Symposium Takeaway: Meg Thompson

Lyndon_Johnson_KheSanh_SandboxThere are many reasons to travel 3,000 miles, including being part of the Emerging Civil War’s Second Symposium. It is wonderful to put faces to names, and to see friends I have not seen for a year. I presented again this year, giving the world the first look at my thesis topic, Dr. Jonathan Letterman, Medical Director of the Army of the Potomac from McClellan to Meade. It is not exactly a storyteller’s dream, but I did my best. I got wonderful feedback from several folks, including two delightful women.

There simply are not enough women at conferences like this one, or in military history in general. Come on, ladies! Let’s go play in the sandbox with the guys!

I asked one of the speakers directly if he thought women brought something different to the conversation. He answered in the negative. I am not sure if I agree, but until there are more of us writing, attending, discussing and being involved, there will be no trend to analyze.

During lunch, I sat with a couple that were re-enactors, and had been for a long time. We discussed this for a bit, and the gentleman said something very interesting, I think. He said that at first, he had just been into “the hobby” for the line-up and mock battle. ( . . . the smell of black powder in the morning . . .)

He then admitted that in the last several years his unit has realized that the incidents of fighting were few and far between for a Civil War soldier. He and his re-enacting pards began to ask themselves just what these guys did the rest of the time. The answers, for there are an infinite amount, fascinated them. Apparently they have learned to play several games, card and board both. They either had or witnessed a Shakespeare quote off–I can’t exactly remember. They are learning to discuss the latest literary offerings by Charles Dickens and, depending on the place they represent and the time being portrayed, they have become conversant in local politics of the time.

I have thought about this conversation considerably since August 8. Here is where I am with it just now. Perhaps this is what women bring to the table–a sense of context in which to put the Union and Confederate fighting man–a context which includes the immediate past, the politics, the styles, flavors, scents and sounds of what was left behind when they all signed up. These men weren’t born wearing a uniform, and that is something I think about a lot. After speaking to some of the folks at the Symposium, I know I am not thinking alone.

5 Responses to Symposium Takeaway: Meg Thompson

  1. Hey Meg, you really did a great job this year and I think you utilized your slideshow best while presenting compared to all the others. You really had it flowing with your presentation. On a side note, I do think that women bring something different to military history. I’m going to call that the “Athena” principle. Athena I’ve always regarded as the Greek goddess of wisdom and war strategy and online they include also “generalship,” “law and justice,” and “courage.” She, of course, had Athens named after her. By contrast, her brother Ares, the male god of war is more chaotic and I don’t know of the city named for him. There’s something incredibly patient in the studies that the women are producing right now on Civil War topics. I just think some of the biggest books of the past (McPherson’s, Foote’s, and Catton’s works) are now being matched with Drew Faust’s “This Republic of Suffering” and then I think of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s famed “Team of Rivals” and the Lee biography written by Elizabeth Brown Pryor called “Reading the Man.” The women of the world are proving their mettle in the subject matter like never before from what I can tell.

    I think in the coming years we are going to find many intriguing military histories of many wars written by women. Right now I’m revisiting my local community’s regiment (the 104th PA) and I’m finding while it’s an intriguing history, it’s stuck in the perspective of the Colonel who led it, and since no other history was written on it, the matter has been relatively untouched for the last 150 years. I have not yet become aware that any of my colleagues at the local roundtable have any interest to or have bothered to look much further into the matter. But I refuse to let the matter rest and am going into this work with as much strength and patience as possible (thanks, Athena)!

    Anyway – great job last week at the Conference! You really did a great presentation. 🙂

  2. Allison–thank you so much! I completely agree with you. I think that women in general do a different kind of history. I just finished Lesley Gordon’s A Broken Regiment: the 16th Connecticut’s Civil War, and am following that by rereading Stephen Sear’s A Landscape Turned Red. Two things stand out for me: nowhere in all of Sear’s dense, fact-filled prose is Dr. Letterman even mentioned, and more than just one unit ran away! There is another woman doing work on fear and cowardice, or the image is such, in Civil War units. Somewhere in my mess of an office I have her pamphlet about the 11th NY Zouaves and their reputation for running. So–not only are we attempting to put together puzzles of much detail, we seem to have to be looking for those pieces individually.

    Thank you for your kind and thoughtful reply.

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