

  2. I missed you in the list but you are still dodging your own words “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.

    • I am not dodging anything. That statement follows and builds on the following observation:

      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.

      I am simply suggesting that I don’t believe that over time a cohesive group like what we experienced among Civil War Round Tables is possible. Of course, I may be wrong about this.

    • Hey Pete,

      I do agree that my post is incomplete in the sense that I don’t consider whether the level of popularity achieved by CWRTs for the first few decades could be duplicated around the kind of historical scholarship that both of us value.

  3. Well one thing, we need more visuals and animations when we present. I know it seem like a new generation of aged people get involved every few years. But I would sure like more young people. I am successful with my class when I have animations.

    • Hey Barb – I tried to arrange for a group of high school seniors to attend a local RT in Pasadena…one that have spoken at – twice. They ignored me. The average age of those that attend this meeting looks to me to be about 60ish. I don’t want to make any sweeping statements…after all, this is just one group. But my experience suggests that perhaps folks could be a little more welcoming to young people.

  4. I am going to offer an entirely different perspective and pull the lens back a little farther on this conversation, as I believe that the discussion as it is is somewhat myopic. How we interact, learn, and live in the era of Social Media is rapidly changing the landscape of how we socialize, altogether. I am placing the CWRT under the umbrella of a social group much like the Rotary Club, Lions Club, and Toastmasters, and the sad truth is that ALL of these groups are seeing a sharp decline in participation. People go to work and Tweet, Facebook, Blog, Text…and then come home and do it all over again. I have a whole world of Civil War virtual friends, and we have the “same” lively discussions that at one time could have only taken place in person. We don’t partake in passagiatas and gelato in the piazza, anymore (something I used to relish whilst living in Italy)

    As a side note, when I recently joined a Toastmasters club, it was something to behold as the membership was almost 30 years older than I was, and there was great hope that I was going to revitalize the group….careful what you wish for 🙂

    • Just to add another possible factor. People are also much more mobile compared to decades past, which also makes it difficult to maintain continuity within civic groups like the ones you reference.

  5. Ted Savas wrote a post in his blog a few months ago that is sort of a primer as to how to get folks to come to a CWRT. His ideas are wonderful, beginning with using digital communication as a way to “grow the Civil War,” as he calls it. After speaking at many RTs here in CA, I realized there was not one locally, so decided to begin one. One blip on Meet Up and I had 15 folks who claim to want to join. We have give-aways, raffles, some silliness planned, and a very light-hearted talk on Snowball Fights planned. Plus the place where we will be meeting is a “clean, well-lighted place” in an upscale shopping area. It sells books, sandwiches, and great ice cream–I am hoping we are on the right track. Let’s see what happens.

    • Hi Meg,

      Glad to hear it and good luck. I hope others are inspired to take the initiative and test the waters.

  6. A couple of quick thoughts.

    First, I agree with Ms. Bee–younger audiences are more entranced with digital platforms rather than the traditional Civil War Roundtable format. When I speak to CWRTs, I’m frequently the youngest in the room, and I’m a Gen-Xer. That said, the TED talk format has great traction, so perhaps we (as Megan Kate Nelson has suggested) need to conscientiously move to that type of format when trying to draw in younger audiences.

    Second, the talk I usually give to CWRTs is about the aftermath of the Battle of Perryville, and the audiences (fortunately) tend to respond positively about learning more about how civilians were impacted by the war. Therefore, CWRT members do appreciate more than the guns, campaigns, and battles. They are definitely interested in hearing something new or unexpected, which, I think, includes new scholarship. It’s all in the presentation.

    I started working at a site related to the Civil War (the Lee Chapel) when I was in high school, in ’89 or so. When Ken Burns’ Civil War series came out, there was a massive uptick in visitation to that site. It also, I think, increased the popularity of Civil War tours, seminars, and CWRTs. In the intervening years, those who were most galvanized by Burns’s series have gotten older or passed away. Therefore, membership in CWRTs has naturally declined and there’s been nothing on the scale of Burns’s series to capture the national imagination about the Civil War and reinvigorate those under 55 about the subject. There’s plenty of blame to go around about that (competing media, lack of funding for states’ sesquicentennial efforts, etc. etc.), but hopefully we can find a multitude of compelling ways to pull younger generations in across a variety of platforms, including the CWRT model.

    Stuart Sanders
    @stuartwsanders

    • Thanks for the comment, Stuart.

      Therefore, CWRT members do appreciate more than the guns, campaigns, and battles. They are definitely interested in hearing something new or unexpected, which, I think, includes new scholarship. It’s all in the presentation.

