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.