R.I.P. Civil War Roundtables

I just received my mailing for the upcoming meeting of the Charlottesville Civil War Roundtable. This month’s speaker is Michael W. Kauffman who just published a new book on John Wilkes Booth, titled American Brutus. The book is well written and the research is impressive; I am looking forward to his presentation. At the same time I wonder how much longer these groups will be around. The Roundtables’ origin can be traced back to the interest generated by the Civil War Centennial celebrations in the early 1960’s. Of course, this means that the older generation is getting along in years and will inevitably “fade away.” The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be the kind of interest in the younger generation that is sufficient to maintain these groups. On the one hand this is sad as the meetings bring together people with similar interests. That said, I doubt that apart from the social benefits not much will be lost.

I say this as someone who has presented talks in front of at least 15 different Roundtables. Let me explain. While I enjoy the interaction with the audience, it is difficult to present interpretations that conflict with a very traditional view of the war. It is difficult to talk about the role of race in the war or even to emphasize the importance of slavery in understanding the cause of the war. Part of the problem is that many people seem to know very little about how historians over the last 20 years have come to interpret the war. Few professional historians seriously debate the importance of slavery v. states rights, but this is still a heated issue on the Roundtable circuit. The other problem is that most attendees want to hear the same drawn out and tired stories about the major battles and the central characters of the war. Perhaps I am exaggerating, but if so, it is not by much. I recently presented a talk on my ongoing research related to the way Confederate veterans and other southern whites remembered the presence of United States Colored Troops at the battle of the Crater and was shocked to find people actually walking out in disgust. They didn’t stick around to question my sources or interpretation. Of course, there were others who found the discussion interesting. My point is not to generalize, but to drive home my own observations re: these groups. Concerns aside, I still enjoy attending the monthly meetings.

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5 comments… add one
  • Chris Curtis Jul 7, 2020 @ 13:12

    As the former president of an Illinois round table, I agree with your point that it’s a matter of time until round tables die from attrition. In my attempt to generate younger interest, I thought about approaching high school & college instructors to ask if they would give their students extra credit for attending a local round table meeting. Another idea: ask those same teachers if they could award the student with each semester’s best paper or project by having them present it in front of a round table if they so desire. It may be a lost cause (sorry) because I also agree with your assertion that military-driven themes are more accepted than social ones. When I presented on the Confederate monument removal (which appreciatively contained a few of your quotes), I could almost feel the rising blood pressure of many older members. At the time, I was shocked. Now I’m realizing that resistance to change must be a part of human nature, no matter in which state one is located.

  • Richard Jankowski Nov 24, 2010 @ 11:29

    I stumble across your blog while doing reserch for my Civli War claas with American Military University.
    In reading the post on the Bicentennial you mentioned this post about ‘graying’ of round tables. This grabbed my interest, as I am President of the Old Baldy Round Table in Phuladelphia and we are having this challenge.
    a decline in attendance at our monthly meetings has some questioning continued existance. Our meetings are at the Union League and we have had a variety of programs from economics, Jews in the War, 2nd Vermont, railroads, John Hay, Spies, and Butler in New Orleans. We have added an email address, a phone number and a good website. Have been advised we need to get on Facebook. My challenge is I do not want to do everything, my goal was to recruit members and share the tasks and responsibilities. We have added members but not on a steady basis. It was my belief the 150th would create interest. I have tried to get out of the area to meet other folks and learn. Attended the Viirginia Signiture Conference in Norfolk and the Fresh Perspectives at the Archives last week. Enjoy traveling to battlefields and museums then writing about them in our newsletter. [really enjoyed the Civil War Museum in Kenosha, WI] There is a following but the new members are not coming yet.

    Another Round Table I am a member of (DelVal0 run a Civil War Institute at a local college and has a pipeline to get new members. Have not found that event for Old Baldy yet.

    Thanks for letting me share my vet.
    Happy Thanksgiving


    • Kevin Levin Nov 24, 2010 @ 12:02

      Hi Richard,

      I completely understand the frustration. I’ve heard nothing but good things about your RT. All we can do is continue to push the importance of the Civil War in our respective ways. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment.

  • Ian Nov 9, 2010 @ 19:59

    Same problem with organizations such as the Shriners, Elks, Rotary, Civitan and many country clubs thoughout the country. The younger generations have different priorities.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 10, 2010 @ 2:23


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