      I just want to be clear that I was thinking more about the early and formative years of CWRTs and was not suggesting that members today are not interested in hearing about non-traditional Civil War topics. Last year I presented a talk at the Rhode Island Civil War Round Table on Reconstruction and my presentations tend to be focused on race and memory, which certainly move the discussion beyond battles and leaders.

      Again, the popularity of a consensus view of the Civil War in the late 1950s and through next few decades likely had something to do with the popularity of CWRTs. That was really the only point I was trying to make.

  7. Kevin:

    I just returned from a CWRT swing in PA and OH where I gave four talks on four consecutive nights. These meetings were well-attended (45 to 130 people each) and the audiences were genuinely engaged. By the end of next year, I will have spoken to over 50 such groups. I know there are many others, as Pete said, on the circuit. We would not be out there struggling to break even on these trips if the experience was not rewarding in other ways.

    Rather than sounding the death knell for these organizations, why don’t we all consider being leaders and helping them adapt to the new technologies, diversify their memberships (age, race, gender, interests) and rejuvenate a model I think is still relevant and viable.

    There are big challenges ahead for these groups, especially the small and medium sized CWRTs that do not have extensive budgets for speaker expenses. We are starting to see more collaboration among CWRTS and co-sponsored events with museums, libraries, etc…so that smaller groups can compete for better speakers.

    I know there have been some conference calls among CWRTs on various regions, but it may also be time to consider a national or regional umbrella organization(s) with a strong, committed leader who could help these worthwhile clubs reinvigorate and reinvent the concept. Virtual is good, but the face-to-face and Q and A still has a place in most every business, sporting event, and social group popular today.

    • Rather than sounding the death knell for these organizations, why don’t we all consider being leaders and helping them adapt to the new technologies, diversify their memberships (age, race, gender, interests) and rejuvenate a model I think is still relevant and viable.

      Glad to hear that your tour of CWRTs through PA and OH went well. I completely agree with your call here. Like I said above over the years I have spoken at numerous CWRTs over the years because I believe that they offer an opportunity to connect with people who share similar interests.

      Groups should do everything they can to broaden the topics presented and diversify their audiences, but the latter is going to be very difficult given what I suggested about the origin of these groups. Can technology help to overcome it? Perhaps, but I am skeptical.

  8. I recently tried to attend a local Civil War round table and found it very “Lost Cause-Y” and dominated by what above calls “guidon followers.” i am older but still found it uncomfortable. i agree with those who say it may be impossible to recapture spirit of previous generations.

  9. I think I have some real life observations to offer: I programmed and co-founded (really, resuscitated) a CWRT in White Plains, NY that we operated for three years during the sesquicentennial. We met monthly, never charged admission/membership, and took advantage of our location – a 35 minute train ride from Grand Central – to offer a lot of “big names” in scholarship speaking on their newly published books (e.g., James Oakes, Martha Hodes, Greg Downs, Lou Masur, Brian Matthew Jordan, etc. ). Many presenters premiered their CWRT talks for our group. As programming director, I deliberately avoided the usual CWRT “canons and cavalry” speakers, and sought out diverse subjects, such as the NY draft riots, specially African American topics, economics, culture, the experience of women, ethnic groups, lots of Lincoln and memory (I invited, but never managed to book, some guy who wrote a book about the crater 🙂 ). More than one regular observed that we offered college level lecturing for free. All this on a budget of $25 a month to cover snacks and train fare or gas money.

    I contacted local high school history teachers to offer opportunities for projects, internships, etc. I posted notices monthly in two local libraries frequented by our area’s large African American population. We advertised our monthly meetings widely in local newspapers and on-line calendars, even getting into the NY Times Westchester section occasionally.

    Despite having well over one million people within a 30 minute drive, our largest attendance approached 50, typically was 20-25 and sometimes as low as 12. We immediately found a small core of committed attendees, but experienced zero growth in regular attendance over 3 years, despite the “big names” and diversity of topics. Our attendees were almost entirely white and older (although not elderly and about 25% women).

    I think that Shoshanna is on target. I don’t think there’s a lack of interest in history as much as a lack of appeal in the antiquated format of a monthly lecture series attended mostly (but not exclusively) by older white men. It’s hard to escape the musty associations with Civil War talks (we didn’t use “round table” in our publicity material) held at a local historical society. I don’t see what we could have done differently: CWRT are basically like the Rotary and Kiwanis (groups which exist here which I’ve never thought to join). There is just a very limited audience for this sort of thing – at least for a new group in this area.

    • Thanks for the observations.

      I don’t think there’s a lack of interest in history as much as a lack of appeal in the antiquated format of a monthly lecture series attended mostly (but not exclusively) by older white men.

      Those older white men were once young. I really do believe that some of the success of the early CWRTs was a function of the narrative that everyone could embrace and that informed their outlook on the nation and the world.

  10. My son, Andrew and I have been attending Civil War Roundtables since he became interested in saving Civil War battlefields when he was 10. He is now 16 and still enjoys going when his school work and other obligations of being an active student don’t get in the way. In his opinion, the biggest challenge is the format. Even if you enjoy history spending five hours at school being lectured to, then volunteer to go again for another hour isn’t how most kids prefer to engage. He enjoys his history class where they discuss the issues and topics in more of a “roundtable” format. The second challenge, which goes hand-in-hand with the first is the Internet – as it is easier to find the information online and through YouTube or other on-demand outlets. You can see many of the great speakers above “whenever you want.” He enjoys meeting the authors and he is an avid reader, but where I want the hard copy and the signature of the author he’d rather have the book on his phone or tablet. The lure of meeting authors to get the book signed is less interesting to him. He does understand, that for him and his future as a person who wants to become a historian there is great value in the network he can build, but that isn’t important to his friends who are just very interested in history. I work for a company that provides online learning software for associations and other organizations that educate members. They too are seeing a decline in their in person educational programs as our younger generations look to on-demand, online learning around topics that they are most interested in or the topic they need for their next test or to take the next step in their career. The roundtable format, while not likely to go away, just won’t be the staple it once was.

    • I’ve been following your son’s interest in the Civil War for a couple of years now. He really is a special kid, which I am sure somehow reflects your skills as a parent.

    • Here’s a list from a few years back. Maybe there’s one not too far from you:

      https://sites.google.com/site/cwrtlist/

      The way to join is simply to contact the group or a member and tell them you’d like to attend. They will almost certainly welcome you as a visitor. If you like it, consdier joining as a member.

    • Any number of creative formats can be utilized by CWRTs. Keep in mind that CWRTS were really round table discussions early on as opposed to individual presentations.

  11. Genealogy. Genealogy. Genealogy. If you present information on their ancestors’ experiences, rather than talking about grand battles, strategies, commonly known figures etc. you will get and hold their attention.
    I incorporate individuals, common experiences etc. but only of the area in which I am speaking. Nobody hates, yes hates, discussions about the effectiveness of strategies or tactics or command structure more than I. But tell me what happened to James Slater of Co. K who lived in my hometown and I am all ears. Libraries, historical societies, round tables and museums support me and I have audiences of all ages. You can’t change your audience to please you but you can change your program to please them.

  12. Every roundtable is different, but the fundamental problem has less to do with stodgy, outdated subject matter than it does with some of the things that other commenters here have suggested.
    Apart from those who work in public history (including those in academia), memberships in community history and heritage organizations generally is largely a venue for older people, who frequently are better positioned in terms of time available and finances to take part in them. That seems to be true regardless of the subject matter.

    Shoshana is also correct in that one of the big, systemic problems facing roundtables is that technology has taken a heavy toll among more traditional forms of social interaction and networking. Simply put, it’s getting harder every day to get younger people to actually go out and attend meetings in person, when so much of their interaction happens online and through other forms that are driven by technology and the Internet.

    I’m sure that there are roundtables where every presentation is simply a repeat of the last one, with the names of battles and Regiment numbers changed. But that certainly doesn’t seem to be the case across the board. The Roundtable I belong to, in Houston, is one of the older roundtables in the country, as I understand, going back to the 1950s. But the subject matter of the programs certainly doesn’t take the approach to history that prevailed in past generations. The Houston group works hard to bring in researchers and authors whose scholarship reflects a wide range of topics. Just in the past year, we have had presentations that reflect a much wider range of scholarship then one might otherwise assume. While there are plenty of presentations on battles and campaigns, there is variety there, too. Charles Grear presented “In Defense of My Native State — Why Texans Fought.” Carolyn Janney gave a talk, “Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and The Limits of Reconciliation.” Last month, Susannah Ural gave a presentation on the soldiers of the Texas Brigade and their journeys home after Appomattox, along with the bit about their transition to civilian life after the war. In February, Ed Bonekemper is coming to present on “The Myth of the Lost Cause.” None of these are dull, predictable battle studies, and I think it’s a credit to the Roundtable leadership that they make a great effort to provide variety and interest in their approach to the conflict. It’s much more well-rounded than one might expect.

    Certainly, not all Civil War roundtables are terribly diverse in their focus or interests, but I think it’s a great mistake to write them off entirely as a dying breed. They face lots of challenges in terms of membership, but I think that’s true of almost all community-based historical groups.

  13. Great discussion. I too have been blessed with speaking opportunities at a variety of history and heritage groups. This has allowed me to witness the differences in age groups who have an interest in the Civil War. A few years ago I did two different talks at the same location. The first talk was based on one of my books. There was a decent crowd, mostly made up of older folks. I used a PowerPoint to display photographs (no bullets or text). They had great thought-provoking questions and bought copies of my books but no DVDs. One attendee told me that he was familiar with me from my books at the NPS Bookstore here in Fredericksburg. The second talk was a screening of a documentary I produced. There was a substantial crowd, mostly made up of younger people. They had a few questions but were less engaging. Afterward they bought my DVDs but no books. Some were were familiar with me from blogging on the film’s website. BOTH groups showed an interest in the same subject and went out of their way to attend a Civil War Weekend. The difference was which talk they choose to attend and how they reacted to the material in a different way across both mediums. The older group leaned more toward the traditional book discussions while the other gravitated towards film and blogging. It was encouraging to see a balance between the two. That said I can only imagine how social media has expanded this gap in the last couple years.

    – Michael Aubrecht

  14. Perhaps the 28 responses to this post and to each other suggest that sites like this one are superseding the Round Table. Online discussions can take place anytime and anywhere, and you don’t have to worry about parking. On the other hand, of course, I’m also alone in my living room right now instead of speaking to actual human beings who lack the anonymous bravado of false online. Still, overall maybe the issue is more medium than message, just as Netflix is outpacing movie theatres.

    • I agree with Ken.

      The interaction is nice but why wait a month to hear information that can be found a dozen times on the web?

      and replayed in super-slow motion 😉

  15. There is only one CWRT near me. It’s a half hour drive, excluding traffic; a large amount of rush hour traffic is pretty much a gurantee unless I leave work an hour early. The group group meets at a somewhat run-down Masonic Lodge, in a somewhat questionable neighborhood, charges a membership fee (although the first two meetings are free so newcomers can sample what is offered), and every member at the two meetings I attended was a retiree (or at least old enough to be one). I attended two meetings, the second as the speaker. In conversation with one of the members I learned that a subsequent meeting would feature him as the speaker in which he would defend the Carhart Theory of Gettysburg. The members were all nice enough, both when I was a first-time attendee and when I was the speaker. I’m 35 and it seemed pretty clear my time was better spent with C-SPAN lecturers and the Civil War Talk forums.

  16. As a somewhat insignificant postscript, the Augusta Chronicle is published in Augusta, Georgia, rather than Augusta County, Virginia.

  17. Mr. Levin,

    I have to say that this comes across as a really unfair and nasty attack and to refer to those who do not necessarily see things in exactly the same manner as you as simply being ignorant, or behind the times, is quite a lowblow and profoundly uncalled for.

    Furthermore, I must simply reject your statement that military historians have traditionally ignored the centrality of slavery to the conflict. That is simply not the case and implies a serious lack of understanding of the literature, in my opinion.

    As a historian, I am sure that you are doing much valuable work. As you know, I read your study of historical memory and the Crater and while I disagreed with you on a few points, it was certainly something that was insightful and worth perusing. However, this type of attack, which seems to be politically motivated, has really driven away knowledgeable people who would enrich the experience for the average user, including Eric Wittenberg, Brett Schulte, Ted Savas e.t.c.

    To me, that is unfortunate, because it is not necessary.

    • Hi Nathan,

      Thanks for the comment. Where did I suggest that “military historians traditionally ignored the centrality of slavery to the conflict”?

      • Mr. Levin,

        I appreciate the response.

        I cetainly do not want to misconstrue you in any way, so allow me to repost an excerpt of what you wrote:

        “The narrative that the earliest Civil War Round Tables were built on in the 1950’s was consensus driven and framed by brave white men fighting it out on 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.

        It is simply impossible for me to imagine a Civil War Round Table discussion built around the current state of Civil War memory with its emphasis on race, gender and a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the soldier/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.”

        It seems as though a substantial element of your criticism is in military history having traditionally ignored slavery (and race) and their place in the conflict. If you are not saying that, then may I ask what you are saying?

        • I am suggesting that not til recently were topics beyond traditional Civil War history addressed. Of course, you can certainly find exceptions. Other than this, I don’t really know what else to say.

          • I appreciate the response.

            I actually do not think that I can agree with that, but I appreciate you having offered the clarification that you did.

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